Sunday, December 28, 2008

Restaurant Review: Tanoreen (Brooklyn)

Some good friends with little prior Arab culinary experience yesterday wanted to eat Middle Eastern while we were in the city. I've only ever found one really good place in NY. Admittedly I haven't tried nearly everything available (please do send recommendations if you have them! -- I see an excellently reviewed place in Astoria for example I've never tried) and I've found several ok places in Manhattan, but the only really fantastic place I found before was the excellent Taj al-Mulouk in the East Village which unfortunately closed down. But went poking around to find something for our friends and came across Tanoreen (http://tanoreen.com/) in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Bit of a trek out there, but we had a car and decided to go for it.

Now, in advance, I am not a foodie.  I have admittedly plain tastes in most instances, I don't know my culinary terms well, and no doubt any good food critic could rip what I'm about to write to shreds.  Whatever, fine, I admit I'm no expert, I'm just writing what I tasted and thought, so take it or leave it!

Tanoreen: Fantastic!  Chef is a Palestinian lady from Nazareth (or at least her mother was, don't know if she's 2nd gen American) who personally runs the place and checks in on the customers. You can read more about her and the restaurant's history on the website. Not a super-fancy place, certainly nothing you'd plan on for an expensive romantic evening, but no total hole in the wall either.  An open kitchen from the smallish dining room and crowded while we were there (and you can see why below) with simple tables and simple decor with Fayrouz and 50s-era Arab crooners and dames singing in the background.  Mid-afternoon on Saturday it was packed, we had to wait for a party to clear (first of 2 parties while we were there) to get a table.

For the staples, the Hummus was fantastic, lovely slightly creamy but still substantive texture, a real but not overwhelming tang (all my friends who are fans of Israeli "kchu-moose" are going to get an earful and sent to Tanoreen next time they try to rope me into some more of that butter-cream rubbish).  Combined with a nice selection of breads (including a fantastic crispy Mina'ish!), the Hummus was the perfect start to a great meal.  Noting as well that the just-right "tang" of the Hummus was a flavor sensation that seemed to get hit on the perfect note on a number of dishes ranging from salads to Mina'ish to grilled chicken.

The Tabboule was some of the best I've ever had.  Somewhat less finely chopped greens gave it added texture, the lemon and onion flavor was pleasantly strong but not overwhelming, the tomatoes red and juicy and perfectly sized and quantified.  Visually, the Tabbouleh was colorful and appetizing coming in a heaping deep green pile with nice chunks of moderately-sized deep red tomato cubes, and the taste confirmed all my best expectations.

Kibbeh which I like but am almost always left somewhat disappointed in was a real treat, coming out not just well spiced and flavored, but crucially, not dry.  The meat and whole thing was properly but not overly moist while the bulghur, pine nuts, meat, and spices all combined gave it a strong but not overwhelming savory flavor.

I'm not a huge grape leaf fan, but my wife is and went for the warm ones stuffed with ground lamb, rice, and spices which she proclaimed a hit.  She liked that they had more substance and flavor, as she has generally been disappointed by a lack of both with little more than rice often the only effort put into them at other places.  One of our friends who had never tried dug in as well and judging by the number he ate, agreed with the judgement.

And last on the mezze list, we ordered a heaping pile of Fattoush (some of which is sitting in my fridge right now calling out to me), which once again hit the nail on the head.  Tangy, perfect fresh ingredients, nice bit of sumac blended in.  And unlike other places I've been where the toasted pita seems an afterthought of huge wedges tossed on the side, here they were sized right and blended throughout to give an occasional pleasing crunch.  My one complaint on the Fattoush is the addition of shreds of iceberg lettuce.  Felt like a very unnatural addition.  It didn't ruin it by any means, it just seemed like a very plain, out-of-place addition in an otherwise flavorful and nicely textured salad.  More of a distraction than a detraction, it would have been better without, but it was still great Fattoush.

