Chamoun, in Lebanon, is a last name like Kennedy is in the United States. Chamoun is a large, politically connected Maronite (Christian) family which has emigrated, in part, to other countries. Fifteen years ago, Fady Chamoun opened the first Aladdin's Eatery in Ohio. Over the next decade or so, other family members opened stores in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan, northern Virginia, and Raleigh, N.C. Last year, Fady's sister Liliane and her husband Elie Richa opened a 55-seat store in Matthews.
Lebanese food is clearly the preeminent food in the Middle East. I'm not writing this strictly because I'm married to a Lebanese (which I am), but I lived in Cairo and have traveled in the Middle East. Egypt clearly has the bragging rights to mangos, falafels, pigeons, and grilled freshwater fish from the Nile. But the Lebanese were lucky enough to live in the only Middle Eastern country without a desert and thus have an entire country that can produce food. The majority of dishes eaten in this tiny, mountainous country are composed of vegetables and fruits grown locally in the verdant Bekaa Valley, fish from the Mediterranean, honey, yogurt, cheese and, to a lesser degree, chicken, lamb and beef.
The unfortunate part of Lebanese cuisine is that it's almost completely regulated to street food variations in the States. And then when it becomes mainstream, it's simply wretched. Grocery stores have "tabbouleh" sitting in their refrigerated cases all day. Would you eat a salad at 7 p.m. that was doused in dressing 12 hours before? The result is marinated parsley.
In Lebanon, dinner begins around 10 p.m. and tables are set for a minimum of eight. You won't find couples dining: Tables for 20 are common. Some restaurants have playgrounds for the children since dinner can take three or four hours. Eating is a celebration.
Here in the States, a three- to four-hour dinner would be called camping by disgruntled servers. We abbreviate the time for dinner; thus, kitchens need to abbreviate the time to prepare the dishes. Enter the Aladdin's Eatery chain, offering a fast, casual example of Lebanese/American food. Even the name is somewhat misleading since Aladdin, and genies for that matter, are Persian, not Lebanese. While the original store opened with a magic carpet on the ceiling, the new form recalls the interior of bakery-café chains: modern, spacious and light with warm colors, a banquette lining some walls, and transitional light fixtures. A center counter displays rows of cakes. Subtle music, a hybrid of Lebanese and American, strikes a contrast to the familiar atmosphere.
Aladdin's menu is extensive with expected dishes: hummus (offered with a side shot of hot sauce), baba ghanoush and tabbouleh. But some American preferences -- honey Dijon dressing, cheddar cheese -- have muscled into the offing.
Among my favorites is the rocking loubie b'zeit. This is a hard to find but staple dish which combines Italian (Romano) flat beans, chopped tomatoes and onions, whole roasted cloves of garlic and is then brightened by olive oil. While my Lebanese family argued about why the grape leaves were called dawali, I was more curious why the fatayer, a spinach empanada, was wrapped in pita rather than the traditional dough or even phyllo. The same was true for the chicken sambousek, which, surprisingly, had Indian curry spices.
On the superlative side were the shish tawook sandwich with char-grilled chicken tenderloins, pickled turnips, tomatoes and a garlicky sauce, and the shawarma -- beef and lamb brushed with a sesame yogurt sauce. My Lebanese relatives swore by the kibbeh (football-shaped minced beef stuffed with pine nuts) and the falafel, though I thought the falafel too thick and overly fried. The fattoush salad had an overly zealous hand applying both the vinaigrette and the sumac. What makes Lebanese cuisine is their "less is more" approach and the melding of flavors.
You can wash any of these dishes down with a glass of wine from the Bekaa. Aladdin offers a small but delightful list of Lebanese wines, by glass or bottle, and a few domestic. They also have Almaza, a Lebanese beer. Prices range from $4 to $12.
While the center case of creamy cakes draws the eye of children, don't forget to grab a box of pastries on top of the case before you leave. In the box are the Lebanese versions of phyllo pastries. These are not soaked in syrup and cloyingly sweet; they're crispy and dusted with bits of pistachios. The lady fingers are the best -- we only wished they had kunafa (kateifi) made with shredded phyllo.
Despite the servers seemingly out of pace with large parties, meals are eminently pleasant. Aladdin may not be a wondrous place, but it tastes a lot like home.
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Aladdin's Eatery, 7900 Stevens Mill Road, Matthews. 704-882-3036. Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday until 10 p.m. Same menu all day. Major credit cards. Patio. Many vegetarian dishes. www.aladdinseatery.com.