Native culinary guides are worth their weight in fresh-baked pita, let me tell you. If it wasn’t for my Lebanese pal Andy, I would never have noticed Arabian Nights.
Let me amend that statement: I probably would have noticed it and blown it off. Outward appearances — the name, the Ali Baba aesthetic, the clashing swords noises on the website — painted a cartoonish portrait.
And the menu, with its broad survey of hummus, shawarma and kebabs, did little to entice.
However, “It’s the best Lebanese food in The City,” Andy confided. He was a bit wary, nervous I’d expose his secret gem to the masses.
Sorry buddy, it’s my job.
My first visit was an impromptu weeknight date, and lo, Arabian Nights has some romance! It’s got a huge, cavernous interior, no doubt a tricky space to manage. But little details — warm lighting, thoughtful table arrangements, a candlelit bar — provided intimacy I didn’t expect.
“But what about those baroque archways, jeweled chandeliers and palm tree murals?” you ask? Don’t be a snob.
Ah hummus, that ubiquitous Middle Eastern slather. Rarely do I try an interesting version; it often seems like a Trader Joe’s throwaway, a yawn of an hors d’oeuvre.
But for hummus-jaded souls like myself, Arabian Nights has a version to make us believe again. Swirled around a dollop of sweetly spiced ground lamb and pine nuts, this airy, creamy rendering was like an awakening. And steaming baskets of pita, pulled hot from the open-flame oven, made ideal delivery platforms.
Another winning starter was the crisp-fried, lightly spiced cauliflower florets. These were served with a dish of Lebanese tarator sauce; think of a rich, tahini-based mayo.
The only appetizer misfire was the sambousek, a flaky dough pocket filled with the same spiced lamb and pine nut mixture from the hummus. As I often find with the world’s meat-filled dough pockets (see samosas, piroshki, etc.), the breading was armor-thick and oily.
For entrees, all the grilled meats were excellent. The shish taouk, marvelously tender chicken cubes with a little hit of lemon and garlic, could only have been improved with a bigger portion.
Kafta kabobs, those funny little cigars of minced beef and lamb, were soft and adeptly spiced. And the farouj meshwi, a simple Lebanese half-chicken preparation, was rich with garlic and sumac.
Are you ready to go deep Lebanese? Arabian Nights has some very traditional items not modified for the Western wuss. On my second visit, we ordered the kebbeh nayeh, basically a large rectangle of cinnamon-spiced lamb tartare with a side of labneh, a minty strained yogurt.
It was ... intense, probably more raw lamb than I ever needed. But it caused the wonderfully genial house manager to clutch his heart: “I am so happy you order this dish, this is very popular in Lebanon.”
And the knafeh bi jibn, a dessert of shredded phyllo dough and salty melted cheese, drizzled in a cloying, sticky syrup? Let’s just say I couldn’t match Andy’s enthusiasm.
That’s the main problem with letting someone else make your ordering choices. Even if your guide is well-versed in the ethnic cuisine du jour, there’s no accounting for taste.
Andy steered me well, but I’d like to move beyond the grilled-meat sections of the menu. Next time I’m interested in trying the makdous — a pickled, stuffed eggplant dish — and the good old falafel and baba ghanoush.
There will certainly be a next time.