On the surface, the most compelling reason to dine at Tabouli's, a restaurant serving Middle Eastern fare, is the tent room. And if you dig deeper, it turns out to be the only reason. Not that the food is necessarily bad outside the confines of the tent (though it is flawed), it's just that there's nothing of interest in the spare dining room with green-topped tables and the kind of paintings that are usually sold at starving-artist blowouts.
The tent room is large, with fabric on the walls and draped on the ceiling. Persian area rugs are haphazardly patched together to give it a slovenly air of authenticity. Four lanternlike chandeliers hang from the ceiling, and the floor is covered with cushions and pillows around the perimeter, in front of which are several metal traylike tables that rise to knee height.
Neat gimmick, and it works. The food tastes better in the tent. It's hard to know if this is psychosomatic or if the kitchen pays more attention to food destined for the tent than it does to the grub earmarked for the room with the cheesy paintings. The tent has its own menu: a prix fixe affair with a collection of appetizers, grilled meats and baklava with Turkish coffee for dessert. Bring 50 bucks or a group of 20 people, and you can have a belly dancer quiver, flutter and roll her abs into her navel while you drag pita triangles through the smooth, tangy plate of hummus. The other great dip to drag through is the baba ghanouj, an earthy, smoky (reminiscent of spent gunpowder) smear of eggplant puree mingled with olive oil, lemon and garlic.
Appetizers also include a plate of raw vegetables with pickles and olives; crisp, fluffy falafel; and a forgettable green olive salad. The restaurant's namesake is a searing patch of virescence, tabouli packed with tight clumps of fresh pulverized parsley that is flecked with bulgur generously soaked with lemon juice.
Served on a sprawling platter, the main course is an assortment of grilled lamb, beef and chicken spread over moist and supple rice and vermicelli studded with mushrooms and toasted almonds. Grilled tomatoes and red peppers hug the edges. Except for the lamb, which was dry and tough, all the meats were juicy and well-seasoned.
The baklava finish was striking, with rich phyllo layers hugging honey-drenched nuts. Baklava always risks being sickeningly sweet. This one was restrained.
Then there's outside the tent, where a concrete floor mingles with dark green paneling and ivory walls. There are a couple of urns imbedded in the plaster on one wall and a bar that stretches uninvitingly near the entrance. Three motley booths with backs that fold into the shape of lips line the opposite wall.
While the food in the tent is wondrous, the food outside folds and collapses. Dolmas were cold and hard, as if they had been prepped and forgotten in a cooler. Pita bread was served cold and limp, and the pieces near the back of the basket were soggy. Lamb was the same outside the tent as it was inside--tough and dry. Yet it still proffered savory flavors. A side of basmati rice was fluffy and separate and included almond slivers. It also included thin rib-cut carrots that were soaked in a garlic butter sauce.
Tabouli's gyros plate consists of strips of beef and lamb--textured rough like a tongue--striped in layers over triangles of cold pita bread sheened with grease. Shingles of red onion were scattered over the top, while cucumber slices, rough-cut carrots and kalamata olives huddled around a dish of cucumber sauce. The meat was savory and delicious. Even better was the chicken kabob: tight, rosy-gold nuggets of meat that were juicy and flavorful.
The wine list is an elemental catalog with all the basic requirements, but beware. It's not wise to plumb the wine list by the glass. On separate visits, glasses of different cabernets (one from California, the other Chile) were heavily oxidized, indicating the bottles were probably opened and then left to sit for days. Better to stick with the robust Lebanese red wine from Château Ksara (by the bottle or the glass, but the bottle might be safer).
Opened last year on Lower Greenville, Tabouli's takes the place of Basha, owned by Bachar Alaia. Tabouli's was opened by Alaia's brother Bassel, who made the restaurant a little more casual and lowered the menu prices. The important thing to remember is Bassel kept Basha's tent. It's hard to figure out why it makes the food taste better, but maybe the answer lies in that $50 navel.
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