Food & Drink

A modest eatery that makes magical meals

Here follows the recently discovered and previously unpublished One Thousand and Second Tale of the Arabian Nights:

Granted another night's pardon by the king, Scheherazade began telling the tale of Aladdin's Eatery, a modest but comely restaurant in a small kingdom called North Raleigh. The restaurant was owned by a young Lebanese man named Tom Chebib, who had left his home in the faraway land of Ohio (where many in his family owned restaurants, all of them called Aladdin's Eatery) to make his own way in life.

Chebib was an affable man and could usually be found in the restaurant, greeting customers, tending to their needs and offering to bring a glass or bottle of Lebanese wine from his small but carefully stocked cellar. The owner trained his staff well, too. Seldom did a dish arrive lukewarm, and rarely did a water glass stand empty on a table. The dining room atmosphere was warmly inviting. A sidewalk patio was a welcome oasis in a desert of strip malls and parking lots.

Aladdin's Eatery quickly became a favorite among the locals. Seven days a week, waiters shuttled in and out of the kitchen bearing trays laden with an assortment of traditional Lebanese fare, much of it made from old family recipes. There were a few modern creations, too, such as pita "pitzas" and grilled tuna salad.

Kibbeh were a popular starter, their toothsome filling of lean minced beef, roasted onion and pine nuts encased in a crunchy shell of beef and bulgur wheat. Hummus, brightened with lemon and smooth as a magic carpet ride, was served with pita baked in the family bakery. Foole m'damas, a puree of fava beans, olive oil and lemon juice, was a coarser but nonetheless satisfying spread.

Those fortunate enough to order the almond salad were instantly transported to an enchanted garden by the nut-sweet perfume of its dressing. Others discovered that no magic incantation was required to break open the crisp, brown deep-fried crust of falafel, revealing an emerald green interior of ground chickpeas, onions and an abundance of fresh herbs.

If a waiter chanced to walk by bearing a platter of chicken mishwi, the exotic cinnamon-tinged fragrance of that dish would invariably entice at least one person at the table to order it for the main course. Others might opt instead for the more familiar flavor of beef tenderloin shish kebabs, served over fragrant white rice interwoven with strands of vermicelli. Or marinated char-grilled lamb, or succulent chicken tawook, or kofta kebabs so juicy they spurted when pierced with a fork.

Those with lighter appetites enjoyed rolled pitas, which Chebib was happy to explain were folded around the filling like a taco and lightly toasted, as they are to this day in Lebanon. A variety of filling options were available, from chicken shawarma with tomatoes, onion and tahini yogurt dressing to grilled tuna with mixed pickles, curry spice and garlic sauce.

Vegetarians were delighted to find a veritable treasure trove of options, including specialty plates featuring mujadara (steamed lentils and rice topped with a Lebanese salad and toasted onions) and loubie (a sautéed medley of green beans, onions, tomatoes and garlic). An entire section of the menu was devoted to vegetarian rolled pitas.

Regardless of whether one was a vegetarian or meat eater, few could resist the bewitching allure of the pastry case that stood in the middle of the room. Baklava, its layers of phyllo distinct and shatter-crisp, was as good as any to be found in the kingdom of North Raleigh or any of the neighboring lands.

More than a score of other sweet tooth temptations, from Old World style coconut cake to chocolate-peanut-caramel cheesecake to oatmeal raisin cookie, were baked at the family bakery in Ohio.

To this day, it is not known whether Aladdin himself ever ate at Aladdin's Eatery. Suffice it to say, if he had saved just one wish on his magic lantern, he surely would have.