'The Last Thing You'd Expect': Remembering the Spy who Fed Me

I gave money to an Iraqi spy.

Actually, something worse than money — a good review.

A few days ago, I opened the Washington Post to learn that a man named Saubhe Jassim Al-Dellemy pleaded guilty in federal court to a conspiracy charge, admitting he had been a spy for the Iraqi government for two decades — including the regime of Saddam Hussein.

I immediately had two thoughts, and both of them made me queasy.

The first was of my mom, who opened the Post one morning after the 9/11 attacks to discover that Mohammed Atta had gone to the same medical practice she did. She didn't finish her toast.

What you find where you're not looking, after the jump...

The article detailed the doings of Atta and his pals in the run up to 9/11. Many of those activities took place in Laurel, Md., a town forty minutes north of D.C. Atta rented a place there. He shopped and ate there. He went to a Safeway there.

Laurel. Bedroom-community Laurel. It seemed absurd.

Which, from the standpoint of a covert operative, was exactly the point: The illogical. The unexpected.

Al-Dellemy (code name: "Adam") clearly understood this.

Four years ago, writing a food column for Washington City Paper, I took a friend for a review meal one night to the restaurant that Al-Dellemy ran with his wife — a place called Gourmet Shish Kebab.

In Laurel.

Al-Dellemy welcomed us, advised us on ordering, swung by the table to ask how we were doing. He was the embodiment of the gregarious, big-hearted restaurateur. Nice guy, my friend said.

He lived nearby. He planned to return.

He did. We both did. Al-Dellemy was always there, and always inquired after us.

Closing the paper, I dug up my review, curious to see whether I'd had anything interesting — retroactively interesting — to say about the place. I was struck by the very first sentence.

I would later go on to praise the skewered lamb and the tandoori chicken and the chickpea curry called channa, but this was how I began my piece: "On a stretch of Route 198 in Laurel that is littered with fast-food joints and the usual gray allotment of chains, a kebab house may not be the last thing you'd expect to find—anything is possible—but it's definitely up there."

No, not the last thing you'd expect to find, as it turns out.

Todd Kliman is a James Beard Award-winning restaurant critic and the food and wine editor of Washingtonian magazine. The Wild Vine, his book about the Rosetta stone of American wine, is due in 2009.

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