April 15, 2009 12:00

Smoke and sizzle and Mooney's

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MEDITERRANEAN DREAMING AT NEW WINSTON-SALEM RESTAURANT

“I think we’re doing something very Moroccan,” said Ian Aminu, who like me studied in the Islamic country during college, “which is to stare at everyone who walks in.” “Yes!” I laughed, exhaling a thin cloud of smoke.

We sat in the corner of Mooney’s Mediterranean Cafe, on the south end of downtown Winston-Salem. Pouring rain kept us inside late into the night — which, again, seemed appropriate for the

Mediterranean/ Mid-East meal. Beef shawarma pitas and plates of hummus, tabouli and grape leaves; a slowburning hookah packed with zaghlol; and coffee and cigarettes passed the time. A soundtrack of Arabic violins seemed to increase in volume, as we held forth on American foreign policy, and studied the growing crowd.

The nighttime patrons of Mooney’s were mostly between the ages of 18 and 21, although some were older and others looked a bit too young.

Girls gabbed for hours at tables for two, passing back and forth the velvety hose of the glass and metal hookah — an oriental tobacco pipe, which draws coal-heated tobacco through a water basin and out a long, flexible tube, typically with fruity flavors like apple and melon. Teenagers slumped at other tables, sipping softly from a threehose hookah. A young black man impressed his friends, every few minutes, by blowing a thick white ring.

In fact, no one else ordered food. This was understandable, as we were eating late. Mooney’s closes its kitchens around 8 p.m. and brings out the hookahs after 9, according to the menu; but the restaurant was flexible with both. Even with several hookahs burning, and half a dozen cigarettes, the cafe was not very smoky. At one point, there was a hookah and a shawarma pita at my table, and the two did not clash — perhaps because we had picked the Marlboro Man’s choice of non-fruity zaghlol tobacco.

Though best known as a hookah bar, Mooney’s serves excellent food. We ordered from “The Old Country” section of the menu — which for chef and owner Mooney (a nickname for Aminu) refers to Lebanon — rather than the “Old Glory” section. “The Old Country” offered tawook, shawarma, kubideh, foul m’damas, musabaha and many other dishes you’ve never heard of. A sampler plate, for $6.95, came with pita and four vegetarian sides.

Mooney’s tabouli (a salad of parsley, cracked wheat, tomato and onion, with lemon and olive oil) was fresh and tart. We also ordered baba ghanouj (smoky eggplant paste) and garlicky hummus (chickpea paste), which put to shame the bland variety found in grocery stores.

Finally, our side of cauliflower was delicately fried with a sour sesame dressing — a subtle dish, though probably inferior to the deep-fried Old Glory.

The literal and figurative meat of my meal was a succulent beef shawarma. Shawarma, which is described on the menu as “a homemade gyro,” is a pita with tender chunks of beef, pickled cabbage, tomatoes and tangy sauce; in other words, the Big Mac of Arab cuisine. Mooney’s shawarma, $4.95, is more vigorous than the limp gyros served at most of the city’s many Greek restaurants.

Our evening petered out over coffee and tobacco. Softer and slower than a cigarette, the hookah kept us buzzed and so did the coffee. I remembered the leisurely cafe life of Morocco. There weren’t opium dens and dancing girls, in my experience, just simple cafes, some fried meat, tobacco and coffee, where men could sit and talk for hours or just stare out into the street. On the other side of the world, Mooney’s feels almost the same.

A chill crowd of late-teens packs the hookah bar at Mooney’s Mediterranean Cafe on a Friday night. (photos by Gus Lubin)

More than just a smoking section, Mooney’s Mediterranean Cafe offers hookahs (right) with dinner.

Mooney’s Mediterranean Cafe 101 W. 4 th St. Winston-Salem 336.722.4222

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