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When creativity never stops

September 15, 2018 GMT

MICHIGAN CITY — Not-your-usual food. And, not-your-usual concept.

That sums up the winning combination for Chickpea Fresh Mediterranean, the new restaurant in the Uptown Arts District that is already drawing devoted fans.

As the consultant on the business endeavor at 225 W. 5th Street, Moe Mroueh has opted for a simple menu and a build-your-own approach for the restaurant that opened in May. No stranger to the Michigan City restaurant scene, he was approached by Owner Raj Makwana of Michigan City who recognized the demand for the cuisine’s return in the city.

Born in West Africa, Mroueh came to the United States in 1992. After moving up from dishwasher to server to manager as he worked in local restaurants, he opened up his first, Eat at Moe’s, in 2004. Other restaurants by Mroueh have included Sahara Mediterranean Cuisine, and, more recently, Pickle & Turnip, at 827 Franklin St.

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Compared to his other restaurants, “The concept is different. It’s more open-kitchen,” explained Mroueh. “We’re able to interact with the customer. People like the concept of it being built in front of them. It’s been going on for the past 10 years or so. It seems to be the craze.”

The dining process begins with the base; customers can opt for a white or wheat pita or wrap. Or, they can choose basmati rice, hummus, or romaine lettuce as the base for a bowl or salad. Chicken shawarma (rotisserie cooked chicken marinated in a Mediterranean spice blend), falafel (deep fried spiced mashed chickpeas/onion/parsley) or Greek gyro (lamb/beef mix roasted on a vertical spit) is added next. The homemade vegan Falafel is most popular.

Customers can add garnishes next, choosing from cucumber, tomato, purple cabbage, radish, sumac onion, pickles, Kalamata olives or feta cheese. Sauce choices of tahini (sesame, lemon and garlic salt), harissa (chili garlic sauce), lemon dressing (olive oil, lemon juice, sea salt and sumac) or Greek vinaigrette finish off the dish.

Other choices on the menu include the fatouch, avocado, tabouli or Greek salads. Diners can add a side such as Chickpea’s own signature hummus, now sold locally at Al’s Supermarkets in Michigan City as well as take-out at the restaurant.

Just recently, Chickpea introduced Loaded Mediterranean Street Fries in the Lebanese, the Greek, the vegan or the salty-sweet variety.

The last one consists of Chickpea’s hand-cut fries covered in Nutella, crushed mixed nuts and sea salt.

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“People are curious about them. They’re something different,” Mroueh said of the most popular choice so far. “We have repeat customers and I always try to do something different for them.”

Mroueh already has more sweet items on the menu including baklava, date cookies and Knafa (a cheese dome), but is hoping to create some dessert bowls in the future.

“The creativity never stops with me. I get bored. I always have to start something – I always have to create something,” he explained.

The restaurant just recently received approval for a liquor license and plans to begin offering alcoholic beverages within a few weeks. With that goal now achieved, they have hopes to expand the dining room, which now seats 22, into a three-season room as well as plans to offer more dinner entrees including kabobs.

With hopes to offer wines from Greece, Lebanon and Spain, he said, “People want to come out and have a wine from that country and connect more with that country.”

In addition, Mroueh intends to support local businesses by including local wines from Shoreline Brewery, Zorn Brew Works Co., Shady Creek Winery and Burn ’Em Brewing. Now popular on the menu is the non-alcoholic Orange Blossom Lemonade, made with orange blossom water, a popular dessert ingredient.

Mroueh mentioned that he also uses local Kolossos Olive Oil, which is imported from Greece by a Michigan City business owner. All the spices used at Chickpea are from the Middle East.

He reflected on his beginnings in the restaurant industry and his choice of Mediterranean food, which he described as “not spicy – it’s flavorful.”

“It wasn’t as popular as it is now,” he said. “People are more informed about the food and the health benefits of the cuisine.”

“It had to be something that I knew how to cook,” Mroueh went on, explaining that he was born to Lebanese parents and learned how to cook from his late mother, Hala Mroueh.

“We’d like everyone to try something new. They’d be surprised at what they might like,” he added, emphasizing that free samples are always available. “I love it when I make them try it and they convert and buy some to take home.”

Mroueh said the restaurant “focuses on both the local and the visitors.”

Commenting on Chickpea’s location, he said, “It’s definitely another option for dining. Hopefully, it will bring people down here.”

He said he’s looking forward to the restaurant getting more involved in the community as well. Recently, he teamed up with Burn ’Em Brewing for a beer dinner and sunset cruise on Michigan City’s popular new tour boat, the Emita II. The sold-out event is set to sail on Sept. 12.

Chickpea Fresh Mediterranean is open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday. For more information, look up “Chickpea Fresh Mediterranean” on Facebook or call (219) 879-8888.

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