–Excerpted from Margaret LeRoux, The Phoenix

Word [has] spread throughout Worcester that [El Basha is] the place for kibbee, shawarma, falafel, and a host of other Middle Eastern dishes.

On a recent weeknight, the room was almost full. The waiters were smiling. Service was prompt and friendly. Our party of four quickly decided on two of our favorite appetizers, stuffed grape leaves and tabbouleh. We also selected one we had not tried before, labneh, described as homemade yogurt cheese spread. Served with a basket of sliced pita bread, it was a good accompaniment to the other two appetizers. El Basha’s tabbouleh is my favorite among the versions I’ve had in Worcester restaurants.

The grape leaves – six fat, cigar-shaped leaves rolled tightly around a mixture of rice, chick peas, and onions – were very lemony.

Each one in our group has a favorite dish. On nights when we’ve ordered take-out from the restaurant, we sampled freely from the containers; tonight each of us focused on our own choice I had to practically beg for samples and I am happy to report the exotic flavors are still there in full force.

One of my companions selected lahem mishwee, chunks of lamb, marinated and char-broiled, served on a bed of rice with charred onions, peppers, and a tomato half. The lamb was as ordered (medium rare) and tender enough to cut with a fork; a good value for the price.

Another companion discovered chicken Port Saiid a few visits ago, and ever since has refused to order anything else. A generous serving of chicken-breast pieces are sauteed with sliced, fresh mushrooms, lemon juice, and, according to our waiter, “11 different spices.” The spices gave this dish an unexpected complexity; and stood up quite well to the dominant lemon flavor.

My third companion opted for kafta kabob – a mixture of meat, parsley, onions, and spices grilled with peppers, tomatoes, and onions – and served on rice pilaf. It, too, was tender, and the meat flavor dominated the herbs and spices.

My favorite is shawarma, boneless chicken breast sauteed with garlic and tart, cherry-colored sumac, and coated with a rich tahini dressing. Sumac is the unusual flavor here; made from ground sumac berries, it’s sour and fruity without the acidic taste of lemon. Chicken shawarma is served over a mixture of lettuce, tomatoes, and onions – almost a salad, and an exotic one at that.

In the past we’ve enjoyed both baked kibbee – ground beef mixed with bulgur – and falafel, a ground mixture of five beans, spiced with parsley, onions, and mint, shaped into patties and browned in olive oil.

For dessert, we shared a piece of baklava, thin and crispy layers of phyllo dough stuffed with a thick filling of chopped nuts and drizzled with honey. And we also tried the rice pudding, thick, creamy, and perfumed with orange-flower water.

It was an exotic culinary experience for a very practical price.