I was 37 years old before I ever met a man named Moe. He was working behind the counter at the Briar Mart, and he turned out to be an interesting guy as well as an outstanding salesman. How so? I walked out with a two-and-a-half-pound chunk of Greek feta cheese, a sack bulging with fresh Persian cucumbers, a bag of Israeli couscous, a jar of pomegranate molasses, pita bread and other sundry items. He almost had me sold on some beautiful fresh eggplant as well, until I remembered that eggplant is not something I do well with in the kitchen.
A stroll through the Briar Mart is a beautiful adventure. When you walk through the front door, at first glance you might think you're in any other convenience store. And to be sure, you can grab a can of pop, a gallon of milk and a bag of chips. But that accounts for a very small percentage of what this store sells. Take a few minutes to wander through the aisles, and you find Mediterranean and Middle Eastern groceries that you never knew existed.
The refrigerated cases start with Coke and Pepsi, move on to fruit drinks with labels in what looks like Arabic, and wind up with chilled plastic platters of exotic cookies and pastries, anchored at the end with several different kinds of flat breads, lavosh and pita bread. You'll need to walk this aisle twice, though, because facing the chilled glass doors are all sorts of spices, flavorings and mixes. A walk through here is guaranteed to intoxicate your nose. I bought some masala shish kabob mix that made an incredible dinner, once I realized that whoever translated the directions into English really didn't know English very well. The ground turkey patties were vibrantly spicy and hot, matching well with the tzatziki I made with those cucumbers I told you about. (I'm no expert, but I grated a cucumber into plain yogurt, with a little salt and pepper and some crushed fresh garlic. It works wonders at soothing your mouth after something spicy.)
Along the back wall are grains, dals, teas, coffees and condiments. I found the bag of Israeli couscous, and curiosity overtook me. I'd been reading about this stuff in Gourmet for the last two years, and here it was. It's basically just larger-grained couscous, little spheres of pasta smaller than peas. It's amazingly easy to cook, and won rave reviews from my daughters, who dubbed it pasta bubbles. (Note to anyone with small children: Cooked or not, Israeli couscous rolls like a ball bearing on any surface except carpet.)
I wandered past pickles and jars large and small displaying a variety of olives. I saw spices I couldn't pronounce. I picked up the pomegranate molasses because I couldn't resist the bright, jewel-like color. I've been rewarded for my daring when I use it in muffins to replace regular molasses or honey, and a friend of mine has suggested that I try it over ice cream.
The deli counter is its own little dream come true, with meats, sausages and three kinds of feta cheese. Moe had me taste each before I made my choice. The Greek is what you're probably already familiar with, the French is less assertive and creamier, and the Hungarian has a more pronounced and slightly stronger flavor. There are also tubs of olives (the Kalamata olives are around two bucks a pound cheaper than those you find in grocery stores). And then there are the frozen foods and candy, which I will have to leave you to explore on your own.
Even if you don't feel like whipping up your own Middle Eastern feast, you owe yourself a trip to the Briar Mart because they have a lovely menu of food prepared on site, including gyros in several permutations (which, as you'll notice when you enter the store, perfumes the air) plus falafels, spanakopita and kabobs.
If you're starving, think about ordering the Vegetarian Platter. For $5.99, you get a big Greek salad topped with onions, cucumbers, tomatoes, crumbled feta and Kalamata olives. You also get four dolmas (grape leaves stuffed with a mildly spiced rice mixture), plus a large, soft swirl of fresh, lemony hummus (not too heavy on the garlic), along with a warm, grilled pita for scooping it up.
Being indecisive, I also sampled the Sultani Special (at $9.95, the most expensive item by far on the menu). You get a beef kabob and a chicken kabob, and although they are seasoned differently, both meats are moist and flavorful. You also get an enormous fragrant heap of saffron rice, plus a grilled tomato and pita bread that's had a turn on the grill. Don't forget to save room for some baklava, which is achingly sweet and tastes of honey. There are a few small tables in the store, or you can get your order to go, but beware that the smell of the Sultani Special could force you to sit down for a quick sample.