In many cultures in the world, bread is integral to the meal, used as the tool that scoops spreads, the wrapper for meats and vegetables, the soft scraper for the lovely bits on the bottom of the plate that are embarrassing to lick off.
Phinix Mediterranean Fusion takes bread seriously. The new spot, opened in November in Belmont's Waverley Square — where the Sweet Peach Diner was most recently, and Andros Diner for decades before that — sends out kebabs and their accompaniments on large pieces of very thin lavash that have curled at the edges like a flower. The effect is quite pretty, but wouldn't be much more than a frill if the food on it wasn't so good.
The cuisine here is billed as Mediterranean fusion, but it's heavy on the Caucasus (the owners come from Armenia and Russia). That translates to kebabs, shawarma wrapped in the tissue-paper lavash, and impressive vegetables.
Pork shish kebab ($17.99), described on the menu as “hog derriere marinated in specialty sauce” — the meat is pork butt — comes lightly charred, tender with just enough fat to make it delicious, sprinkled with pomegranate seeds and thin rounds of red onion. The enormous portion could serve two, as is the case with lamb kebab ($19.99) and beef ($19.99). Both are just as tender, cut into 3-inch pieces, with their crunchy garnishes. Co-owner David Aleksanyan, who is the cook, attributes the tenderness and big flavors to marinating. He’s buying leg of lamb and fillet of beef at Restaurant Depot, he says.
There are three appetizers: plates of cheese ($8.99), vegetables ($7.99), and meat ($9.99), all a bit heavy for the large kebabs that follow. A better way to get a nibble while you wait for dinner — everything is made to order and takes time — is to split a Greek salad ($11.99), an especially fresh and appealing one with a big square of feta and dressing made with dried wild oregano, or something called Grilled Vegetable Delight ($14.99), a dish of charred, cut-up eggplant with tomatoes, bell and hot peppers, onions, and a generous dusting of cilantro.
Shawarma (chicken $10.99, lamb $13.99, falafel $9.99) is a giant roll-up with salad vegetables, plenty of cilantro, and the Greek yogurt sauce tzatziki. All vegetables here (kebabs come with two sides) are better than you're expecting. Carrots are cut very thin on something that resembles a spiralizer and tossed with a vinegary dressing; beets are shredded and mixed with yogurt.
Phinix is just settling in. One night there's no lamb, another some missing vegetables. The peach and blue dining room, open all day, becomes dimly lit at night. The music is a loop of disco and new age-y stuff that doesn't go with the day or the night. Aleksanyan, who came here five years ago from Armenia, has a doctorate in applied mathematics. He also owns Flame Cafe in the Financial District, a slip of a place, where they're slicing meat for gyros and making fine salads. Partner Sam Pogosov, originally from Russia and raised in California, worked on a food service project when he was getting an MBA at Yale.
The waitstaff is friendly but a little uncertain how to accommodate simple requests, like whether we can have plain pita with the complimentary hummus instead of deep-fried lavash crackers. What arrives is thick pita, warmed and cut into triangles and presented in stacks. It's delicious and delightfully chewy.
The place takes bread, and all of its cooking, seriously.
PHINIX MEDITERRANEAN FUSION
628 Trapelo Road, Belmont, 617-484-1232, www.phinixgrill.com.All major credit cards. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices (Dinner) Appetizers $7.99-$9.99. Entrees $13.99-$24.99 (three items over $20). Dessert $3.99.
Hours Daily 7 a.m.-10 p.m.
What to order Pork shish kebab, lamb shish kebab, beef shish kebab, grilled vegetable delight, Greek salad, chicken shawarma wrapped in lavash.