COLONIE We found a cozy Middle Eastern oasis for dinner last Monday night following the winter storm that turned all the trees along our Central Avenue route into captivating crystal sculptures.
Phoenicians Restaurant specializes in Lebanese and Middle Eastern cuisine, and if you crave traditional ethnic food that you eat mostly with your hands — like falafel or pita bread dredged through hummus, tabouleh or baba ghanouj — you’ll love Phoenicians.
The restaurant is a family-run business. Owner Robert Rahal — who pronounces his first name “Row-bare” and who owns Robert’s Fine Jewelry across the road — was the gregarious host and server on the evening we visited. He told us his wife, Rindala, does the cooking. He’s responsible for the beautiful murals that adorn all the walls and the ceiling.
After scanning the menu for probably longer than necessary, we ordered a couple of starters — a sampler platter of appetizers for one ($8.99), which was easily enough for two, and tabouleh ($5.99), which is a refreshing salad of cracked wheat (bulgur), chopped parsley, tomatoes, garlic, green onions and mint with a dressing of lemon juice, garlic and olive oil.
WHERE: 1686 Central Ave., Colonie; 464-4444; phoeniciansofalbany.com
WHEN: 4-9 p.m. daily
OTHER INFO: All major credit cards accepted; handicapped accessible
The meze (appetizer) platter consisted of hummus, baba ghanouj, tabouleh, falafel and grape leaves, a great assortment of dishes typical in Lebanese cuisine. The hummus, a savory paste of chickpea, tahini, garlic and lemon juice, was garnished with parsley and extra virgin olive oil. A basket of pita bread, which was refilled during our visit, was perfect for dipping in the hummus, as well as in the baba ghanouj, which is a purée of roasted eggplant with tahini, garlic and lemon juice. (Tahini, which is featured in many Middle Eastern cuisines, is a paste of ground sesame seeds.)
It would be difficult for me to select a favorite among the appetizers. But, the falafel, which as anyone who’s eaten street food in New York knows, is a fried cake of ground chickpeas, herbs, bread crumbs and eggs that makes great stuffing for pita bread, and the stuffed grape leaves were certainly in the running.
A word about the service: It was fast and efficient. Our server-host was quite solicitous and ever present, happy to explain any dishes we might have questions about.
I chose the Chicken Shawarma ($14.99) for my entrée. Though shawarmas are often served in wraps or with pita bread, the Phoenicians’ version is marinated chicken breast slow-cooked on a vertical rotisserie and served over rice with a garnish of julienned pickled turnips. A dollop of white horseradish sauce provided an interesting accompaniment. The dish was delicious and a generous portion; at least half of it was packed up to take home.
Beverly’s Lamb Kabobs ($19.99) were delicious — two skewers of grilled lamb chunks served over rice with the same horseradish sauce and pickled turnip pieces on the side. The lamb was particularly noteworthy for its great charcoal flavor.
We topped off our meals with Lebanese coffee — which is strong stuff and served without cream and sweetener, though you probably could have them if you asked.
Our host persuaded us to accept a complimentary dessert and, after some protests, we relented. It was Mhallabiyeh, a specialty of the house, consisting of a chilled milk and cornstarch pudding finished with pomegranate syrup, roasted coconut, pistachios and honey. It was delightful with its multilayers of flavor, silky consistency and the absence of cloying sweetness.
Other dessert choices, all for $4 or $5, included the requisite baklava, a tiramisu, crême brûlée and rice pudding.
The menu includes many of the dishes you’d find in other Mediterranean restaurants — shawarmas and kabobs of beef, lamb or chicken; kafta, which is grilled ground beef and lamb mixed with onions and parsley; fattoush, a salad of tomatoes, mixed greens, radishes, green peppers, cucumbers, onions and lemon juice with a touch of sumac and extra virgin olive oil and toasted pita for $5.99.
Appetizers include moussaka, the classic layered eggplant dish, and kibbeh balls, which are made with ground beef, cracked wheat and onions and served with yogurt ($4.99).
You can also order lentil soup or the soup of the day, which was a cream of artichoke the evening we visited.
One of the things I love about Middle Eastern food is the aroma — strong scents of lemon and exotic spices that we don’t experience every day. Certainly this was the case at Phoenicians.
We left the place in a satisfied state, toting our heavy take-away carton full of pita bread, tabouleh, lamb kabobs and a lot of Chicken Shawarma. Our tab, for two entrees, two appetizers and coffees came to $64.96 with tax and tip.
Phoenicians has a selection of wines available, including two from the Middle East. They’re both reds, one of them from Israel and one from Lebanon, and they’re priced at about $7 per glass.