Tampa is the site of two large major universities, one public, the University of South Florida, the other private, the University of Tampa. The latter school prides itself for having undergraduate students from over 100 foreign countries; USF, one of the largest public universities in Florida, has well over 1600 students and research scholars from nearly 150 foreign countries. It is not surprising; therefore, that Tampa has a plethora of excellent ethnic restaurants beyond the usual Italian, Chinese, or Thai varieties. Nearby, a few miles to the west, moreover, Tarpon Springs, home of a long-time Greek presence, brings the taste and music of the Dodecanese Islands.
The other night, Joan and I rediscovered an absolute gem near our Lutz home. Some 15 years or so ago, we had visited Morae’s Café at 1441 E. Fletcher Avenue, in Tampa, a Persian restaurant in the middle of a not very impressive strip mall, nestled between a Chinese restaurant and a cigar store. For some reason, we had not been to the restaurant for many years; while the food was acceptable, the ambiance, as I recalled, was not that attractive. In fact, it was shabby! In any event, we decided to revisit Morae’s, partially because of the availability of a discount coupon.
We are so happy that we did. The restaurant is a gem and worthy of many future visits!
The first thing we noticed upon entering the relatively small establishment are the shelves on the west wall filled with Persian and other Middle-East groceries. There are tubs of feta cheese, packages of freshly baked pita bread, spices that all smelled wonderful but had names I couldn’t pronounce and Persian art, bags and rugs. Morae’s is a treat for all of the senses! The walls are decorated with exotic (to our eyes) murals and colorful tiles.
Above all, the restaurant was spotless and attractive in all respects.
None of this would matter if the food was not good nor presented attractively. Not to worry, our waiter was anxious to help with translating the menu items, some of which were familiar from visits to other Middle-East restaurants, some needed the translation! The waiter was at our table often, making certain that everything was satisfactory. He made the restaurant more like a pleasant home where we were being welcomed as guests.
Joan ordered a meal of the Vegetarian Combination appetizer ($6.95) which was a large platter of hummus (cooked, mashed chickpeas, blended with tahini, a sesame paste, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and garlic), eggplant, dolmeh (stuffed grape leaves that I have enjoyed as “dolmades” in Greek restaurants). I just had to taste each of these treats and each was fantastic, each with a distinctive taste different from other versions I had enjoyed.
I ordered the Shish Kabob ($9.95), a very generous portion of marinated beef tenderloin, accompanied with a large serving of basmati rice and two grilled tomato halves. The meat was tender, lean and flavorful. The beef tenderloin also is served as a “barg”, where the meat is pounded thin and then cooked over an open flame. A specialty of the restaurant is the chelo kabob koobideh, skewers of seasoned ground beef; this will be my choice next time. I have in the past enjoyed a Lebanese version of the ground beef but the server said that the Persian variety employed some different spices; he was certain that Morae’s was superior.
Both Joan and I ordered a house side salad. It was very tasty with a dressing on the vinegary side. An alternative choice, perhaps more in keeping with the menu, might have been the must o’khiyar, a salad comprised of cucumbers in a yoghurt-based dressing. We also requested a basket of bread and the pita that arrived was hot from the oven and needed no dressing or additive, it was great.
While I ordered beef, Morae’s also serves Persian dishes made with lamb, chicken and seafood. The menu is not that extensive but offers enough variety to please customers over many visits!
At a neighboring table, I spied tabouleh, a salad made of cracked wheat, much parsley, tomatoes, scallions, olive oil and spices. Tabouleh is an acquired taste, heavily lemon flavored; it is a favorite of mine and next time. . . Also on future visits, I am looking forward to some of the great sounding stews and, in particular, bademjian, which sounds delicious, a stew made from cooked eggplant with beef and tomato. Since it is still Florida and the temperature is in the upper 90’s, I may just wait for cooler weather to try the stews.
I do not intend to wait for a change of season to return to Morae’s however. It’s just too good.