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B.A. Nilsson

Phoenician Delights

Rita’s Lebanese Café

188 N. Allen St., Albany, 437-3537. Serving Tue-Wed 11-6, Thu-Sat 11-9. AE, D, MC, V.

Cuisine: Lebanese Entrée price range: $8.50 (falafel plate) to $15.50 (mixed grill) Ambiance: deli-ish

By B.A. Nilsson

 

The menu notes that the food is prepared with “the freshest ingredients possible” and according to traditional Phoenician recipes, saluting Lebanon’s ancient heritage.

Phoenicia may be best known as the country that invented the alphabet, but it also was an important center of trade; not surprising when you hug a thriving waterway like the Mediterranean Sea. And, like all Mediterranean countries, it developed a cuisine based on the ready availability of wonderful ingredients, beginning with what’s still a staple: olives and the oil olives yield.

Troy (we’re now talking Capital Region, not ancient Greece) was bidding fair to become the Mediterranean/Middle Eastern restaurant center, but the appearance in uptown Albany of Rita’s redresses the balance on the Hudson’s west side.

“I remember this place,” murmured my friend John, surveying the cozy dining room. “When I was a kid, this was the Courtesy Mart, and my family did all of its shopping here.” Look beyond the walls and partitions and you can picture an old-fashioned grocery store, part of a vanished tradition that once tied together a community. Now we shop in the suburbs and don’t know our neighbors, a wrong that still can be righted by a friendly, thriving neighborhood restaurant.

And there’s no reason a Lebanese place can’t serve that function, especially one as accommodating—and with as tasty a food selection—as this one. Italian restaurants have long been such loci, but there’s no reason why we can’t ease around the Mediterranean and swap baba ghanouj for brasciole.

Before I abandon this soapbox, consider also the amount of money and effort expended by our so-called leaders to vilify much of the Middle East, a cause that succeeds only if we sit, sheeplike, before our TV sets and avoid actually befriending anyone of a different culture. I submit that just a few bites of kibbeh sineyeh is enough to melt away such butt-headed xenophobia.

By the end of my recent meal at Rita’s, I’d made a number of new friends, including Rita Rahal herself. Already I’d met her daughters, who took orders and delivered food, and it was one of them who surprised us with the invitation to enjoy dessert on the house—because we’d visited on Rita’s birthday, “and there’s lots of leftover cake.”

“Excellent!” I said. “And I’ll have a Lebanese coffee.”

“No you won’t,” my wife insisted. “I’m not going to let you keep me up tonight while you moan that you can’t get to sleep.”

I enjoyed a slice of unremarkable (store-bought) birthday cake with a cup of decaf, and Rita explained how she opened this place six months earlier with no restaurant experience but a lot of years catering parties for friends. It’s a familiar story, what I term the anti-CIA approach, where the culinary training is a family legacy.

Wisely, she keeps the menu brief and the hours relatively short. The same fare is offered for lunch and dinner, and the latter is offered only the three busiest nights each week.

Order a sandwich—falafel, marinated beef, chicken, kafta or kibbeh—for $5.50 and you’ve got a lunch as inexpensive as any chain or fast-food joint can offer. Add a side of rice and a soda and it’s still under 10 bucks.

Or make a meal out of one or more of the cold appetizers, all of them vegetarian. Hummus, baba ghanouj and tabouli are what I think of as the Big Three Mediterranean apps, and a serving of each (which includes pita bread) is $5.50. They are, respectively, a chick pea-sesame seed paste, ditto but with roasted eggplant in place of the chick peas and a salad of bulghur seasoned with parsley, mint, tomatoes, onions and more.

Excellent rice-stuffed grape leaves are presented on a $6 plate, or you can do as my table did and get ’em all for $12.50, a sampler that feeds plenty. Garlic is a key to the first two items: It needs to be there in a sufficiency to proclaim its presence—hand then a little bit more to add spice to the dish. I’m delighted to discover that Rita is a dab hand at garlickizing.

The fatoush salad ($5) is another garlic-rich way to begin (or complement) a meal, with the flavors of cinnamon and sumac rounding out the mix of greens and veggies. Cinnamon also flavors the rice that’s served under the kebabs, which are twin skewers of beef, chicken or kafta ($13.50 each), the last-named a compote of minced, seasoned beef. Or take a single skewer apiece of all three (as I did) for $15.50. It’s a lot of dinner, but immensely satisfying. And served with a side dish of garlic paste, more satisfying still.

My daughter, having grown up amid a variety of restaurants, loves to explore new flavors. And Lebanese cuisine is among her favorites. “I hope they have meat pies,” she declared en route—and there they were, listed as an appetizer ($6), but a dinner-sized collection of four triangular pastry shells filled with seasoned beef and tomatoes.

Avoiding factory-farm beef is one of my wife’s new imperatives, so she was happy to find an entrée so rich and satisfying that one never minded its meatlessness. Mjadara ($8.50) is a kind of pilaf that mixes lentils and rice. As with everything we sampled, it’s nicely seasoned; served with a side of fatoush salad, it’s a filling meal.

