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Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Traveling with The Phoenicians

THE PHOENICIANS RESTAURANT opened in 2007 in an unassuming building on Albany’s Central Ave., not far from Fuller Road. Business has increased enough during the past decade that owner Robert Rahal dreamed of moving – and found a spot in a Fuller Road strip mall. “We opened there on Black Friday,” says Rahal, “November 25 of last year. But I’d been working for 725 days to get into this space. Working non-stop. Believe me, it’s been a project of love.”

Robert Rahal and Joe Marino
Photo by B. A. Nilsson
He has traded 800 square feet for a space well over ten times larger. If you visited during its Deli Warehouse days, you won’t recognize it: it’s been transformed into an array of differently functioning spaces. There’s a bar to your left as you enter; before you are few tables in a casual dining area. The formal dining room is to the right, and it’s flanked by a private dining room and a hookah lounge with couches and pillows. “I’ve been doing a lot of the work myself,” Rahal explains, “to make sure I get the place the way I want it to be.” 

But there’s even more. A deli section is being developed, and a banquet hall will be opened later in the year. There’s also a space near the front of the building that brings it full-circle, in a way: This is his jewelry store, which is the business with which he first greeted Albany. Robert’s Fine Jewelry also had a Central Avenue storefront; now they will be combined.

The Phoenicians has Lebanese fare at its heart, reflecting the country in which Robert and his wife, Rindala, were born. But the relocated restaurant is revamping its menu to include a wider array of Mediterranean cuisines, especially Italian. And to help with that, chef Joe Marino has joined the kitchen.

Marino ran Carappoli’s Family Restaurant in Delmar and was chef-owner of Betty Boop’s Diner in Albany during its heyday. That’s where he proved himself a master of the breakfast menu as well as a fine Italian-food chef, and both of those talents will be featured here.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
“We’re going to start with an Italian night every Wednesday, beginning in March,” he explains, “with a two-for-$21.95 special. We’ll have rigatoni vodka with chicken, fettuccine Alfredo, parmigianas, all the favorites.” The lunch menu will feature Italian items daily: “We’ll be doing lasagna, chicken parmigiana, eggplant parmigiana, and different types of pasta,” he says. “We’ll also have reubens, Philly cheese steaks, burgers, and wraps.”

Although breakfast will be available every day, Saturdays and Sundays will feature a Mediterranean-American brunch from 11-3.

There’s a type of meatloaf unique to the Middle East, known variously as gyro or doner kebab. In Lebanon, it’s shawarma, and, as Robert points out, there’s a lot of bad shawarma out there. “Don’t be fooled by the imitations,” he says, noting that what’s often passed for shawarma is in fact a frozen patty. “I was the original shawarma person in the area.”

You’ll see the two vertical rotisserie units as you explore the new space, rotisseries on which the component shawarma meats slow-cook for many hours. As Rindala, who is the chef for the Lebanese items, explains, “We inherited shawarma from Turkey. It supposedly goes back to the time of the Ottoman Empire, when a nobleman had to feed a huge family gathering and wanted to come up with one good dish that would satisfy everyone. He put meat on a horizontal skewer and invented the kebab. After many years, someone turned the skewer vertical, and it produced a different flavor.”

A horizontal skewer of meat drips much of its fat away. When it roasts vertically, the fat drips into the meat throughout the cooking process. Even before Rindala assembles the meat, it’s marinated for a few days in a tangy Lebanese Seven-Spice Blend.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Along with shawarma in a sandwich or the basis of a generous dinner platter, the Phoenicians menu features grilled meat – lamb is a particular favorite – Lebanese moussaka (an eggplant and chickpea stew), and vegetarian items like falafel.

The falafel here is a little different, explains Rindala, “because in the part of Lebanon I come from, it’s made with both chickpeas and fava beans, which gives it a smoother consistency.” Garlic and onions also are components, but this is one of the few Lebanese dishes she prepares without the all seven of the seven spices. “I put in a lot of coriander, some cumin, and black and white pepper.”

The sense of inclusiveness that the Phoenicians is cultivating is quite deliberate, a salute, says Robert, to the support he has received from his adopted home – he got out of Lebanon during a particularly bad period of strife – as he settled here to run his businesses and raise his family. “Everyone is welcome here,” he says, “and I’m sure you’ll find something here to enjoy.”
The Phoenicians, 71 Fuller Rd, Albany, 518-464-4444, Serving breakfast daily from 8-2, brunch Sat-Sun 11-3, lunch daily 11-3, dinner daily 4-10.

The Alt, 21 February 2017

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