There's an old adage that gets thrown around at business dinners and happy hours and parental lectures: Do one thing and do it well. Or, as someone who helped pay my college tuition once said with frustration, "Focus. Remember, it's better to be great at one thing than to do a bunch of crap half-assed." Richardson's Sultan Café should follow that advice.
The hookah bar and Mediterranean grill that advertises halal cuisine (foods sanctioned under Islam) has got its varied tobaccos down, but when it comes to food, Sultan lacks direction, freshness and flavor.
My first visit didn't start off well. We were greeted at the door by a lack of guidance and a little pile of debris on the floor, destined forthe dustpan. Left to gaze aimlessly around the spacious venue for a few moments, we discussed the oddity of smoking hookahs in such a brightly lit space—as one party was doing while concentrating on a foreign television show. Someone finally emerged from the back of the restaurant to instruct us to sit wherever we'd like.
Lentil soup $4.95
Falafel appetizer $3.49
Chicken Slovakia $7.95
Gyro sandwich $5.95
Chicken shawarma sandwich $13.95
Mix grill combo $13.95
Gyro plate $13.95
The lengthy menu took awhile to navigate, but it looked promising and I, being a Mediterranean cuisine enthusiast, was excited. We finally decided to start with a falafel appetizer (also available in a sandwich with the peculiar name of Bye-bye Mother in Law) and stuffed grape leaves. We ordered (by number) and waited for approximately 20 minutes before our server returned to take our entrée orders. No sign of the starters.
I opted for the lentil soup and the gyro platter. The soup came fairly quickly but was a disappointment. The bumpy puree of pale ochre hue was incredibly bland. A lack of seasoning proved a great disservice to such a sturdy soup base. I expected something hearty and autumnal, warm and nourishing. This variation was boring at best but would serve later as a go-to bite to ward off other unwanted flavors. Astonishingly, I ended up glad I had a bland soup by my side.
The gyro platter came piled high with meat, grilled veggies, a roasted potato and french fries straight from the bag. The veggies were inoffensive enough, but the gyro slices were so overdone and dried out they were nearly crispy on the edges—and not in the way a quick sear would provide. The fries were dusted heavily with seasoning salt, an MSG allergy sufferer's enemy. The four salads, or mazza, promised on the menu were absent.
My co-diner went kebabbing for flavor with the mix grill combo featuring chicken, lamb and kofta, or kufta, depending on the part of the menu you look at. (The dish is a cylindrical take on a meatball of seasoned ground beef or lamb). The side items were the same as the gyro's; those fries were not going to be ignored. The kofta offered a pungent aroma, and, in contrast to the lentil soup, was overseasoned with a concoction of spices that left the palate momentarily obliterated. (Thank goodness for the lentil soup.) The chicken and lamb looked appealing on their 2-foot skewers but were so dry that between the two of us we couldn't finish even half of the meat. The roasted potato was, in fact, the highlight of the meal.
At this point, we reminded our server that we had not yet received our appetizers. We were told they were coming and were left to observe that most of the patrons in the restaurant and on the ample patio were taking part in Sultan's hookah menu but not so much the edibles. At most, smokers had a plate of hummus...so we ordered what appeared to be a patron favorite.
It also arrived before the appetizers. The puree was nearly smooth, with a puddle of olive oil and chickpeas in the middle. It too was virtually flavorless, having very little garlic flavor and no tahini—which while being a controversial addition for a hummus purist, would have aided this little number tenfold. We received no bread to accompany it.
Then the appetizers arrived. It had taken so long, it was as though we'd just met someone we'd only heard tall tales about. The falafel were perfect little golden balls, with a shocking green center and a heat that came out of nowhere, right up the throat after the swallow. They were unusually spicy compared with conventional falafel, and the nail in their coffin was an accompanying yogurt sauce that my companion would concur had seen better days...or expiration dates.
The stuffed grape leaves never arrived. What did arrive, with a verbal announcement of "And here are your stuffed grape leaves," was kibbeh. Vastly different from dolma, kibbeh is a bulgur shell traditionally stuffed with spiced lamb and fried golden brown. Though given the wrong name, the kibbeh were by far the best thing about my inaugural visit. The crunchy shell gave way to perfectly seasoned meat and pine nuts. It's a shame there's no trace of the kibbeh on the menu.
Our server finally produced the array of promised mazza—dishes of tzatziki (cucumber, garlic, mint and yogurt), roasted zucchini, eggplant, roasted poblano, chili yogurt and a very fishy concoction of squid, yogurt and garlic. With no bread, we tried one or two on our meats before sarcastically agreeing, "This must be what the fries are for!"
After a bizarre trip into the bathroom (shoes and bug spray litter the latrine just next to the kitchen entrance), we, to put it politely, hauled ass out of Sultan Café.
I must admit, following that fitful night after my first visit, I was tempted to forego a second one on the grounds of gastronomic discontent and fear of another post-meal headache. But like the "Do one thing..." adage, there is also a saying that goes something along the lines of "Man up!" So I did. And because misery loves company, I coerced a steel-stomached foodie to swim in the Sultan sea with me.
This time we went for a light weekend lunch. My lunch buddy gave the gyro a second chance with a wrap sandwich, and I tried out the chicken shawarma wrap. The gyro enjoyed a successful revival with its dressing of tomatoes, pickles, lettuce and yogurt sauce. It wasn't nearly as dry, and the portions of each element were nicely balanced. And yes, fries do come with it.
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The shawarma was a different story. Traditionally, shawarma-style meats are juicy, sliced from a large rotating skewer. In this case, the little bits of chicken were as dry as jerky and difficult to chew. The veggies would have provided a nice wrap if it weren't for the spread, which our server described as a "garlic and goat cheesy mix." It was a tragedy. When I moved my plate I noticed that although my wrap was as dry as a bone, about two tablespoons of oil had leaked from it onto the table.
Once again, our appetizer came after our entrées (and they arrived 30 minutes after we placed our order) but this time they did come with bread. The chicken Slovakia—chicken bits with tomatoes and onion—swam in oil and contained a few chicken bones to boot. The seasoning, however, was on the level this time—a little salty and a little spicy. Bones aside, at least it wasn't another bland dish.
As we escaped, I wanted to tell anyone that would listen that the hookah bar angle was the only way to go. Lose the menu and all its inexplicably flavorless dishes. Stick with what people are already coming for: the impressive variety of tobaccos and beautifully crafted hookahs. Keep the TVs, turn down the lights, add some candles or some sort of ambiance and smoke up. Because smoking is the one thing Sultan Café does well.
201 S. Greenville Ave., Suite 211, Richardson. 972-235-7900. Open 11 a.m.–midnight Monday–Friday, 11 a.m.– 2 a.m. Saturday and Sunday. $$