By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Photographs hanging in the front windows show generic images of Eastern Mediterranean cuisine — gyros, meat skewers, falafel, and the like. Appearing prominently above is the restaurant’s name, Al Reef. Unsure of its country of origin, we were drawn inside for a solid meal from a menu skirting so many cultures that we left with more questions than we had going in.
The restaurant, which opened in the heart of North Park several months ago, is the size of a dance hall. Numerous tables and super-comfy booths occupy a dining room accented in vivid, recessed lighting similar to that of a downtown nightclub.
Persian-style décor is scattered throughout, perhaps vestiges from the hookah lounge that previously resided here. With black acoustic ceiling tiles stretching across the room, it seems the further back you go, the darker it gets.
My companion shifted his interest from lunch to breakfast when were each handed two menus, one of them listing mostly American-style morning fare such as spinach omelets, eggs Benedict, and a pancake breakfast with eggs and bacon that he ended up ordering.
Yet on the same menu card were dishes that didn’t fit into the puzzle: Swiss enchiladas, shepherd’s pie, and something called “brioche bread on white chicken sauce.”
When our young, handsome waiter with a Brazilian accent returned, I couldn’t resist asking the nationality of the ownership, and what “Al Reef” means.
“He’s a guy from Iraq, and the restaurant is named after his hometown there,” he tentatively replied.
Maybe so, but Al Reef only shows up on Google as a villa community in Abu Dhabi.
While perusing the lunch-dinner options listing many of my favorite Mediterranean items such as tabouli, baba ghanoush, chicken shawarma and grilled kabobs, I became further perplexed by the presence of beef and chicken tikka on the menu, which I’ve always associated with Indian cuisine.
Though as I discovered when devouring the gorgeous “combo mix” entrée, the Persian version of tikka offers equally tender meats grilled to a charry finish, but minus the spicy yogurt marinade they usually receive throughout southern Asia.
The menu also features a “chicken cream chop” served plated or as a sandwich. It’s a Lebanese dish with vague Hungarian roots that you don’t see in many U.S. restaurants. The preparation basically involves dredging poultry filets in cream or yogurt, and then breading and frying them until golden.
Our waiter didn’t know the exact details of how it’s made here, except that panko crumbs are used for the breading. Needless to say, I’m determined to try it on my next visit.
Despite the perplexities we encountered, our meals were admirably well-executed and generously portioned. My companion’s breakfast platter came with several strips of bacon, plus perfectly cooked scrambled eggs, fresh fruit, and reasonably fluffy pancakes. The promise of herbed potatoes, however, didn’t pan out. So we requested from our apologetic waiter an order of potato salad as a substitute.
The tender spuds were encircled with slices of crispy cucumbers, and dressed in olive oil, fresh parsley and green onions. Rarely do I encounter mayo-free potato salad that hits such a refreshing mark like this did.
A bowl of yellow lentil soup was also memorable, thin in consistency yet aromatic and comforting. I used a portion of it as gravy for the mound of saffron rice on my combo platter, which came with sizable chunks of tikka beef and chicken, both moderately juicy, plus a ground-beef kabob sporting the customary flavors of onion, black pepper and parsley found in Middle Eastern kofta.
Minty house-made tzatziki, along with grilled tomatoes and onions, and a lively Greek-style salad strewn with creamy feta cheese tied everything together in what constituted as a splendid feast priced fairly at $13.95.
With its ambiguous culinary concept and a near-empty dining room on this particular weekend afternoon, Al Reef is nevertheless a restaurant that warrants repeat visits. And it’s one that I suspect still remains largely undiscovered.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.