I never got hip to Middle Eastern cuisine until moved to Bay Ridge in 2006. With its large Arab population, the neighborhood has become a hotbed of regional cuisine. Tanoreen had already gained a citywide reputation by the time I moved here, but there are many other Middle Eastern eateries serving the neighborhood with equally impressive food albeit far less celebrity.
First Oasis (9218 4th Avenue) has been a Bay Ridge fixture for the past 10 years, when it relocated from its original location in the West Village. I was turned on to this place a few years after that by a colleague who works in the office building across the avenue and was blown away by the quality of the cookery. The cuisine is Syrian and Lebanese, with an emphasis on grilled meats. Most of its business is takeout; I found the dining room completely empty when I paid a visit at 1pm on a weekday. The dining room is comfortable and unpretentious, with a commodious bar that serves wine and beer. Arabic pop music videos play softly on the thankfully small TV monitors at either end of the space.
Although this restaurant is a takeout-staple in my household, I wanted to see what it could whip up at a moment’s notice. I also wanted totry a wide sample of its delicacies, so I ordered a mixed appetizer sampler and the mixed grill platter.
The Baba ganoush, a popular Levantine dish of cooked eggplants, olive oil and various spices, had a creamy texture and a smoky, savory flavor. It was served with steaming, fluffy pita bread. Be careful you don’t spoil your appetite—this stuff is addictive.
Egyptian beans were simmered with delicate seasonings and garnished with fresh slivers of onion and were hardy enough to make a meal by themselves. The stuffed grape leaves were freshly made, moist, and delicately seasoned with hints of saffron and mint. A true delicacy, these have almost nothing in common with the bland, mass-produced version you get at your typical deli’s salad bar.
Pickled turnips and beets were served as a side dish. Their crisp, tangy flavor, crunchy texture and bright colors were the perfect counterpoints to the creamy textures and earthy tones of the baba ganoush and beans, a stimulant both to the palate and the eye. Tahini sauce was provided for dipping, featuring the usual sesame paste but mixed with yogurt and traces of spinach for a refreshing and flavorful taste. (The appetizers were all vegan-friendly and can be accompanied by a wide variety of vegetarian entrees.)
The mixed grill included chicken, kufta and lamb, served sizzling over a bed of aromatic rice with a garden salad featuring a lemony parsley dressing and kalamata olives and freshly-made hummus. The chicken was marinated and grilled, smoky and flavorful but moist and juicy. The kufta consisted of ground lamb delicately seasoned and shaped into a sausage before grilling. Once you’ve tried this, you’ll never settle for a regular old hamburger again. The lamb cubes were grilled to perfection with a simple marinade and thick chunks of onion that filled the air with an aroma that made me want to swear off fast food forever.
Altogether, an exquisite meal, and the house cabernet accompanied it perfectly. Everything came to $30—a pretty decent bargain for a meal that could have fed two hungry writers. Bottom line: the food rocks, and there’s always a seat available at lunch.
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