Seven of us met for a Friday lunch in Vienna at the only Saudi Arabian restaurant in the United States, Aldeerah. We unanimously liked the meal.
We started out with the falafel salad appetizer. This was a mixed green salad topped with grape size falafel bites and a handful of french fries. It came with a tahini dressing on the side. The falafel bites and dressing were good, falafel crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, but I probably wouldn't get that salad again unless I was in the mood for one of the healthiest items on the menu. It was a very basic salad.
Potato kibbeh was one of the appetizers we tried. The potato kibbeh was a tender mashed potato ball stuffed with ground meat, deep fried until crispy and golden. Three pieces per order. Very enjoyable.
We also ordered cheese sambosa, also three pieces per order, which was a thin wheat flour triangle wrapping stuffed with a soft spreadable type white cheese and deep fried. It reminded me of a crab rangoon.
A collectively loved item was the lamb-oatmeal soup. Much thinner than an American breakfast oatmeal, it had a lot of oats in it, but was clearly a soupy consistency, was full of body from a tomatoey broth, and contained little shreds of tender lamb.
We selected 3 entrees: chicken mathlootha, lamb mandi, and lamb marqooq.
The mathlootha is a triple layer dish topped with roasted chicken. The layers from bottom to top consist first of jireesh, a soft wheat-lamb porridge, second of qursan, which is shredded crepe-like wheat bread soaked in tomato sauce, and then basmati rice. The chicken was basic roast chicken, but the dish was interesting. I liked the way the rice was moistened by the layers beneath.
The lamb mandi was oven roasted lamb on top of basmati rice. This dish was uninteresting to me, but the lamb itself was tender and well cooked. There was the option to get it topped with fried onions and raisins, which would have added more textures and flavors, but I didn't notice that until I read the menu more carefully after the meal.
My favorite dish was the marqooq, which is the special of the day on Fridays. This is very thin flat bread soaked in a tomatoey lamb stock till very soft, and topped with stewed lamb and vegetables. I like carby comfort food type dishes, and this falls into that grouping for me.
The food is all lightly seasoned with a garam masala flavor profile with hints of bay leaves, cinnamon, black pepper, cloves, etc., and robust from the use of rich meat stocks. It was all well salted, which I like.
Nothing we ate had chile heat, but Saudis eat their food with a Tabasco Sauce-like condiment called shatta (literally red chile pepper) on the table and add the chile heat to their liking with dashes of this stuff. Aldeerah has an in-house shatta served in a tiny condiment bowl.
Another typical Saudi condiment, dakkous, which is similar to a Mexican tomato salsa cocida, was also served on the side of the meal.
I ordered a cucumber-yoghurt sauce to have with the mandi, because I find it dry otherwise (always, not just at this restaurant). The dakkous also serves the purpose of adding moisture and flavor to the rice.
We topped off the meal with dried Saudi dates and Gulf style Arabic coffee, which is more of a saffron and cardamon flavored coffee infused tisane. This is served from a thermal carafe and poured into tiny sake cups. Not everybody liked this, finding it a bit perfumey and not coffee-like enough. I happen to love this stuff, though. The dates were also a bit exotic for some of the diners, as they were whole (date stone inside) and dried to a caramel candy consistency. They tasted good to me, though.
Distinct from the regional Arabic cuisines more commonly on offer in the DMV area, Saudi cuisine has much in common with the cuisines of the other countries of the Arabian Peninsula. Though I have never been to Saudi, I am familiar with this food, so it was a nostalgic experience for me. All of the food was well prepared, and similar to what I had in the homes of Gulf nationals during my years in the region.
For other diners, it was a new and positive experience. Service was attentive and friendly, and the heavy Arabic decor of the place lends to its charm. The food served at Aldeerah represents Saudi cuisine very well.