Monday, February 04, 2008

Richmond's Two Newest Falafels

In the past week or so, I've had a falafel from two new middle eastern eateries in Richmond. Now, I'm a bit of a completest when it comes to falafel. If a place is serving something and they're calling it a falafel, then I feel compelled to try it, and then rank it on my falafel spectrum of tastiness. For instance, Aladin's is a 9.5 (see my previous post on their pita paradise wrapped in foil) and the same (but oh so different) sandwich from Mediterranean Bakery and Deli also scores highly. The pita pocket sandwich that I once had at the chain restaurant, Pita Pit, was clearly made from a mix of dried ingredients. They even asked me what kind of cheese I wanted on the it and they didn't have tahini sauce. They scored a 2 out of 10.

But there's more to this system than a simple authenticity test. Not every restaurateur of middle eastern decent serves up decent falafel. And not every bohemian sandwich maker screws up their pita sandwiches (feel free to chime in on this). Some of my favorite falafels are at places like Harrison Street Coffee Shop near VCU and Sammy T's in Fredericksburg. However, when it comes to the real complex flavors of a well seasoned falafel ball, I do tend to put my money on places that also sell baba ganouj and brandish hookas along the walls.

Last week, I stopped in at the new place on Meadow, near Broad Street. It's called the Mediterranean Market. Inside, I was greeted by Abraham, a really friendly guy who used to work at Aladins. This was a good sign. On that day, I had already eaten and was just browsing. However, I did decide to take home some goodies for my wife (tabouli, halva, canned stuffed grape leaves, and pita chips). When I got to the register, Abraham had a falafel ball waiting for me. He said, "Still vegetarian, right? You will love my falafel." And I did.

It was sitting on a plate in a little pool of tahini sauce. The crunchiness was impressive. I could see whole fennel seeds in the crust and the insides were moist and lumpy with the remnants of chick peas. Not bad at all. The tahini sauce was also seasoned with something extra, but I couldn't tell what. I prefer more lemon juice in my sauce, but most traditional falafel's have a pretty plain tahini sauce going on. At this point, I'm not sure if I can rate the falafel, because I haven't had it served as a sandwich (I never order the "platter" version). But, what I've tasted so far is pretty exciting. Plus, the house tabouli is fantastic. Lots of lemon and parsley, just the way Karen likes it.

So, do yourself a favor and support this new market while you wait for Trader Joe's to materialize. And then, keep going back cuz Abraham deserves your support. In fact, order a sandwich and a side and maybe some Turkish coffee and then sit at the table by the window and watch the comings and goings at 7-11. Inner peace will soon follow.

The next falafel came from The Phoenician, a Lebanese restaurant which has replaced La Casita in the 4400 block of W. Broad St. A coworker and I popped by to get some take out while on lunch break. The place looks fancy! I mean, it is awash in red tapestries that spiral to the ceiling and the lighting is intimate. Not really suited for lunch take out, either. We sat in the lounge area looking over the menu and narrowed our focus to the sandwiches. They had falafel, so I order it. Of course, they had shwarma and lamb kababs, etc. And don't even get me started about their list of entrees and specials, cuz I don't wanna get off topic by talking about the $45 Mezza plate.

My coworker ordered a strange sounding cheese appetizer to go along with his falafel. They gave us styrofoam containers, which was instantly off putting for me. I mean, what's wrong with a foil wrapped falafel? No fries come with these pitas, anyhow. Once back at the office, we opened up the boxes and found a beautiful scene of hummus adorned with diced tomato, onions, and parsley and swimming in olive oil. There were fried pita chips as well strewn around, and of course, a fairly large falafel pita wrapped in foil. Not bad for $5.00.

The humus was great; garlicky, lemony, and oily. My fave. The falafel balls were also really good, featuring lots of seasoning, but not quite enough tahini for my taste. When I finished, I was singing the praises of the Phoenician. The falafel-o-meter gives it: 8/10 for the falafel and 9/10 if the accouterments are taken into account.

Now, about that cheese. I wish I could remember the name of the stuff. Wow, was it strong. And unfamiliar tasting too. Really, I couldn't handle more than two bites. Same for my friend. It wasn't haloumi (which was also on the menu). I'll be getting that next time instead of this stuff.

