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From Lebanon With Love

By B.A. Nilsson

The Phoenicians Restaurant

1686 Central Ave., Albany, 464-4444, phoeniciansofalbany.com. Serving 11-10 daily. AE, D, MC, V.

Cuisine: Lebanese and Mediterranean

Entrée price range: $6 (falafel wrap) to $20 (lamb kabob dinner)

Ambiance: small and homey

No matter how big of an Albany booster you may be, you have to admit that the view along Central Avenue gets tiresome. After spending a pleasant hour in the Phoenicians, which is about a mile west of Wolf Road, I was unprepared for the sight of that street again.

The dining room is fairly humble—a dozen tables, glass-topped over red cloth, with the service counter and kitchen taking up about half the space—but the decor is bright and unexpected. The white upper walls and ceiling are covered with custom renditions of Lebanese points of interest, current and historic. There’s Heliopolis, the legendary Bekaa Valley site, and nearby Zahle; Cedars of Lebanon, as depicted on the country’s flag; and, taking up an entire corner, a lovingly-rendered picture of a Lebanese family gathering.

I got to witness the latter in real time, as owner Robert Rahal and his wife Rindala sat with family and friends for a late lunch at a neighboring table. By this time, the gregarious Robert already had made my acquaintance, so it was only natural that they should send over an item they were enjoying, something that’s not on the menu (at least not yet): a delicate, tasty, warm compote of lentils and rice.

It was almost too much. I’d already gone through a couple of appetizers and was contemplating the voluminous mixed shawarma plate ($17), which I ultimately couldn’t finish.

I’m a sucker for those rotisserie-cooked loaves. Two types are featured here: chicken and a beef-lamb combo, rendered flavorful and juicy through the traditional technique of filling the rotisserie spit and seasoning the meats. It’s the same meat that goes into a Greek gyro and a Turkish doner kebab, and too often it comes out of the freezer rather than off the spit. You can have it in a pita wrap (chicken $7, beef $8), or as a full-fledged dinner served over rice with a serving of fattoush (a salad of tomatoes and mixed greens with Lebanese seasoning, hummus, pita slices and a thick, pungent garlic sauce known as toum). The garlic sauce is so popular—not to mention, addictive—that Rahal says he goes through 10 gallons of it each week.

Make the meal whatever size you like starting with meza (appetizers): nearly a dozen different small plates that include stuffed grape leaves ($7), hummus ($5), baba ganouj ($6), moussaka ($7), a baked spinach pie called fatayer ($4), a meat pie called sfiha ($4), kibbeh ($5), and even a generous sampler for two ($17). I sampled the falafel ($5), a generous serving of four delicious deep-fried chickpea patties topped with tahini and served with salad.

Lentil soup is always available ($4), and the salad selection includes the aforementioned fattoush ($6), the well-known bulghar-based tabouleh ($6), a yogurt-cucumber mix called laban bi khyar ($4) and a marinated mix of artichoke hearts ($5). There’s a special salad with grilled chicken for $10.

Have a pita wrap for a lighter meal. It’s a sandwich that costs from $6 to $8, and can include falafel, shish kabob, a ground-beef mixture known as kafta, grilled chicken breast and, of course, the shawarma meats. There’s also a veggie option, one of the many, many vegetarian options that are marked as such on the menu.

Dinners, as described above, are a more complete plate, and Rahal guarantees you won’t leave hungry. Have chicken or beef carved from the rotisserie, or try the kafta kabob ($17), a filet mignon or lamb kabob ($20 each), a veggie version ($12) or a falafel platter ($14). The restaurant also offers a hot or cold vegetarian platter for $16 with a wide selection of options.

Rahal has owned the jewelry store across the street for many years, and eyed this building as it changed identities over the years. Once he committed to acquiring it, he spent another four years on its refurbishment, doing much of the work himself. When it opened as a restaurant five months ago, it was thus a long-anticipated culmination.

“I love people,” he says, explaining his interest in a business he’s never before run. “I love the one-on-one. That’s why I talk to the customers when I’m here. I love the conversations, and want to be sure there’s that personal touch whenever anybody dines here.”

With Rindala supervising the kitchen and his daughter working the floor, it’s very much a family-run business. And he wants to keep it family-oriented. “A woman called me last week to ask if she can bring her children. I said to her, ‘How can you ask that?’ She said that she talked to another restaurant that told her children were not allowed. Of course she can bring children here. When I go out to dinner, if I can’t bring my children, I don’t eat there.”

Business has been going extremely well, he says. Last Saturday was busy enough to prompt a line at the door. “There is so much support here for Middle Eastern food,” he says. “Much more than I anticipated.”

He describes the Phoenicians as just “the tip of the iceberg. I have many more plans.” And they’re food-related.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

The Capital Region Wine Festival at Proctors, dubbed “Romancing the Grape,” takes place this weekend (Feb. 27-28) at the theater in Schenectady and includes the onsite participation of more than 70 wineries. The festival kicks off at 7 PM on Friday with a lavish dinner prepared by Yono Purnomo of Yono’s Restaurant, who will present a menu that features his award-winning French-Indonesian specialties paired with Joseph Carr wines by sommelier Dominic Purnomo. The cost for dinner is $125 per person, and reservations are required. The festival continues on Saturday from noon to 4 with the Grand Tasting, during which participating wineries will present hundreds of wines alongside culinary delights from some of the area’s best restaurants ($50 per person). Also offered on Saturday will be a series of seminars: The One-Hour Wine Expert with Kevin Zraly, Sherry and Tapas with Andy Seymour, Cheese and Wine Pairings, The New Renaissance in Tuscany, and A Wine and Food Romance with Yono and Dominic Purnomo. Seminars require a $25 paid reservation. For more info, visit proctors.org or call the box office at 346-6204. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland.



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