Hummus and Hookahs
Neither the beef shawarma nor the beef kabob at Mary'z Lebanese Cuisine on Richmond came with the restaurant's fabulous garlic sauce. Sensing my disappointment, the waitress kindly volunteered to bring us some anyway. I had been raving about the stuff to my tablemate, and I couldn't wait for her to try it.
The first time I sampled the wild, white garlic spread, I mistook it for yogurt or mayonnaise. When a big white gob hit my tongue on a piece of pita bread, my nostrils flared and my eyes widened.
Yow! How did they get garlic to taste so hot? You'd swear you were eating horseradish.
Served with pickles and tahini sauce, the cylindrical beef kabob was made of highly seasoned ground beef cooked on a skewer. I broke off a chunk, slathered it with some of the garlic sauce, sprinkled it with pickles and rolled it up in thin pita bread. It tasted stupendous. The bright-white garlic goo was equally wonderful with the thin, rosy-colored slices of beef shawarma. My dining companion liked the ground meat better than the juicy sliced beef because it was spicier, and I did too.
The side dishes were the best thing we ate. You get two of them with each entrée. We opted for the creamy hummus; some velvety eggplant fried with garlic in a tomato sauce; tender black-eyed beans simmered in olive oil with lemon, cilantro and garlic; and the cooling yogurt and cucumber dip. Two of these luscious sides and a meat or fish platter cost around ten dollars with pita, pickles and sauces included. It's a heck of a deal.
My theory about the garlic sauce is that it tastes so hot because it's made of nearly nothing but ground garlic cloves. I'm pretty sure my entire body reeked of the stuff because I wolfed a whole container of it. But the beauty of Mary'z is that nobody is ever going to notice the garlic oozing from your pores because the hookahs are emitting clouds of sweet-smelling smoke. Apple tobacco seems to be very popular. My tablemate went for the margarita flavor.
The gang at Mary'z isn't made up of your average middle-aged, Middle Eastern hookah smokers, either. These are Richmond strip club-hoppers and good-looking twentysomethings. The arrival of a few gorgeous and fashionable young women made me sit up and suck in my gut. The crowd also included some college boys who demonstrated their arrested development by wrestling with each other on the tables. But male or female, precocious or immature, Middle Eastern or Midwestern, everybody here seems to be sucking on a hookah. The elaborate water pipes just kept coming in the door. I lost count after 20.
"How many hookahs do you have?" I asked the waitress.
"Like 50 or 60," she said.
It was fun observing for a while. But if you aren't a young smoker who's out cruising for falafels, the clouds of hookah smoke get to be a bit much. The smoky outdoor patio is the largest dining area in the restaurant, with something like 20 tables. The space is protected from the weather by a canvas roof and a wall of hanging clear plastic panels. Space heaters are fired up when the temperature gets too low.
Besides the patio, there's a small, sterile inside dining room that seems to be populated exclusively by grandparents, mothers with infants and boring people. The funny thing is, I used to be delighted to sit in this same space years ago when it was the main dining room of Sammy's Lebanese Restaurant. Back then it seemed cozy instead of cramped. There were windows that looked out on the street back then. Now the view is blocked by the patio.
There are more tables in the bar and out back on another small deck where the owner's family and the employees hang out. After considering all the options, I really don't want a table anywhere at Mary'z. Which is a shame, since the food is so good.
After eating at the restaurant and picking up an order to go, I've decided that Mary'z food tastes better at my house. The first time we got it to go, we tried the lamb kabob platter, which featured slices of lamb marinated in garlic and olive oil. My only complaint was that there weren't enough of them. We also got the juiciest, tenderest chicken shawarma I have ever tasted -- which was when I discovered the snow-white fiery garlic sauce. What a pita sandwich that stuff made.
For sides, we got the hummus, which was heavy on the tahini and olive oil, just the way I like it, and the fattoush salad, which contained a lot of wilted and unappealing romaine. A cabbage salad was ho-hum. And the tabbouleh tasted old. Then there was the remarkable baba ghanoush.
Mary'z baba ghanoush is made with grilled eggplant, tahini, garlic and lemon juice. My dining companion declared it the best baba ghanoush she had ever tasted. I hate to kill anybody's baba ghanoush buzz, but after a few big bites, I noticed a strange flavor accumulating in the back of my throat.
Charring the eggplant on the grill is one way to give the dip a big, smoky flavor, I said. I stirred the creamy, greenish dip around, looking for the black bits charring would have produced. But I didn't find any. The secret ingredient of a great many baba ghanoush recipes is Liquid Smoke, I told my tablemate. To prove it, I Googled "baba recipe liquid smoke" and got 34,700 hits.
My dining companion, who didn't want to believe me, called Mary'z and asked them if there was Liquid Smoke in the baba ghanoush. They vehemently denied it. So that's that.
Whatever the ingredients, I found the smoke flavor in Mary'z version of the dip overwhelming. But you probably won't mind it at all if you're sucking on a hookah.
For our second "get it and go" dinner, we tried an appetizer portion of Lebanese sausage slices in tomato sauce and lemon juice, which made a zesty pita filler. We also got fish in tahini sauce. The onions, black olives, and tomatoes that were sautéed with the fish were a nice compliment, but the tahini sauce had an unappealing, thick, peanut butter consistency. We ate the fish but left most of the sauce.
A side dish of broad green beans was plain but satisfying. The beans were cooked in a tomato sauce until they were very soft. Potatoes drenched in lemon juice with red peppers and cilantro were excellent after I sprinkled some crunchy sea salt on them. Our second dinner wasn't as good as the first, and I think we will order the spectacular shawarmas and kabobs rather than the iffy fish dishes in the future.
When my daughter came home from college a while back, she took off with her friends one night. She said they had been to a cool restaurant on Richmond where everybody smokes hookahs and hangs out. After my first visit to Mary'z, I realized that this is the place she was talking about. She couldn't tell me a thing about the food, because she and her friends just drank tea and shared a hookah.
Your impression of Mary'z Lebanese Cuisine will depend on who you are. For Lebanese food lovers, it's one of the best Middle Eastern eateries in the city. For the club-hopping set, it's a cool place to hang out, smoke a hookah and check each other out. And if you happen to be a young scene-maker who smokes tobacco and is hungry for great Lebanese food, you'll have it all.
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