Two regional icons stare at each other from across a parking lot in Richardson. To the east, Afrah Mediterranean Restaurant resides in its palatial new quarters, constructed just a few years ago to handle the buffet’s big reputation and equally big crowds of hungry Dallasites. Just a few feet away, in a smaller building two doors down, a newcomer has set up shop: Sayyad Mediterranean Cuisine. Sayyad is an institution down in Houston, where it has built a similarly loyal following.
Now one of Houston’s most beloved Middle Eastern restaurants is stepping onto Afrah’s turf. But Sayyad is no copycat. The specialty here is Mediterranean-style grilled seafood, and the weekday lunch buffet is smaller and more half-hearted than Afrah’s. The real action at Sayyad is in the evenings, when grilled fish and seafood kebabs can take center stage.
The seafood specialties here include singari fish casserole, in which a whole fish is split, butterflied and marinated, then topped with an enormous mixture of vegetables, herbs, peppers and lemon juice and baked in an oven. At some times, though not any times we visited, customers can choose their whole fish on ice and have it prepared in a number of styles, served with fragrantly spiced rice pilaf.
The best way to go wrong with Sayyad’s grilled seafood is if they don’t have any. On one visit, we were told that the singari fish casserole wasn’t available, because all the whole fish were being saved for another party. Our waiter suggested salmon kebabs instead, and we eagerly agreed. Only there weren’t any salmon kebabs, either. Plan C: sayadieh, a heaping dish of spiced rice pilaf topped with two basa fillets ($18).
Basa isn’t exactly chosen for its flavor — it’s a catfish variety from Southeast Asia mainly valued for its cheapness — but the Sayyad kitchen cooks it just right, until flakey-tender. And the cinnamon- and cumin-scented rice, with caramelized onions mixed in and piled on top, is the dish’s main attraction.
Another consolation prize is Sayyad’s platter of lamb chops ($19). Cut across the bone, which runs through the middle of each piece, the lamb bursts with flavor and carries the aroma of the grill. Not every chop is consistent — we had medium and well-done cuts on the same plate of five — but even when slightly overcooked, their flavors are spot-on.
To round out a table-filling dinner, not much more is needed besides the hot appetizer sampler ($14). Ours was sensational despite the fact that the kitchen had yet again run out of a component, the falafel. Its substitute, stuffed grape leaves, turned out to be some of North Texas’ very best (ordered separately, the dolmas are $8 for six). If sliced potatoes cooked in a spicy oil are flavorful but flabbily soft, there’s no such qualm about the well-seasoned fried cauliflower.
The sampler’s dip of mashed eggplant and tomato is nicely acidic and topped with chunks of green onion, a good candidate for mass pita-scooping. As a bonus, that platter also comes with yet more of the restaurant’s colorful rice pilaf, plus a bowl of flavorful but rather thin yellow lentil soup.
When we had extra pita on hand, we scooped up foul mudammas ($6.49), one of the national street foods of Egypt. A fava bean puree that’s heavy on the garlic and lemon, foul is pure comfort food, and Sayyad’s is excellent. (The restaurant’s ownership isn’t Egyptian; it’s Jordanian-Palestinian.)
Dinner is a success story. When the buffet tables are out and loaded at lunchtime, Sayyad is less impressive.
The enormous rounds of pita bread tend to get a little too charred in the middle; the breaded fish looks mouthwatering but tastes overwhelmingly fishy. Potatoes diced and sauteed with an abundance of hot chile pepper flakes are soft from their time on the steam table, but still satisfying in flavor. Of the meats, a ground beef kebab topped with parsley and huge chunks of grilled sweet onion stood out for its flavor; of the dips, garlicky baba ghanouj is the best way to use up that enormous pita. The buttery, soft rice pilaf is simple, but effective.
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For $14, the buffet’s cumulative effect is a little underwhelming: Only the dips, rice pilaf and perhaps tabbouleh really justify going back for a second plate. Bassbosa, a mild pistachio-topped semolina cake, was fine, but there are much more exciting desserts just around the corner at Albaghdady Bakery or the extraordinary Big Dash.
At this point in the review, I wish I could tell you that I returned to Sayyad on a third night, after two unsuccessful visits, and finally tasted the signature singari fish casserole. Alas, that was not to be: After initially continuing with normal service, Sayyad recently decided to stop dishing out a la carte meals at dinnertime until the end of Ramadan. Until at least June 6, dinner is also buffet-only, and it starts at sundown.
Given the way that Sayyad excels with a la carte preparations and struggles to maintain a high-quality buffet, I’m not sure I would recommend it as a place to break the Ramadan fast. But when the month ends and normal meal service resumes, I’ll be back for first crack at that fresh grilled fish and those elusive salmon kebabs. Sayyad’s Jordanian grilled meats and appetizers are enough to make it a major arrival in Richardson’s dining scene. They’re even enough to tempt away Afrah regulars. Unless, that is, the kitchen runs out.
Sayyad Mediterranean Cuisine, 310 E. Main St., Richardson. 972-234-9900. Open Sunday through Thursday 11 a.m.-10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday 11 a.m.-11 p.m.