It's hard to wish others a hearty (and intelligible) "Eid Mubarak" with a mouthful of food. I came to this realization several times this past Friday during the Eid al-Fitr dinner at the Four Seasons as I sat at my table and consumed plate after plate of the most outstanding Middle Eastern food I've eaten outside of Damascus (and I mean Syria, not Georgia).
After my interview with Hassan Obaye, lead chef and designer of the feast, I certainly had great expectations. It would be understandable, if not probable, that the dinner turned out to be just "very good," and after one or two plates, I called it a night and returned home, satisfied but apt soon to forget what I ate and drank that night.
But that's not what happened.
"I want to live here," I blurted out to my husband in the middle of my second of what would be an unspeakable number of helpings of mezze. "What, at the Four Seasons?" he replied, not at all surprised. My better half is certainly aware of my penchant for high-end accommodations. "No. I mean, in this room. With all this food. Forever," I said, dipping a piece of pita bread into some hummus, then using the other piece to sandwich some brie. He nodded. He understood. How could you not?
When we arrived at the dinner, fairly early as families and other large groups of patrons were just starting to trickle into one of the larger private dining rooms on the third floor of the hotel, I knew immediately I was in trouble if that food was any good. I recognize that humans, like me, are not ruminant animals -- that is to say, I do not possess a large four-chambered stomach, but every time I enter some sort of all-you-can-eat atmosphere, I somehow suspend my belief in this fact.
Such was the case when I started sampling the various mezze. There was sautéed eggplant, two kinds of hummus, baba ghanoush, tabbouleh, couscous, crisp cucumber and sweet tomato salads, and a pyramid of stuffed grape leaves. Obaye had mentioned during our conversation that he planned to have a cheese station, but he did not provide many details. This "station" was actually more of a fromage buffet unto itself, with at least five different types of cheeses, including a simply divine pistachio-encrusted goat cheese and wonderful table cheeses like the slightly briney jibneh arabieh and supple akawi. To complement these selections, baskets of toasted breads, crackers, assorted fruit preserves (peach, blueberry, fig, strawberry) and candied walnuts also were available. You can perhaps understand why I didn't even touch the hot food selections until 40 minutes after I started eating.
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When I finally wrenched myself away from the cheese and mezze, there was no going back, for I was equally smitten with the warm fried savories, such as the crisp meat pies redolent of cinnamon and other autumnal spices, the flaky spanokopita, and the miniature samosa. Of special note were the kibbeh, whose textured grainy exterior belied an interior of spiced ground beef that tasted even brighter with the addition of some piquant garlic sauce.
The meat entrée stations boasted formidable cuts of lamb, roasted chicken and chermoula salmon, the latter of which was seasoned so perfectly that the dressing of mint chutney was unnecessary but delicious nonetheless. Couscous warm from the tagine and basmati rice provided a fluffy base for the sauced meats as well as for vegetarian Indian dishes such as a rusty orange curry with chickpeas.
I think you can perhaps understand why I was flagging by the time it came to dessert. Although I was unable, as I had once planned, to eat my weight in baklava, I settled for two pieces plus a few pastel macarons and a cup of warm mint tea. And because I have no shame, I actually found myself thinking, even as my (one) stomach swelled almost, almost to the point of discomfort, "I wonder if it's gauche to ask for a takeout box."
Don't worry; I didn't. Some meals are so epic that they are best experienced just once a year. Thanksgiving for me falls into this category, and now the Eid al-Fitr dinner at the Four Seasons does, too.