Likewise with kibbeh sineyeh ($9.50), a baked dish with a crust of ground beef and bulghur and a filling of ground beef and onions. There’s nothing hamburger-like about this, and even the least adventurous diner should find it a treat.

By the time we finished our meal, we felt like family. We’d return anyway, but that makes Rita’s even more compelling a destination.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Chef André Begnaud, who served as executive sous chef at two of Emeril Lagasse’s restaurants, will cater the Ninth Annual Music Haven Community Gala celebration in Schenectady’s Central Park from 5:30 to 7:15 PM on Monday (Aug. 28). The menu includes smoked brisket, barbecued chicken, green beans with pecans, corn maque choux, Cajun/Creole potato salad, Louisiana slaw, and dessert beignets. The Gala marks the last concert of the summer series, which features zydeco master Geno Delafose and French Rockin’ Boogie on the Music Haven stage at 7:30 PM. The Gala’s $55 ticket includes VIP seating for the concert, the pre-show Louisiana bayou-style barbecue with dinner entertainment by the Ramblin’ Jug Stompers (Michael Eck & Greg Haymes), and post-concert café du monde dessert. The concert itself is free to the public as usual. For more information, visit www.music havenstage.org or call the Central Park office at 382-5152 or the Chamber of Schenectady County at 372-5656. . . . Chameleon on the Lake (251 Stafford Bridge Rd., Saratoga) is hosting a SPAC Food and Wine Fundraiser at 6:30 PM on Sept. 7 at the restaurant, which perches picturesquely on the northern inlet of Saratoga Lake. The event includes not only creative food and wine pairings but also Latin music and a complimentary dance lesson. The menu includes mushrooms stuffed with gorgonzola and sausage, paired with Sheldrake Chardonnay from Australia; coconut-crusted halibut with a Thai curry sauce, together with a Joseph Carr Sauvignon Blanc from the Napa Valley; and coulat steak with a morel cherry sauce paired with Joseph Carr 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon. The price is $110 per person, inclusive, and you can reserve a seat by phoning the restaurant at 581-3928. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland (e-mail: food@banilsson.com).


We want your feedback

Have you eaten at any recently reviewed restaurants? Agree or disagree with B.A.? Let us know what you think...

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What you're saying...

I very much enjoyed eating dinner at Daniel's at Ogdens. You review described my dining experience perfectly. This wasn't the case with Pancho's. I much prefer Garcia's or Lake View Tavern for Mexican fare. I agree that a restaurant can have an off night so I'll give the second unit on Central Avenue a try.

Mary Kurtz
Castleton

First, yes I miss the star ratings, bring it back. Second, I haven't had a chance to visit Poncho's yet, but I especially like reading the reviews.

Pat Russo
East Greenbush

I would travel to Amsterdam to this restaurant - it's not that far away. People traveled from all over to eat at Ferrandi's in Amsterdam. From his background, I'm sure the chef's sauce is excellent and that is the most important aspect of an Italian restaurant. Sometimes your reviewer wastes words on the negative aspects of a restaurant. I'm looking forward to trying this restaurant - I look forward to Metroland every Thursday especially for the restaurant review. And by the way Ferrandi's closed its Amsterdam location and is opening a new bistro on Saratoga Lake - Should be up and running in May. It will be called Saratoga Lake Bistro. It should be great!

Peggy Van Deloo
Schenectady

So happy to see you finally made out!! Our experiences have always been wonderful, the staff is extremely professional, the food subperb, and the atmosphere very warm and comfortable. Let us not forget to mention "Maria" the pianist on Friday and Saturday nights.

Charlie and Marie
Michaels Restaurant

I have been to Michael's several times and each time I have enjoyed it very much. The food is delicious and the staff is great. Also, Maria Riccio Bryce plays piano there every Friday and Saturday evening, a nice touch to add to the already wonderful atmosphere. It is also easy to find, exit 27 off the thruway to 30 north for about 5 miles.

N. Moore
Albany

Wonderful!

Elaine Snowdon
Albany

We loved it and will definitely go back.

Rosemarie Rafferty

Absolutely excellent. The quality and the flavor far surpasses that of other Indian restaurants in the area. I was a die-hard Shalimar fan and Tandoor Palace won my heart. It blows Ghandi out of the water. FInally a decent place in Albany where you can get a good dinner for less than $10 and not have tacos. The outdoor seating is also festive.

Brady G'sell

Indian is my favorite cuisine available in the area--I loved Tandoor Palace. We all agreed that the tandoori chicken was superior to other local restaraunts, and we also tried the ka-chori based on that intriguing description-delicious.

Kizzi Casale
Albany

Your comments about the Indian / Pakistani restaurants being as "standardized as McDonald's" shows either that you have eaten at only a few Indian / Pakistani restaurants or that you have some prejudices to work out. That the physical appearances are not what you would consider fancy dancy has no bearing on the food. And after all, that is what the main focus of the reviews should be. Not the physical appearances, which is what most of your reviews concentrate on.
A restaurant like The Shalimar, down on Central Avenue, may not look the greatest, but the food is excellent there. And the menu has lots of variety - beef, lamb, vegetarian, chicken, and more..

Barry Uznitsky
Guilderland



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