For the main dishes (all of which were wonderfully presented and visually appetizing), we ordered a daily seafood special known as Sayyadiyeh ("Fisherman's special" or something like that translated guess you could call it), mixed grill, some extra chicken kabob, and the shrimp platter.  The Sayyadiyeh was a big hit with the ladies (including my wife who is always a big seafood fan), being a spiced, grilled Tilapia filet, along with a slightly sweet and strongly flavored darkened rice full of nuts and topped by a couple shrimp.  Personally I found the Tilapia fine enough but nothing overwhelming, but the ladies were a huge fan declaring the spices and flavor their favorite entree of the night.  The rice on this one I found creative and flavorful though, with a nice mix of nuts with a bit of crunch, and a sweet-ish, raisin-like flavor that was unexpected and quite pleasant.  The shrimp on top though tasted like the afterthought they were, definitely on the dry side.

The mixed grill and the chicken kabob (which both came with another heaping salad which was similarly wonderful as the Fattoush, though lacking in toasted pita or sumac - and thankfully lacking in the iceberg lettuce) was another set of winners, though I thought both should have had a more meat and less rice quantity-wise.  The rice on these was a more standard fare middle eastern white rice with vermicelli, definitely tasty and a nice side complement, but nothing out of the ordinary.  The chicken kabob one of our friends found ordinary, but I thought was really excellent.  A strong lemon flavor infused the (too small) chunks of meat which were cooked well, meaning not too raw and not too dry, just right.  The lamb kabob (also too small) in the mixed grill could have had stronger flavors, but it was good with at least some spice that gave a nice taste beyond just the meat, and cooked just right for our somewhat discombobulated preferences.  While I prefer a bit of pink, my wife can't stand any, so we ordered well done which normally just ruins things for texture, but they managed even removing all the pink to produce a tender meat.  I can only presume as others at the place have said, that ordered with a bit less cooking it would be melt-in-your-mouth, but even with our imperfect order I found it pleasant.  On the Kofta, this was the one thing which I found their cooking to have made a little too much on the dry side.  Not majorly so, just a bit much.  But the spice and the flavor, the spice and the flavor!!  Oh, more than made up for the not quite perfect cooking.  Again, as with Kibbeh I like it but am not generally a huge fan of Kofta, but this stuff was wonderful.  You could see little green flecks of spice and the flavors just danced in my mouth.  Highly recommended.

Finally on the entrees (actually it was the first to arrive) was the shrimp.  Plainly described on their menu as "Sauteed with garlic, olive oil, and lemon", me and one of our guests decided it was hands down the best entree of the evening in flavor.  If that's all the sauce it was cooked in really was, you could have fooled us.  The sauce was slightly brownish, just a little on the sweet side, but mildly spiced as well, giving the whole thing a bit more flavor kick than you might expect from those simple components.  Really wonderful.  Only problem was, nowhere near enough!  If the grills didn't give quite enough meat, this one had little more than an appetizer's-worth around a big pile of the ordinary white rice with vermicelli.  6 small-to-medium sized shrimp was all.  You can't make something that good and only tease people with a few of them!

Desserts were ok.  The Baklava I thought was a nice balance, neither dripping with syrup to the point of losing the pastry or lacking to the point of being dry (though dryer on outside, more syrup-infused inside).  We tried the Harissa which I'd never had before, so when I say I found it plain, I think that's more my judgement on what it is than how they cooked it.  All the others at the table really liked it and declared it their favorite dessert.  And finally the Sahlab, which was again a first try (I've seen Sahlab served up as a drink at Cairo 'ahwas, hadn't ever seen it as a caramel-pudding-consistency-like dessert before, but maybe that's just my inexperience in such things).  The ladies declared it tasted like Tide detergent, but our friend from Uruguay said that while he agreed, it brought back happy memories from childhood -- of eating detergent as a kid?! :) -- and he loved it.  They had a selection of teas and coffees for those of you into such things.  I asked if they had Karkaday but unfortunately not that day at least (they did have mint tea though if you like that), so we called it a very full quits at that point, leaving more than satisfied with a few bags of leftovers and big smiles on our faces.

So there you have it.  Maybe a few details here and there fell short, but I'd give the food a 9 out of 10 and the service an 8.  Atmosphere perhaps a bit short, call it a 6.  But when the people are friendly and food is fantastic, you better believe I become a huge fan.  If you can make your way to Brooklyn, eat at Tanoreen.

For other reviews around the web, see the following:

http://nymag.com/listings/restaurant/tanoreen-caterers/

http://events.nytimes.com/gst/nycguide.html?detail=restaurants&id=1081241480504

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