We knew two things about Gorgeous George's before we went for dinner, two things we'd gleaned from friends and acquaintances who'd been there and learned hard lessons on their own dimes.One: Go early. Really early.Two: Order the chicken. Don't be distracted by all the more interesting-looking things on the menu; just go on a weekend (the only time the chicken in question is served) and order George's Grandma's Chicken.Every restaurant that generates word-of-mouth buzz and survives past that first tumultuous year (owner and chef George Rashed currently has three years and change in the rearview) has to have a hook—some unique plate, drink, chef, or interesting bit of bathroom graffiti—that will allow people to talk about it in the plain, specific language of the forever starving. At George's, the can't-miss suggestion, the one everyone mentions, is the chicken. And the mentioning goes something like this: "If you've got five minutes to live and George's is where you're at, order the chicken and spend four minutes making your peace with God. It's that good.""It" is a whole hen, marinated and rubbed with zaater (a fancy word for oregano), sesame seed, oil, and herbs; roasted on the bone over charcoal and served whole; stuffed with an almost pesto-like mix of more sesame, more herbs, and more oregano ground into a thick paste; and buoyed with a side of rice, a side of roasted vegetables, and a sauce of garlic and yogurt. It's the kind of dish that I can completely understand being the touchstone for George's fans, the one they shamelessly shill for among their friends and dream about when they're away. I get the attraction, and did in fact love that damn chicken myself, sitting there and cutting the breast meat away from the ridge of bone, smelling the combined aroma of a dozen spices ("direct from the Holy Land," according to George), rising up, and then eating that first bite, tasting the charcoal and the marinade and the sharp slap of oregano and salt. It was marvelous. But the chicken is not what I'm going to remember. The chicken was not what I walked away raving about or what I dreamed of later that night.No, that would be the hummus—the greatest I've ever had.George's is small and cramped, the tables almost stacked on top of each other and the chair backs all touching. Sharing a low-slung building with Pete's Egg Nest on Greenwood Avenue, the restaurant consists of mostly two- and three-tops, pressed tightly against the cool walls to make the most of the available space, with a couple of larger tables running like hurdles across the center of the room or mashed into the corners. The maximum seating capacity is maybe 30. At 40, people would be sitting on each other's laps and sharing the same soup.At 10 minutes after five, we weren't the first people there—or the 10th. Just a few minutes into service, the floor was already half-committed, and, with more on the way, the waitress/hostess/busser/steward—the one girl working the floor on a Saturday night—showed three of us to a small table in the corner (a deuce masquerading as a jury-rigged three-top) and let us squeeze past the large party who'd just snuck in ahead of us to claim the last of the large family tables. Which was just fine: I like a room that's alive and crowded, and more than three years in, George's still has the vibe of a shoestring comer two weeks out from its opening, slinging plates like every one of them might make or break the entire operation.We got our menus, our water, and our wine. The water was spiked with fresh cucumber and lemon—one of those details that shows a restaurant fully in command of the little things. You've got to pay attention to the big things too, but so many restaurants (especially small ones, crowded and operating right on the edge of their theoretical tolerances) forget about things like the weight of the silver and the starch in the linen, the spots on the wineglasses and the wedges of cucumber giving a fresh and unexpected bite to the obligatory glass of water.But not George's. I don't know George Rashed; I've never met the man and know nothing about him as a person. Yet something tells me he's a wicked kind of control freak—the kind of guy who can look out over a fully booked night with a second turn growing antsy on the sidewalk, see all the plates and the sides and the drinks and everything else that goes into the efficient and memorable feeding of 40 or a hundred strangers, and think to himself, "Shit, is there enough cucumber in the water pitchers?"I love that kind of guy.We knew we were getting the chicken, but that still left a whole lot of menu (and digestive real estate) to cover. And while George's board works within the somewhat restrictive Mediterranean/Middle Eastern canon (lots of lemon, lots of chickpeas, lots of proteins, simply grilled), it also offers everything from kafta kabobs, shish tawook (chicken kabobs), and halibut grilled and dressed simply in lemon and garlic (which is both a classic presentation and as ancient a dish as probably exists anywhere) to medallions of filet mignon, grilled and served with a scratch mushroom sauce.So taking the menu to pieces, we ordered broadly, going for soups, salads, kabobs of marinated and tender filet scored with grill marks, lamb with roasted tomatoes, shish tawook served with garlic sauce, and an appetizer (as an afterthought) of hummus with meat—the dullest and most harmless-looking thing on the whole appetizer menu. But hummus with meat sounded like just the thing to hold us over for what we guessed would be a long wait before the mains started arriving.That hummus ended up being the best decision we made that night. Arriving in just minutes—the single girl staffing the floor evidently had grown extra arms and a second voice to seat the new parties, clear tables, take orders, and deliver food—the hummus was beautiful: dun-colored but shading to gold where puddles of oil gleamed atop it, studded with almonds and cashews and sprinkled with just a touch of dark paprika. It came dented in the center like the cone of a volcano, a crater full of tiny bits of lamb (scraps and trimmings and delicious fatty bits, the best example of how to make the best use of every scrap of food in the kitchen) pan-seared in olive oil, then pulled just as the surfaces had all browned and caramelized.I have probably eaten hundreds of orders of hummus at restaurants across the country. This hummus, though, was better than all of them—the kind of thing where you take one bite and find yourself confused simply because you had no expectation that this would be what opens your eyes and knocks you back in your seat. A second bite confirms the shock of the first. And by the third you are wondering how exactly to get everyone at your table to leave—to just up and vanish—so that you won't have to share this with anyone else in the world.By seven o'clock, the crowd at George's front door was taking on the look of an angry mob, and the wait was something like half an hour for a walk-in table for two.We'd worked our way through lentil soup (surprisingly rich and savory, the lentils perfectly cooked and not at all muddy—another detail gotten right by George and his kitchen) and simple salads; through plates of tender kebabs and lamb, served with rice that was less than inspiring; through the chicken that everyone had raved about but which for me was just a secondary attraction.In the middle of the table sat the plain white plate our hummus had come on, wiped perfectly clean by the ends of pita bread—every bit of oil, every nut, every scrap of meat gone. It was just sitting there, gleaming in the fading light pouring in through the big windows. None of us had licked the plate. Not one of us hadn't considered firstname.lastname@example.org
Gorgeous George's Mediterranean Kitchen 7719 Greenwood Ave. N., 783-0116, gorgeousgeorges.com. Lunch 11 a.m.–2:30 p.m. Wed.–Sat.; dinner 5–9 p.m. nightly.