Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Feast in the Middle East

One of things missing from many chain restaurants is the element of 'atmosphere'. Sure they may have peanuts on the floor but the Toby Keith soundtrack is so loud the waiter has to hold their hand up to their mouth 'yodeling style' to take your order. Or maybe there is decor but it is cookie cutter pre-fabed street signs and sports memorabilia. Somewhere there's gotta be a sweatshop that does nothing but pump out restaurant props." I want you kids to bang out two-hundred of these John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe cutouts by the end of the day or the beatings will continue!"

Much like the 'set' in a theater production can set the mood for an audience, the atmosphere of a dining establishment can sometimes make even the tastiest food unappealing. So with that being said, the atmosphere at Memphis' Al-Rayan takes one into a world of dining pleasure. Colorful handmade rugs and pillows decorate a large area of the restaurant. Exotic lamps, pipes and art from the Middle East give the restaurant a feel of dining in a desert cafe. The alluring smell of lamb roasting on the spit calls the senses. Al-Rayan brings Middle East cuisine to the Mid-South.

Chef Hndi Nahwi serves traditional cuisine from Lebanon and various regions of the Middle East. Meals can be served in a traditional style starting with small appetizer plates known as 'Meze' that are best enjoyed communally. Some of the appetizers include homemade hummus and stuffed grape leaves. For the health conscious there is delightful treat that combines fried white cheese and homemade butter. Yeah...feel em' cloggin....

Soups made from lentils and Arabic spices as well as the refreshing Tabouleh salad made from chopped parsley, fresh mint, wheat, olive oil and fresh squeezed lemon juice. One tasty lentil soup is made of lentils, vermicelli and spices.

 As delicious as these starters may be, let's get into the meat of it. I enjoyed some of the Tandoori Chicken and rice cooked in East African style with fresh herbs. The chicken was smoky and rich and served with fresh warm pita bread and a citrus based salad. I also enjoyed some chickpea croquettes.

Marinated shish kabobs of grilled lamb are also an amazing treat here. Grilled robust shwarma is available wrapped in pita bread with a minty yogurt sauce. One of the most notable items on the menu is a traditional stew from Yemen of lamb, potatoes and herbs. This rich savory stew is served in a traditional clay pot.

My favorite part of the meal was this steaming cup of goodness that the waitress served me. Hot, sweet Arabic tea made from cardamom and cloves served with a golden nugget of sweetbread cookie.

When you are looking for delicious Middle Eastern cuisine you should pay a visit to the folks at Al-Rayan. Pull up a pillow on the carpet and order communally. Great tastes in a great atmosphere.

Al Rayan
288 North Cleveland St.
Memphis TN 38104

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