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Sunday, September 28, 2014

In the Lebanese Kitchen

What’s for Dinner? Dept.: This week’s food piece takes us behind the scenes of a wonderful Lebanese restaurant to discover what gives it its distinctive flavor.


ALLSPICE. BLACK PEPPER. CINNAMON. Cloves. Fenugreek. Ginger. Nutmeg. From such an array of spices great meals are crafted, and this particular array offers the seven that make up Lebanon’s most characteristic seasoning. Every family has its own recipe for the seven-spice blend, but if you measure these together in more or less equal proportions, you’re on your way.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
At the Phoenicians, Rindala Rahal has been offering food from her native Lebanon for the past six years, using recipes she learned from her family to offer what’s probably as authentic a Lebanese experience as you’ll find in the area.

She and her husband, Robert, share a keen sense of hospitality, so the dining experience has a nice sense of sitting-with-the-family about it. But I wanted to find out what makes the flavors here so distinct, and spent some time peppering them with questions before the start of business one day.

Where Robert is outgoing and jovial, Rindala seems a little shy. At first. As she warms to the subject, her passion becomes apparent. Shawarma is a menu staple, and you can see the two vertical rotisserie units on which are stacked the meats that slow-cook for many hours.

“We inherited shawarma from Turkey, where, as the story has it, it goes back to the time of the Ottoman Empire,” she says. “A nobleman had to feed a huge family gathering and wanted to come up with one good baked dish that would satisfy everyone. He put meat on a horizontal skewer and invented the kebab. After many years, someone tried turning the skewer vertical, and it produced a different flavor.”

A horizontal skewer of meat drips much of its fat away. When it roasts on a vertical axis, the fat drips into the meat throughout the cooking process. The classic shawarma alternates layers of beef and lamb as it’s assembled, sometimes adding layers of fat alone. The proportion of ingredients, the seasoning—that’s where the artistry comes in.

Even before Rindala assembles the meat, it gets marinated for a few days, with the seven-spice blend a key component. What else goes into it? “Onions, bay leaves, vinegar.” She shrugs. “It doesn’t need much.” Chicken also gets the shawarma treatment, and she preps that meat with a different blend of spices, “and I marinate it in orange juice.”

The result is a flavor that touches all the palate receptors, a reminder that chicken actually can taste complicated. Yet, she confesses, “when I started cooking, many years ago, I couldn’t even crack an egg. My sister sent me a cookbook from Lebanon, and I spent a year learning from it, until I finally began to make things that tasted like my mom’s food.”

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Bulghur, a form of cracked wheat, is the basis for tabouleh, a salad with as many variations as there are Middle Eastern villages—“and I can make a hundred different recipes out of cracked wheat,” Rindala adds, noting that her tabouleh is rich in parsley and tomatoes.

“The way it’s made in Syria is almost the same,” she says, “but the spices are a little different. Armenians add a spicy red pepper called aleppo.” Her secret (and she is reluctant to share it, but is characteristically generous): She soaks the bulghur in lemon juice.

It’s also a component of kibbeh, for which the bulghur forms what’s essentially a grain-based pastry that contains a filling of ground top round and onions. “In Lebanon, it’s typically filled with a mixture of beef and lamb, but I wanted to offer something to the customers who don’t like lamb.”

For those who do like it—and even for some who think they don’t—there are offerings of kebabs and chops. “We have people tell us they don’t like lamb,” says Robert, “but when they taste it, they can’t believe they’ve never enjoyed it before. I think I sell more lamb than any other meat.”

And Rindala makes a special dressing for it that’s also very popular—but she’s never tasted it. “It’s too spicy for me,” she says with a laugh.

Falafel, Rindala explains, “is made in Egypt only with chickpeas and lots of cilantro. In the part of Lebanon I come from, it’s made with both chickpeas and fava beans, which gives it a smoother consistency. And I don’t make it as spicy as it’s done in Egypt.” Garlic and onions also are components, but this is one of the few dishes without the all seven of the seven spices. “I put in a lot of coriander, some cumin, and black and white pepper.”

She has adapted recipes to suit diner demands; thus, the stuffed grape leaves are filled with rice, tomatoes, parsley, onions and lemon juice—but no meat. “In Lebanon, we also add ground lamb, but we wanted to offer some meatless items. We serve them with yogurt on top because the leaves are a thick, so it’s good to have something to dip them into.”

Moussaka may have the most dramatic regional variations. What in Greece is a meat stew topped with béchamel here is made with eggplant. “I fry eggplant slices, drain them and put them into a casserole with potatoes, onion, chickpeas and garlic, and it’s finished with a fresh tomato sauce. And I season it with cinnamon, which is used in many different moussaka recipes.”

We talked long enough to see the arrival of what would be a stream of dinner guests, which underscored the ambition the Rahals share to expand the operation in the near future. And Robert also promotes his heritage through an Internet-based radio station (accessible through the restaurant’s website) that plays music from the Middle East. “I have listeners all over the world,” he says. “A lot of them are Lebanese, but I offer other Arabic programming, and I’ll be adding Greek and Turkish music soon.”

It’s part of the restaurant’s large, multicultural embrace. “We have no customers,” says Robert. “The people who come in here are friends.”

The Phoenicians, 1686 Central Ave, Colonie, 464-4444, Serving Tue-Sat noon-9. AE, D, MC, V.

Metroland Magazine, 25 September 2014

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