Manama Grille, 180 Delaware Ave., Delmar, 478-0800, manamagrille.com. Serving dinner 4:30-10 Tue-Sun. AE, D, MC, V.
Cuisine: Persian-edged Middle Eastern
Entrée price range: $10 (Manama salad) to $17 (seafood mixed grill)
Ambience: well-disguised strip-mall
Don’t visit this Persian restaurant and think, “Ah, another kebab house.” This is the cuisine that lays claim to being the originator of the kebab, across whose borders the grilled comestible traveled until it became identified with Middle Eastern cuisine in general. I wrote “Persian-edged Middle Eastern” in the cuisine category only to keep from scaring you away. You’re actually invited, so far as I can tell, to go the Full Iranian here.
The menu reinforces this with an approachable intimacy. The 11 items comprising the “Grille Specialties” section are, if not actual kebabs, as kebab-ish as you can get without thrusting a grill-rod through the object. Lamb chops ($17) differ only insofar as their grilling tools are built in, and the cut of meat invites it to be cooked rarer than the kebab version ($16). Which, when it hit the table, was nothing like any lamb kebab I’ve tasted before. The meat is marinated in yogurt (as with Indian tandoori meats), and the small bit of resultant sourness was pleasantly completed by a wonderland of aromatic spices, sparkling with cinnamon, and the spicy thrust of garlic.
I lucked into a dining companion who declared this her favorite cuisine, but, although Brandi generously offered to share, I could sense a protectiveness that I wasn’t as comfortable breaching as I am with family members. But I had taste enough to determine that I’ve never enjoyed a better version. The seasoning challenge is to enhance without obscuring. Lamb is a sturdy enough meat to stand up to a wide range of flavors and heat-intensifiers, and I find that it triumphs in such settings far more than beef. Chicken, on the other hand, is a follower, taking its cues from whatever other flavors come near.
Our server recommended the chicken labne ($13). It’s another marinated-in-yogurt dish, so I worried about a lack of contrast. There was no need to worry. The chicken chunks were plump and sweet, redolent of sumac, juicy to a fare-thee-well. I had some the next day, cold. It was still just as delicious.
Both entrées arrived a-sizzle on sizzle platters with a steaming accompaniment of sliced squash, carrots and onions, lemon slices also provided (but I forgot, or saw no need, to use mine). Each also was accompanied by a side dish of bright-yellow long-grain rice, each grain of it declaring its separate integrity.
Other kebab ingredients are shrimp ($15), salmon ($15), beef filet ($15) and tahini chicken ($13). A half-dozen vegetarian items include an array of seasonal veggies tossed in garlic ($11), veggie kebabs ($11), okra with garlic and turmeric ($11) and spinach and mushrooms in cream sauce ($11). We were spared the need to order a side of kamachi, the traditional bread ($3) because it came with our appetizers. That list includes stuffed grape leaves ($7), falafel ($6), hummus ($6), a compote of cucumbers and tomatoes in yogurt called mast o khair ($4) as well as traditional soups and salads, including the $10 Manama salad built of dates, onions, tomatoes, feta, almonds and walnuts.
Unable to choose between Manama mutabel ($7), which promised roasted eggplant and tomatoes, and a garlic-and-fava bean dip called ful mudammus ($6), we ordered both and were served side-by-side portions of contrastingly colored spreads.
You’ve probably had a white-bean dip before, but the sumac-enhanced fava-garlic combo presented an unexpected roundness of flavor, somehow taming the pungent garlic with a dynamic context that raced throughout the palate without assaulting any particular flavor sensor. Similarly, the darker eggplant dip sidestepped baba ganoush-ishness with the sweetness of the tomato that was worked into it.
Manama Grille owner Leo Ashiq also owns the Shalimar restaurant just up the plaza strip; the newer (14-month-old) Grille is named for his native city, Manama, the capital of Bahrain. Delaware Plaza has a trio of food-service spaces at the apex of its ell; Manama Grille is in the location that formerly housed Carappoli’s Family Restaurant. It’s not fancy. It’s comfortable. Service was prompt, managed by a single waitress who was able to stay on top of the several tables that filled around us early arrivals.
No alcohol is served here, but there’s a selection of soda, juice, coffee, tea, a yogurt drink called doogh and sherbet albaloo, described as a mix of sweet cherry juice and sparkling water. And, in the shouldn’t-have-done-it-but-we-did department, some fine desserts, if the samples we enjoyed are an indication. Loz ajwa ($5) is a dark, dense date-and-almond roll, while “deliciously Manama” ($6) describes a light sponge cake topped with chopped dates. Both are served atop a cream sauce; neither is (thankfully) excessively sweet. Both are unique in my experience and further reason to explore this cuisine.