Yesterday we were near enough to Albany Park, that we decided to go off towards that ideal Middle-Eastern place. I was leaning towards Al Mataan, but there were no immediate parking spots. We decided for the place in the strip mall on the northern side of Lawrence. The place with the wood oven that lasted like a week in a previous incarnation. On first inspection, we did not get good vibes. The place looked empty.
I went in on a scouting mission, especially to check out the oven. I could get no information about the oven, but the place itself smelled tempting and the menu looked interesting with some different sounding things, so we went for it. Good move.
RST mentioned this place a few weeks back, and said the place was Jordanian. I am not sure. The menu featured a bunch of things that seemed Persian in origin: a dish entitled King Soltani, reference to tandouri bread, and the fact that all the entrees come with "Persian white" or dill rice. On the other hand, there was Muskan, a Jordanian chicken dish (not available on sunday) and Farouje a Syrian dish (like cornish hens I believe but also unavailable), and finally when I asked the Mexican guy who did the cooking where the food was from, he said Jerusalem, pointing to some sand bottles also stamped Jerusalem. The murky source of the food extended to some other translation problems.
Under appetizers were hummus, msabaha and fatteh w/houmous. The latter two intrigued us as we were not sure their exact nature. Our waitress had no ability to help us, so we just decided to order. A few minutes later, our waitress returned to tell us the dishes were the same. We got the msabaha, which was basicially hummus, with some chickpeas inside. Good though, with a heavy dose of oil, fresh parsley and two piles of paprika.
We ordered a bit heavy for two adults and a chowhoundita: beside the msabaha=hommous, we got 3 sandwiches and the kalaya plate, a lamb and tomato dish. We expected one soup, but were offered 3. At the end of the day it was a ton of food that we could come close to finishing, but at bill time, it barely extended past $20 (OK, about $23).
Two soups of the day, okra and lentil. When we found out we were getting 3 soups, we asked for 2 lentil and one okra. We got 2 okra and one lentil. No big deal really as the okra was very good. A thick red broth with semi-slimy okra and super-soft lamb chunks. Very similar to the what Al Mataan, across the street, offered with meals sans squishy rolls. The lentil was bright yellow and smokey, with a slice of lemon that enhanced its flavor. With the soup came regular ol' pita bread (I'll return to this in a moment) and a relish tray featuring beets and turnips of identical purple, onions dusted with sumac, radishes and dull out of season tomatoes. After a bit of discussion, we also got a frothy green hot sauce.
Our remaining dishes came as the kitchen completed them. We liked the heavily onioned kalaya, but mostly saved that for another day and concentrated on the sandwiches. These are roll-up versions, using the bigger bread, like paranthas, not pita. The primary fillings, plus cabbage and other vegetables, get tightly packed together. Like the best sandwiches, they achieve a singular block of flavors. Still, if you peck around a bit, you will find some of the secrets. For one thing, the vegetables seemed to be well dressed. For another thing, the primary ingredients all possessed strong flavors. The chicken breast in that sandwich achieved that high balance of marinade moisture and grill dryness. The shwarma, while suffering slightly dry from repeated heatings, had good spice too. The wild card filing was a creamy feta. While we both loved the fresh and bright flavor of the feta, I actually wished I ate it earlier in the meal. After the shwarama and kalaya my palate was a bit dulled for the feta.
Now, is Al Ameer the mythical ideal Middle-Eastern restaurant? One strong draw to Al Ameer is a half-cylander wood oven near the front of the stoor. The problem, when do they use that oven. Our stumbling waitress and Mexican cook half-explained to us that they used that oven only on special days. Many questions later, however, we could not determine that unique day. They certainly did not use it for the breads. If Al Ameer was cooking things in that oven as good as things they cooked outside of that oven, would indeed be one very special place. In the meantime, I would gladly return, especially for those roll-ups.
4821 N. Kedzie
There is an interesting Middle-Eastern market next door. We picked up all sorts of international products including a Macedonian pepper sauce that is a pale red, almost orange color, some Turkish mixed pickles, canned foul, and chico sticks. We had an odd negotiation with the proprietor over the last. First he wanted to just give us one. Then when the Mistress of Spices wanted multiple sticks, we had had to bicker over price. What was odd? He was bidding low. We finally found a point where I felt only marginally guilty on the price/quantity. This place had a huge spice selection. What aroma standing by the bins.