The 405 of­fers trip to Mid­dle East on Mar­ket Street

Chattanooga Times Free Press - ChattanoogaNow - - DINING - BY JEN­NIFER BARDONER STAFF WRITER

Grow­ing up in Chat­tanooga, I used to think eth­nic food meant Ital­ian and Mex­i­can cui­sine — and Amer­i­can­ized ver­sions at that. I knew there was a whole globe full of other cul­tures, but to get a taste of such eth­nic­i­ties, let alone a true taste, would have re­quired a plane ticket.

My, how far we’ve come. Now, we can visit vir­tu­ally ev­ery culi­nary corner of the world with­out leav­ing down­town: Ja­maica, Peru, In­dia, Ja­pan, Thai­land. One of the new­est coun­tries on that list is Le­banon, as found at The 405 MidEast Bistro.

THE SPACE

The dé­cor reads “bistro,” as op­posed to “Mid­dle East.” Though straight­for­ward and sparse, the space has an el­e­vated feel. Navy painted walls pat­terned with dec­o­ra­tive trim lend a tran­quil­ity and el­e­gance; string orb lights dan­gling over­head add a touch of moder­nity. Cush­ioned benches line the walls, but the tufted faux-leather black chairs mean the seat­ing is just as com­fort­able on the other side of the ta­ble.

More than ca­pa­ble of hous­ing large groups, the room is cav­ernous, so it felt a bit empty on our cold, Sun­day evening visit. But the sleek black ta­bles wel­comed sev­eral fam­i­lies of other din­ers who ap­peared to be of Mid­dle East­ern de­scent them­selves, and many of the pre­dom­i­nantly fives­tar re­views on Yelp seem to back this up, giv­ing the restau­rant high marks for au­then­tic food and fla­vors.

Only open since the be­gin­ning of Septem­ber, the Mar­ket Street ad­di­tion is be­gin­ning to gain trac­tion, grow­ing its cus­tomer base while al­ready wel­com­ing re­peats, our server told us.

THE MENU

The menu is an echo of owner Rashad Moughrabi’s fam­ily restau­rant in Chicago, the Nile, which has been a Windy City fix­ture since 1987. Billed as Le­banese and Pales­tinian cui­sine, the lo­cal din­ner menu fea­tures small plates of well-known fa­vorites like hum­mus ($4 for a small or­der, $7 for a large), falafel ($3 for four, $5 for six or $7 for 12) and veg­e­tar­ian stuffed grape leaves ($4).

But it also of­fers the chance to try some­thing new: pota­toes stuffed with onion, pine nuts, minced lamb and beef, baked in a hearty tomato sauce ($15), or Shish Taouk Chicken, chunks of tangy grilled chicken breast mar­i­nated with le­mon, gar­lic, gin­ger and spices and served with two sides ($14).

Lunch of­fers pared­down ver­sions of most of the en­trees, with the ad­di­tion of sand­wiches. Most com­bine the din­ner menu’s main fea­ture — shawarma — with onion, tomato and tahini sauce in a pita. There are sev­eral vari­a­tions of the thinly sliced meat, mar­i­nated and stacked onto a skewer for slow roast­ing: chicken ($8.75 as a sand­wich, $15 as a main with two choices of rice, sautéed veg­eta­bles, red roasted pota­toes or side salad) and a beef and lamb combo ($9 or $17). The kifta ke­bab of beef-and-lamb sausage also pulls dou­ble duty, served as a sand­wich for $8.50 or a full en­tree with sides for $14 (lunch and din­ner).

THE OR­DER

Priced at $6 per per­son, the Mezze ap­pe­tizer of­fers a sam­ple of most of the starters: hum­mus, baba ganoush, stuffed grape leaves, falafel, mash­wiya (a home­made yo­gurt with zuc­chini, olive oil and gar­lic), plus olives and “Mid-East pick­les,” which ap­peared akin to gherkins. It is ac­com­pa­nied by home­made pita for dip­ping and makes for a nice in­tro­duc­tion.

I found the fla­vors to be fresh and pure, if not a lit­tle sim­ple, but a run through the olive oil pud­dled on top of each dip spoke to the qual­ity. The falafel was a stand­out for me: per­fectly crunchy on

the out­side, moist on the in­side, with a punch of spice that gave it per­son­al­ity.

With lamb prom­i­nent on the menu, my boyfriend, Jon, and I at first con­sid­ered get­ting the braised lamb shank for our main dish, of­fer­ing a cut of the sweet dark meat slow braised and fin­ished in a yo­gurt sauce, served over bas­mati rice with roasted gar­lic and cauliflower ($22). I’d had to con­vince him to go on this vir­tual visit to the Mid­dle East, so I’d seen pic­tures from other din­ers that also al­lowed me to con­vince him to con- sider split­ting a dish. But as is my cus­tom, I asked our server for his rec­om­men­da­tions.

The ubiq­ui­tous shawarma was, not sur­pris­ingly, at the top of the list, but close be­hind was a dish unique to the lo­cal menu: The Up­side Down. Noted as a “chef’s fa­vorite,” it con­sists of meat, cauliflower, egg­plant, po­tato, gar­lic and bas­mati rice lay­ered into a pot and braised in stock. The pot is then turned up­side down when served. The meat, and there­fore the price, changes daily, of­fer­ing chicken, braised lamb shoul­der or braised beef short ribs, the se­lec­tion that evening ($21).

Like the lay­ered pre­sen­ta­tion, the fla­vors stood on their own — the char-grill of the meat, the caramelized sweet­ness of the pota­toes — but due to their sub­tlety, did not make for a mouth ex­plo­sion when com­bined. Still, though I could’ve used more veg­gies, we were both sa­ti­ated.

This ac­tu­ally il­lus­trates the sum of the meal for me: sub­dued yet sat­is­fy­ing.

THE SER­VICE

Our server was one of the highlights of our meal. We didn’t have to ask for any­thing aside from rec­om­men­da­tions. Chip­per and knowl­edge­able, he ex­pertly sold us on spe­cialty cock­tails (I got the Laven­der? Hardly Know Her!, a slightly sweet combo of Pick­er­ing’s gin, le­mon, lime, honey and laven­der ($10), ap­pe­tiz­ers and al­most dessert. It was clear he’s been in the busi­ness long enough to know the tricks — the most im­por­tant be­ing a pas­sion for peo­ple and your prod­ucts.

THE VER­DICT

It’s al­ways ex­cit­ing to try a new restau­rant in our small city’s grow­ing din­ing scene. Adding a cul­tural twist makes it even more so. While my Amer­i­can­ized taste buds tend to pre­fer more over­whelm­ing fla­vors, ad­ven­ture is the best spice of all.

STAFF PHOTO BY JEN­NIFER BARDONER

The Mezze of­fers a fairly com­pre­hen­sive sam­pling of The 405’s starters.

STAFF PHOTO BY JEN­NIFER BARDONER

The Up­side Down is a clas­sic Pales­tinian dish that of­fers lay­ers of stock-braised in­gre­di­ents with a ro­tat­ing se­lec­tion of meat, though it can be made veg­e­tar­ian.

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