Thursday, May 7, 2009

Shahrazad Restaurant

I don't know of a more perfect cuisine for a warm Spring night than Middle Eastern. When Milwaukee thaws… and I mean, really thaws, there's a sort of electricity that's unique to us. We've weathered another winter, came out alive, with most of our appendages still intact, and we're ready. Ready for what? Well, the sweltering, humidity-laden, mosquito-buzzing, thunderstorm-over-the-lake, tornado siren symphony we call Summer.

It's during these numbered days that we bask, driving with all the car windows down for the first time in months, pulling out old playlists in iTunes, riding around with that same energized feeling we had when we were teenagers. It's like the weather sets us free.

It was with this liberation that we decided to take a trip to Shahrazad tonight, with the hopes of stoking the fire a bit more.

Shahrazad is one of those places a lot of us have known about for years. It's a sort of a fixture now, co-existing on Oakland with a small army of other restaurants, but seemingly against all odds, it persists. I'm glad. I've been there a few times, my first visit being in 2002.

Shahrazad is kind of murky when it comes to corralling its cuisine: described as "Middle Eastern and Persian," that leaves the door open for quite a bit. It's a sort of cultural buffet -- a little from Lebanon, a little from Turkey, a little from Indo-Pak traditions, a little from Iran/Iraq, a little from Saudi Arabia. What's important is that despite all of the influences, nothing is ever steam-rolled. The menu is terse but diverse enough to satisfy nearly every taste, and you get the distinct feeling, sitting in the dining room, that those cars passing outside might actually be camels, and the slightly warm temperatures inside might actually be cooler than the scorching desert air outside. The illusion is never Disney-esque, it just allows you to drift away from the Rust Belt, and land somewhere near the Fertile Crescent. I like it.

The interior of the restaurant is whimsical, without being heavy-handed. The beautiful Moorish plasterwork on the ceilings and crown moldings is lavishly painted, and every corner is softly lit by metal filigree Moroccan lanterns. There is an immediate whiff of spices upon entering, but nowhere near the heady, almost vaporous scent of an Indian restaurant. The tables are topped with elegant green marble, and white linen napkins sit folded at the ready at every place setting. Music is playing somewhere off in the distance, creating a wonderful sense of place, but never barging in on conversation.

I started off with a glass of my absolute most favorite drink in the entire world: rosewater lemonade. Shahrazad's is heavy and strong, very sweet and with the dark, almost erotic scent and flavor of roses in the forefront. With any other food it would be too sweet, probably cloying, but paired with the subtle heat and spice of Shahrazad's entrées, it's ideal. Cooling, exotic, and refreshing. The one thing I've always pined for is just a little garnish -- a food-grade rose petal would take the tall, fragrant glass to the stars. Just a little something for the eyes to tell the brain what's about to follow is going to be a little more interesting than plain ol' Minute Maid.

We then ordered some Hummus Bin Tahini:

And some falafel:

The hummus was marvelous. After our previous hummus debacle (please see here), I was a bit nervous, but my fears were unfounded. Creamy, smooth, rich and delicate, garnished with sumac, whole chickpeas, parsley, fresh pickled beets and cucumbers, and olive oil. Served with flatbread (and more, and more, and more, as our kind server kept bringing us basket upon basket of the warm carb goodness), it was the exact opposite of the hummus at Lulu's.

The falafel was also a pleasant surprise. Lightly spiced, the chickpea meal was coarse and airy, fried crispy and brown on the outside, and taking on just enough of the frying oil to make it indulgent and tasty without being greasy or heavy. The falafel was also garnished with the pickled beets and cukes, as well as a tangy dipping sauce. Lauren was particularly fond of the falafel, which was a wonderful shock for me: I thought she might be the one at the table to pass. When Andy asked her if she wanted the last one, her reply was an enthusiastic, "Uh, yeah!"

As for the entrées, well, here's the run-down:

Lauren: Shawirma sandwich...

Andy: Lamb Shish Kabab...

Myself: Couscous with Chicken...

With each of our dinners, we had the option of either side salad or a cup of the house Lentil soup. Andy and Lauren went with the salad, while I opted for the soup:

The soup was nice way to jump-start my taste buds. Gently spiced, with just a bit of heat, but still entirely recognizable as a legume-based soup, the texture was thick and satisfying. At no point would I have mistaken it for my Grandfather's bean soup, but at the same time, it was never heavy-handed with flavors.

My couscous with chicken was equally delightful. The couscous itself was cooked perfectly, neither rice-fluffy nor oatmeal-gummy, and with a slightly sweet flavor that kept making me think, "creamy." Not sure exactly what it was, but it was tasty, all the same.

The veggies, despite being stewed with a wonderful tomato sauce, held together perfectly. Carrots still had a delicious resistance to them, the potatoes were fall-apart cooked, and the zucchini firm but giving. There was also a yellow, onion-based sauce served, which was lightly spiced, but the tomato sauce was clearly the star of the dish.

The chunks of chicken breast had been skewered and grilled, apparently over an army-surplus jet-engine. The exterior was lightly scorched, but the inside was just done enough, juicy and tender. My only regret was the portion: lots of couscous, lots of veggies and sauce, but only four pieces of chicken... guess you can't have everything...

Andy's lamb was divine. And, in the interest of full disclosure, I'm not a lamb fan. Sure, I like gyros, and lamb curries, and I certainly love my Döners as much as the next guy. But something about straight lamb meat just doesn't excite me: there's a sort of metallic gaminess to it that to me tastes more barnyard than anything. Andy's lamb, however, exploited this flavor, with a strong, spicy marinade, and the high-heat grilling, the distinctly lamb-y flavor was amplified, but also tempered. I'm not sure I could eat an entire plate of it, but then again, I'm not a lamb guy. Please, let this not deter you from ordering a lamb dish: I'm the worst person to review anything with roast or grilled lamb!

Lauren's pita was filled to the brim with grilled chicken breast, diced fine, along with a salad of tomatoes and lettuce, dressed with a tangy and sublime tahini-based sauce. America, if you're reading this: COOK WITH TAHINI. All it takes is a little tahini, some lemon juice, crushed garlic, salt, and maybe just a dash of hot sauce. BOOM! The world's most perfect summer-grilling-sauce.

All in all, our pre-summer visit to Shahrazad was a fun experience, indeed. Everything we ordered exceeded our expectations, the atmosphere is casual and relaxed, and our server was prompt and accommodating, if not a little flustered by the amount of tables she was tending to. I have full faith in recommending Shahrazad, knowing the consistent service and awesome food we've had in the years I've been going. Certainly not Milwaukee's only choice for Middle-Eastern, but without a doubt one of the best.

Report Card:
Atmosphere: A
From the moment you walk in the door, you know you're not in Milwaukee anymore. Clean, with low, moody lighting, and a soft soundtrack, the inside of the restaurant belies the basic storefront exterior.

Prices: B+
Dinners range in the $11-$18 range. A filling, delicious dinner can be had for under $20 for one, including a drink with one free refill, and even an appetizer.

Service: B
Certainly no complaints here. Our server was there when we needed her, but didn't hound us while we were eating (bonus points). My only regret... my soup spoon, MIA!

The Food: A
Authentic, fun, and something for everyone. While certainly not as complicated as a French sauce, or layered as an Indian curry, all the dishes have strong foundations in their preparation methods, and exotic flavors that satisfy novices and experienced foodies alike.

The Details:

Shahrazad Restaurant
(414) 964-5475
2847 N. Oakland Ave.
Milwaukee, WI 53221

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