Federal Hill’s popular Nara Hookah Lounge has bought the space next door and opened a first-class Lebanese fine dining restaurant.
We visited the warm, comfortable room five days after it opened and were pleased to find that they were serious about “fine dining.”
Owner George Makhloux has assembled an outstanding staff, beginning with chef Mario Azrak, former chef at Byblos, with a rich background in Lebanese cooking in his native land.
Mario is half Greek/half Lebanese. How did he get an Italian first name? “My father loved Italians. I even opened a Pizza Hut in Lebanon.” (I always said Greeks made great pizza.)
Naim, our waiter for the evening, also has a rich background in the restaurant business, and was contributing to a smooth start-up. With a father who is a resort owner and hotelier, Naim has traveled all over the world working in the hospitality trade.
While the restaurant had a huge wine and cocktail list, I had to try Lebanese beer, and the unusual way it is served. Almaza is a light beer that is served over a splash of lemon juice in a glass rimmed with salt. Quite an unusual taste. ($5)
Joyce was overwhelmed by their specialty drinks, priced at $9. She wanted an espresso martini without the espresso because the other ingredients included kahlua, frangelico, vanilla, and Bailey’s. “No problem!”
A plate of fresh mixed nuts was brought to our table while we waited for our Sampler Platter ($22), which was more than enough for two.
Nara offers a large selection of appetizers and mezzas (Lebanese appetizers). While the regular appetizer list was very inviting, especially lamb, shrimp and scallop specialties, we were here for a taste of Lebanon, and went with the Mezza side of the menu.
Whatever you order, be sure to include the hummus, served as smooth as could be with a touch of lemon juice, paprika, olive oil, parsley and tahini. You’ll never want “store-bought” hummus again.
Also on the platter were Baba Chanouj, that wonderful eggplant dip with garlic, lemon and other spices; plus grape leaves served warm; Lahem Ajoun, a tasty meat pie; and Fatayer, pickled veggies, spinach in a soft dough and pita bread.
Taking a breather before the main course, we listened to live Lebanese music (Wednesday and Sunday evenings).
Entrees offered a wide variety of meat and fish dishes, with an emphasis on lamb, the most popular meat of the Lebanese people.
I chose the braised lamb shank ($21) (braised overnight). Presentation is so important, and chef Mario knew how to do it. Unlike the lamb shank I’m used to, this dish comes with the lamb, mixed with spices, pulled from the shank, and standing in the middle is the bone it was taken from, with a green herb in its center.
It not only looked exquisite; it tasted exquisite.
Joyce enjoyed her mixed grill ($25), a huge plate of lamb chops, chicken, tenderloin and shrimp, with more of that great hummus, garlic veggies and French fries. She never even looked at the fries.
We certainly didn’t need dessert; we were already taking some of our meals home for the next day, but chef Mario had made a special Lebanese dessert using three types of cheese and a sweet rose petal topping.
We left Nara very satisfied and happy for the chance to try food different from what we were used to. Naim assured us that we had also eaten a very healthy meal of meat, grains, beans and vegetables.
We walked through the Hookah bar on the way out. It was filled with people trying a variety of over a dozen flavors ($19). While we’re not ready for that yet, we will be back for more great ethnic food.
Nara is open 364 days a year. They buy all local fresh ingredients and import other ingredients from Lebanon. They offer a three-course luncheon ($19).
They are located at 248 Atwells Ave. in the heart of Federal Hill.