Interaction among owner, servers and diners enlivens a Middle Eastern meal
July 25, 2013 4:00 AM
Keftades, or lamb meatballs in olive-infused tomato sauce
On the menu at Naya are, above, Moskhan, or chicken-filled dumplings, served with tahini sauce.
By Melissa McCart Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Dining is often like going to the theater, with dining rooms revamped for emphasis. Open kitchens and bright lights show characters behind the line.
But what if dining were less of a stage and more interactive? Some restaurants are moving in this direction, such as Inamo in London. Diners there interact with touch-screen eTables to change the mood, dishes and even the tablecloth throughout their meal.
At Eleven Madison Park in Manhattan, interaction is more stylized. Servers recite scripts throughout the tasting menu as diners open boxes, untie ribbons and unfurl scrolls before tasting.
Souped-up technology and scripted courses aren't necessary for interactive dining, of course.
This is especially true at ethnic restaurants such as Naya in Squirrel Hill, where cooks plate international flavors that staff is often eager to explain. The exchange transforms a meal here from a solid dining experience to a memorable one.
Start with the owner. Even though she's cooking, Radwa Ibrahim visits every table mid-meal. Dressed in black, this charming woman greets diners, answers questions about her food and offers warm hospitality.
Naya is a departure from her former restaurant, Tyma'z in West View. The restaurant she opened in 2008 cultivated fans of her home-style cooking until it closed in 2011.
To showcase food from her Syrian homeland, she sought out a new location for Naya in Squirrel Hill's dense stretch of ethnic restaurants. She believes those who crave ethnic cuisine will more easily discover her among Thai, Korean, Chinese and Italian fare.
Of her Syrian specialties, the most interesting is a chicken dish layered in spindly greens, called molukhia ($15), which resonates with Ms. Ibrahim and her Egyptian sous chef. Naya may be one of the few restaurants in Pittsburgh to offer it.
Ms. Ibrahim said she tried to find an English-language equivalent for the dish but could not.
"The greens are incredibly polarizing," said my friend who joined me for dinner. He has traveled extensively in Syria. "When they're frozen or fresh they take on a slimy characteristic."
Ms. Ibrahim confirmed this, preferring dried greens, which she softens by steaming and seasons with garlic, lemon and coriander. Earthy and vegetal, they are a compelling pairing for dark meat.
A bright red snapper displays coriander and garlic for another Syrian dish, samaka harrah, with pepper paste and walnuts. It means "spicy fish," yet here it's not spicy.
"This is how many people like it in Syria," said Ms. Ibrahim, who said she prefers it mild. Diners who like heat can ask for a side of chili sauce that wakes up the dish.
Sleek ($9) is a best-seller. Ms. Ibrahim wilts kale and sautees it in butter, then melds it with caramelized onion, bulgur wheat and black-eyed peas. With a touch of lemon, it's delicious, one she thinks people like because it's nutritious and inexpensive. It reminds me of a Middle Eastern variation of the Pittsburgh Italian favorite, beans and greens.
During lunch or dinner, a trio of helpful servers runs the 42-seat dining room, happy to explain dishes. Start with the warm grape leaves ($8), a satiating plate of six, half for meat lovers and the others for vegetarians, Ms. Ibrahim said.
A very good hummus with a balance of garlic and lemon serves as creamy dipping sauce for grape leaves or as a feature on the mezza platter ($15) along with a baba ganouj, tabouli, olives and feta. The platter fends off hunger, although it could be better. A few ingredient swaps -- flat leaf parsley for curly parsley in the tabouli, for example -- could make a difference.
Focus instead on hummus alone ($5) or a respectable falafel ($5), golf-ball sized chickpea fritters with pickles and tahini. For more variation with condiments as well as bigger portions, there's also the falafel sandwich ($6).
Do not be reticent to ask for more bread throughout the meal, for you may want to use it as a replacement for utensils. My table even used it with fattoush salad ($8), vegetables and greens seasoned with lemon and earthy, red sumac, garnished with fried bread.
Fattoush is often made with purslane rather than greens. And while purslane grows liberally here, it's tough to find on a Pittsburgh menu. That's unfortunate because its tart characteristics are quite good. It's also filled with nutrients, along with omega-3s.
Making an appearance in Lebanon, Israel, Iran and Egypt, kibbe ($15) is also a staple in Syria. One city may tout dozens of variations: baked, raw or fried, made with beef, lamb or goat.
Naya's mixture of cracked wheat and ground beef is layered with onions, spices, nuts and almonds. Although here it's a baked slice akin to meatloaf, other varieties are similar to Italian arancini.
While Naya offers value, interesting dishes and solid albeit casual service, I left with a few wishes. First, I wished the food I ordered was brighter, although a request for lemon wedges helped. More fresh herbs would be delightful, too. Last, I wished that dinner plates did not carry a hearty serving of rice pilaf. Among a half dozen entrees on the table, it seems like filler.
Along with pita bread, is rice necessary on every entree? That same diner who traveled around Syria suggested the restaurant be true to the dishes. But what is authenticity in an adopted land with different dining habits and ingredients?
"This is how I made them at home," said Ms. Ibrahim, who has lived in Pittsburgh for 13 years. "This is how I eat them myself."