"Did you just pick that flavor at random?" the smiling man behind the counter asked, head cocked, after I'd asked for a cup of cardamom Turkish coffee-flavored gelato.
"Yes..." I responded hesitantly. "Why?"
"That's my favorite flavor!" he grinned back. "Do you want to try some first?" He proceeded to hand me a spoonful of the soft, tan-colored gelato. "You can try as much as you want. Try some other flavors, too! How about dark chocolate?" He handed me another spoonful; each bite went down like sweet silk. I eventually decided to get a half-and-half cup of both, and tried to make the slightly bitter, warmly spiced, wholly enjoyable dessert last as long as possible as I enjoyed the view of the new restaurant and its winding, cafeteria-style line from the comfort of the coffee lounge.
The gelato and the extremely helpful, friendly service at the new Arpi's Phoenicia Deli (12151 Westheimer) are among its strongest points fresh out of the gate. The strong latte I had with my dessert and the stunning, dramatic interior were equally impressive. And although the place only opened up last week, the parking lot and lunch line were already filled to bursting with eager diners today at 11 a.m.
In light of the tragically misguided anti-Muslim, anti-Middle East sentiment coming out of Florida, I find that the swell of people -- from all walks of life -- excited to eat at this brand-new Lebanese restaurant speaks loudly to the drastically different and admirably accepting nature of things here in multi-cultural Houston. (Not that all Lebanese are Muslim, however; the families that own Zabak's and Abdallah's, for example, are Christian, a strong minority group in the country.) It doesn't hurt, of course, that the new deli and coffee shop are offshoots of one of the city's most enduringly popular grocery stores: the giant Phoenicia market which looms next door.
Some of those same grocery store items are for sale at the new deli, including trays of baklava, French presses, exotic candy bars and loaves of fresh pita bread. Winding your way through the line, it's tempting to pick up some to-go items along the way. But you'd be missing the entire point of the cleverly designed line and steam table.
Unlike restaurants that make you choose a main and two sides, the cafeteria line at Arpi's allows you to choose from several different sizes (my favorite being the "petit" size for $1.50) of dozens of Lebanese specialties, from hummus and baba ganoush to kibbe and tabbouleh. You can easily build your very own, very personalized meze platter from the enormous spread.
The bright, airy space allows plenty of light to filter in from the floor-to-ceiling windows; it has the dual benefit of not making you feel like you're dining in a dim, boring cafeteria as well as allowing the richly hued dishes to shine up at you like jewels -- beets looking like rubies, huge green peas like sapphires.
Unfortunately, not all of the food on the line tastes as good as it looks.
The good: Arpi's grape leaves are the second best I've ever had, only behind my best friend's mother's wara'enab that come straight from Dearborn. They nearly fall apart on the way to your mouth, dripping with oil and rice and lemon juice...but no meat. This is the Lebanese way, so don't be surprised. They're wonderful, especially with Arpi's tangy, dill-laden tzatziki sauce. Also fantastic is the same smooth, citrusy hummus you can purchase next door and -- if you're like me -- eat straight with a spoon.
The bad: The tabbouleh here is the same, grass clipping-esque letdown found so often in Houston's Middle Eastern restaurants. The ratio of bulgur wheat pearls to parsley and other greens is so far off, all you can taste is the plant matter. The falafel have the perfect consistency and texture -- not too dense, lightly fried -- but a bland flavor that desperately needs the attention of some garlic and parsley.
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The ugly: The shawarma are referred to as "Arpi's Famous Shawarmas" on the deli's website. Famous for what, I'm not quite sure. The lamb shawarma in pita bread that I ordered was dried out and nearly flavorless. But worse was the unexpected addition of muhammara and sweet pickle spears in the pita. Unlike tahini, which one would generally expect in a sandwich, muhammara -- a roasted pepper dip strongly flavored with walnuts -- is a bit of an acquired taste. It's very sweet and smoky, and a little bit goes a long way. It also does not go with lamb; the flavors clashed violently in my mouth, the bread-and-butter-flavored pickle spears only adding to the melee. It was awful, which I really hate to say. Especially since sandwiches like this are the reason so many people think Houston doesn't have any good shawarma.
On the bright side, Arpi's only just opened and still has plenty of time to improve -- which I have no doubt that it will do. And now I know to order my shawarma differently next time, which I plan on doing after giving the place another few weeks to settle in. In the meantime, I'll be back for coffee and dessert as soon as possible; the west side truly has a gem in the Phoenicia Coffee House side of the deli.