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Norma’s Eastern Mediterranean Cuisine

by Brian Freedman; Photo by Douglas Bovitt
Culture Meets Cuisine: Norma’s Eastern Mediterranean Cuisine
995 Route 70 E.
Cherry Hill
(856) 795-1373

For all the focus on the foods of the Mediterranean around here, surprisingly little attention is still paid to the Eastern side of it. Sure, Greek restaurants occasionally open their doors, hoping to lure customers in with the smell of fresh-grilling fish, but the cuisines of North Africa and the Mediterranean Middle East have yet to be shown the widespread love their more Western counterparts have gotten for years.

Fortunately, Norma’s (and their accompanying take-out and grocery store in the rear) is doing a nice job of keeping the tradition alive and well here, and in a way that thankfully eschews so much of the kitsch that too often accompanies it (overbearing plucked-string music, hookahs as decor, an ambience that could be lifted directly from the set drawings for Zorba the Greek). And while it’s not a flawless restaurant, Norma’s nonetheless does a respectable job of translating the flavors to its perch off of Route 70 in Cherry Hill.

Start off with the appetizer sampler, a lovely tour through familiar preparations given far more love and attention here than they typically get. Take hummus, for example: What is usually a vaguely depressing, often pasty dish of chickpea mush is here a nutty, balanced dip that truthfully doesn’t really need the pita to scoop it up with. Personally, I’d have been happy with a spoon—or a straw. Baba ghanouj also raises the ante on an otherwise familiar recipe. And while it may not look like anything out of the ordinary, a whole undiscovered world of smoky, velvety depth waits. Much of this is a result of the kitchen’s aggressive use of acid here (as well as in the hummus), which, rather than taking all the attention itself, instead serves to highlight the deeper flavors. It works as a frame in the hummus and baba, and a beautiful one at that.

Marinated feta also overperforms, especially considering the nobs of cheese were served with onion, olives and tomato as well ... and this is most definitely not the season for the latter. But a combination of good sourcing, as well as liberal seasoning, rendered it all appealingly taut, a snappy mini-salad. Tabouli, springlike with fresh parsley, demonstrated how much pleasure simple ingredients can provide when prepared with care and intelligence.

Unfortunately, falafel had the opposite effect: It was dusty-textured and devoid of much flavor at all, even when anointed with tahini. Grape leaves fared better, as did the spinach turnover, though a thinner dough shell would have been preferred.

Shawarma here is a bit different than what you’re likely used to, the slices of beef thicker and enrobed in a more aggressive layer of tahini. But the flavor is there, the meat densely juicy and the accompanying vegetables fresh.

But just as with the appetizers, successes with heartier dishes are occasionally joined by less-impressive efforts. Samak tajin reads like a nicely exotic dish—salmon with paprika, garlic, cilantro, cumin, tomatoes and more; what arrives, however, is a familiar piece of grilled salmon in a tomato sauce, the presence of exoticism barely perceptible.

Dessert, however, will send you home happy. Date maamoul—a semolina butter cookie with a heart of date—is far more flavorful and soulful than it has any right to be, a dessert as savory as it is sweet. And pistachio baklawa manages to avoid the pitfall of sickly-sweetness that mars so many other versions of this classic. Here, the gentle bitterness of those nuts balances out the sweet aromatics of rose water syrup. For $2.50, this modestly portioned slice is one of the best dessert deals in South Jersey.

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 11 (February, 2012).
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