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Kedzie Avenue explorations: City Noor Kabab and Restaurant Al-Mataam (extra, extra long)

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Kedzie Avenue explorations: City Noor Kabab and Restaurant Al-Mataam (extra, extra long)

Lill | Aug 19, 2004 12:39 PM

On the recommendation of Aaron D and Antonius, I decided to check out City Noor Kabab last night. After watching a Julia Child retrospective on PBS, I was more in the mood for French bistro fare, but I had already committed to Noor.

We seated ourselves at a bright yellow table near the big-screen TV that was playing Indian or Pakistani music videos. The space is clean and bright - very, very bright. The server did not seem particularly pleased to be there, and she had little knowledge of the menu. When we asked for kibbe (recalling the photograph from LTH), she didn't know the word. She shrugged and rolled her eyes and said “is it on the menu?” We said no, and she said “then we don’t have it.” So we ordered baba ganouj and foule, followed by shawerma and mansaf. We had to repeat the order over and over before she had it down. It took 15 minutes to get a glass of water.

Later, though, when we left, we spoke to the chef, who greeted us warmly and asked how we liked the food, and then thanked us and asked us to come back. It was clear that she cared about the comfort of her guests and really wanted to create a welcoming space, and this was the high point of the meal.

On to the food. The baba ganouj came first, served with pita that was cold and stale and little salads of lettuce, tomato, cabbage and onion with no dressing. It was very good baba ganouj, but the end-of-day unwarmed pita bread made it less appealing.

The foule came next, served warm. I had never had foule before, and I enjoyed this dish, but I found it overly salty for my taste, and the only flavors I tasted besides beans were salt and garlic.

The mansaf came next. It was two chunks of lamb that were very tasty, but tough, and the ratio of bone to meat was 70%-30%. The rice was nicely flavored with clove and cardamom, but it was sticky and again seemed to be suffering from end-of-the-day syndrome. The entire dish was served over another stale pita which was soaked in salty yogurt broth. A big bowl of the yogurt broth was served on the side. I liked the lamb, but wanted more meat. The yogurt broth had little to recommend it.

The chicken shawerma turned out to be a sandwich - the waitress had got the order wrong. The problem, again, was the stale pita, which negatively influenced every dish. And the shawerma itself was not cut fresh off a rotisserie like at Al-K; it was stir-fried pieces of chicken that were small and dried-out tasting. The sandwich was served with yogurt, onions, and a condiment that tasted of tomatoes, yogurt and pepper. I had hoped for some of the bright green hot-lime sauce (zhug), but none was offered.

The food, service, atmosphere, and price were all better at Al-K, where we received complimentary pickles, olives, hummus and warm fresh pita bread.

And Noon-O-Kabab, despite its new incarnation as yuppie destination, still blows them both away (though I recognize that the menus are very different).

But there’s more!

While driving to Noor, we had noticed a corner spot called Restaurant Al Mataam that looked intriguing, and being in the mood to explore further, we stopped in after finishing up at Noor. The sign indicated “Mediterranean food,” so we weren’t sure quite what to expect. The menu dispelled any possibility of Greek or Italian, offering instead items like kababs, borak, kubba, gus, and farooj (most of which were unfamiliar to me).

We asked the (Romanian) waitress where the owners were from, and she first said “America.” A followup question revealed that the owners are Iraqi.

We ordered borak and kubba, even though we had just eaten dinner - no sense wasting an opportunity to try something new. The borak was very good: a ground beef and lamb filling between two layers of bulgur pancakes, grilled. The spicing of the meat was delicious: cinnamon, onion and cloves. I really enjoyed this dish but wish there had been some sort of sauce or condiment served with it. The kubba was a cross-cultural offering: spicy beef filling wrapped in eggroll skin and deep-fried. This was less appealing, though the spiced beef was tasty. It was served, again, without condiments on a plate of lettuce and tomato with a lemon wedge. For the complete pan-cultural experience, we also received two loaves of grilled Mexican bread (the kind used for tortas).

The setting: a large-screen TV broadcasting an Arabic-language news station bristling with news reports of violence and warfare, tables of men eating and smoking, and no women in sight except for me, the waitress and the cook. A couple of video poker games were available “for entertainment purposes only.”

I wouldn’t rush to eat at either Noor or Al Mataam again, but I was glad to try some new dishes and I enjoyed the melding of cultures that played out on the plate and on the street. What a great part of town it is.

Lill

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