At any rate, the Phoenician surprised and pleased. You can eat cheaply there, but not if you really want to experience the Lebanese full treatment. Appetizers start at $5 and so do sandwiches. But, maybe that's all you need for lunch anyhow. As for the entrees, tune in next time, cuz I'm headed back for dinner.

7 comments:

  1. I like making my own hummus, but always end up with more that I can eat, but eating it anyway. My favorite commercial hummus is Sabra, which makes Roasted Red Pepper, Roasted Pine Nuts, Classic and Greek flavors. All are oily, smooth and much better than what I can make myself. They can be had at (gasp) Ukrops and Joe's Market.

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  2. Kevin1:26 PM

    I went to the Pheonecian on Friday night with three friends and we split the Mezza. It was heavenly!...and a ton of food, which turned out to be a great value for dinner. I believe we had the same cheese. The waiter said that it was an aged feta. It was too strong for me too - and I love cheese.

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  3. Kevin,
    You are a braver man than I. The thing about Mezze is that the price tag requires such a leap of faith. The same goes for those Ethiopian sampler plates. You've just got to put yourself in the capable hands of the cooks. If I remember correctly, the Phoenician had no description of the $45 dish. But, the fact that it fed three tells me that I will have to order it for four and see how it goes. Of course, I'll tell them to swap out that cheese for something less pungent. Otherwise, I can work with "heavenly!" Thanks for the tip.

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  4. For me, falafel is a special treat. I can make hummus in my sleep and especially like to throw in olives and a dash of tamari into the mix (although a perversion of the sacred authentic dip). But I don't trifle with falafel in my kitchen. Mostly, it's cuz I don't like the mess of deep frying. For me, it's all about the pilgrimage to a good pita, the texture of fried crustiness contained in thin bread, and the richness of the tahini sauce. If I'm lucky, there'll be a tangy lemon taste and swirling spices chosen by an expert. A few veggies (tomato, onion, parsley) help round out the experience and rationalize the calories. These two spots will probably become regular stops for me. Time to take up jogging.

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  5. I went to the Phoenician last weekend. When we arrived, we were greeted by a gracious host, who was also very charming and quite handsome:). He seated us at a table in the center of the dining room, under a huge Moroccan style metal lantern. The booth was quite comfy with a bolster and decorative throw pillows and cool henna lights in the corners. There was fabric draped across the ceiling, giving it an Arabian nights feel. The walls were a burgundy red with a shimmery gold wash and beautiful tapestries on the wall. Along with lots of photos of Lebanon. The floors had beautiful Persian style rugs scattered about. I loved the Arabic music too. The ambiance there is quite amazing. Now for the food. I was with a group of five and we wanted to try everything. First we went with the Mezza, which included almost all of the starters. It included baba ganoush, hummus, shankleesh (which is the cheese you guys are referring to)Falafel, Fatayer, Grape Leaves, Kebbe, Tabouli and several other things that I can't remember the name. Let me just tell you that it was all fabulous. The baba ganoush and hummus was the best I ever had. If you go with a group, I highly recommend the Mezza. Then we all split a few entrees. We got the chicken taouk, lamb chops and mixed grill. These too were seasoned just right and cooked to perfection. We thought we were done until our server came by with a tray of baklava, we could not resist. Then our handsome host came by the table to make sure we enjoyed our dinner, it turns out that he is the owner. He talked us into trying the tirimisu. He told us it was homemade and the best we would ever try and he was right!! The tirimisu was heavenly, you must try it if you go. I will be going back there very soon! We had such a great time and really loved everything.

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  6. While reading this review I couldn't help but wonder if this was the same restaurant that I had dinner in tonight. I checked twice and sure enough it is. The difference being the Phoenician where I had dinner tonight was BAD. Almost very bad. Everything my date and I had was over cooked. Shawarma that bordered on Shawarma flavored chicken dust, falafal like mini hocky pucks and ping pong ball kebbeh. The seven dollar glasses of wine were a quarter full and to top things off the fly in the water glass wasn't doing the back stroke. He had only had a stroke.

    The decor? Texmex with oriental rugs and cheap middle eastern print cloth draped from the ceiling and walls.

    I've been hoping and searching for a good Lebanese or Greek restaurant in Richmond since I moved here seven years ago. This one ain't it.

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