|Al Wadi | 1249 VFW Parkway, West Roxbury | 617.325.3254 | Open Sunday–Thursday, 11 am–11 pm; Friday and Saturday, 11 am–1 am | AE, DI, MC, VI | Beer and wine | Off-street parking lot | Street level ramped access|
is a dry creek — until it rains, and then it becomes an oasis. This much-converted building between a Home Depot and a hockey rink has been a dry hole of mediocre Chinese restaurants until the gentle rain of South End investment brought it to bloom as one of the handsomest Arab-American restaurants to open here in many years. In fact, the choice of this somewhat isolated location follows a gradual movement of the old Lebanese-Syrian-Palestinian community from the South End to points south and west. (My secret fantasy is that executives from the nearby world headquarters of Pizzeria Uno, which includes a token test restaurant, sneak away for long lunches at Al Wadi.)
The food is outstanding, although it begins with mediocre pita slices. You can dip them in extra virgin olive oil redolent of zaatar, a mixed spice with sesame seeds, spread them with fresh-tasting drained yogurt "cheese," or alternate them with fine green or black olives.
One sign of seriousness is the lack of the usual combination plate of appetizers. If you want hummus ($7), you order that, and get a bowl of exceptionally smooth spread, with a few whole chickpeas for contrast, and slices of radish and cucumber to go with the pita slices. If you want grape leaves, you order werak enab ($7), and you have six of them rolled around a little bit of rice, but mostly with the slightly sour taste of vine leaves.
The invitation is to try something new, such as jawaneh ($7), a small plate of fried chicken wings lightly pickled in vinegar and cilantro. Or rekakat ($8), which are spring rolls stuffed with mild cheese. Or batata ($8), a wicked dish of potato morsels with cilantro and enough garlic to kill every vampire on cable television. The only weak appetizer in two visits was a bowl of lentil soup ($6) which wasn't bad, just bland.
A lot of people will want to test the kibbeh beseneyah ($16). They will not be disappointed. The portion here is a pie slice of the lamb/bulgur meatloaf, stuffed with more lamb and pine nuts. It's the subtle handling of sweet spices that makes this one sing. Or the minted yogurt sauce on the side. Or the rice pilaf with noodles. All dinners come with a garden salad sprinkled with lots of tangy sumak. A special of stuffed lamb ribs ($18) was three slices of meaty stuffing wrapped in delectable roast lamb with a bit of fat. I also loved the meaty rice with this dish. Al Wadi does have a mixed grill ($21), and it will sell a lot of kafta ($17), the nicely spiced lamburger skewer, and some beef tenderloin ($18), which despite marinated flavors comes rare and fork-tender. Chicken shish taouk ($17) was, as a skewer on the mixed grill, a little tough, as marinated chicken can be. Lots of simple vermicelli/rice pilaf on this one.