Dish Deconstruction: The Turkish-style chicken kebab starts with chicken (boneless white meat only) that's doused with secret spices (including allspice and red pepper) and baked. Cooled chicken chunks are laid out on a pita (white or whole wheat) and topped with homemade hummus, cabbage, pickles, olives, garlic sauce and tahini. The pita's wrapped and heated.
Official Word: "The sandwich is good here - it's my way of doing it special," promises Lebanese owner Zoher Hakim. "I tell people: 'You don't like it, return it.' But I haven't seen anybody do this in three years."
The Story: Arabesque opened on Queen St. W. (near Niagara St.) in 2003 and moved north to the more affordable College St. just over a year ago. This eatery has only a handful of tables, but friendliness to spare. Takeout is popular.
The Menu: Don't miss Blood of the Pigeon, "Bedouin-style" mint tea with honey. There's also cardamom lattes. Arabic pizza, numerous pita sandwiches (including kibbeh/Lebanese-style spiced minced beef, falafel, hummus and shish kebab) and a ton of sweets (including various baklavas and Turkish delight).
Toronto Life Magazine
A delicately appointed respite from the city's plethora of neon falafel factories, bakery-café Arabesque bekons with the perfume of zataar and cardamom. A former restaurant owner in Beirut, Zoher Hakim stocks his thyme-honoured niche with a toothsome gallery of Middle Eastern délices - everything lovingly prepared on-site. Baba ghanouj is glamorized with pomegranate molasses, while pyramids of mamoul (heart wheat, honey, pistachio and rosewater) elbow a bounty of Iranian pitted dates, beautiful baklava, and gem-toned jams made from pansy, mango and pear spread. Despite its moniker, Blood of the Pigeon - a potent Bedouin-style mint tea named for its sanguine tint - is Earl Grey's more civilized cousin.
Billing itself a modern Middle Eastern food experience, this delightful take-away isn't far off the mark: grilled meat-and-veggie-stuffed pitas, wraps and pastries, perfect for eating on the street. Best: grilled cinnamon and zaatar-scented chicken kebabs wrapped in pita spread with hummus, soft onion and parsley; smooth eggplant baba ghanoush sweet from pomegranate molasses; out of the ordinary falafels kicked with fiery sour kebase pickle; nutty house-made honey dripping pastries; to sip, cardamom lattes or Blood of the Pigeon, strong Bedouin-style minty tea.
It may be unnerving to think you are sipping "Blood of the Pigeon," but the full-bodied brew does not allow you to dwell on that fact. You'll be to busy taking in the flavour of the Moroccan black tea, which is laced with honey to temper the bitter edge. The price, $1.50, makes this a panacea for the impoverished soul. Although Blood of the Pigeon is almost always available, Arabesque also has spiced teas from the Middle and Far East. Owner Zoher Hakim, who immigrated from Lebanon 45 years ago, has had his business open for just seven weeks and already he claims a steady clientele.
Not just another god-awful falafel joint, Arabesque jacks up the quality of the Middle Eastern street sandwich several notches. The house version comes in a hummus-spread pita full of lemony ground bean patties and garlicky sour kabese pickles. Arabesque pizza finds another flatbread cylinder holding minced Lebanese-style kibbeh beef seasoned with pungent zaatar and sharp sumac. Scented with cinnamon and pita-wrapped, grilled chicken kebabs erase all memories of similar gristly mystery meat interpretations found around town.
And unlike those shawarma shacks, Arabesque's sweets and pastries are remarkably fresh due to the high turn-over. Mamoul Tamar ($1.59) are delicious date dumplings bundled in pale pastry flavoured with rosewater. Savouries include spinach (Fatay Aran), goat feta and coriander (Jibneh Baida), and ground beef and sweet red pepper perfumed allspice (Lahme B'agine).
Despite its name, Blood of the Pigeon has nothing to do with the plasma of urban vermin. Instead, it's very strongly brewed mint tea and super summer thirst quencher.
What's on Queen
"Modern Middle Eastern Food with a twist" is how owner Hakim describes his charming café. "The word of mouth has been excellent. People have brought their entire families down here after trying the food. I'm astonished." Hakim credits the instant appeal of his cuisine to the unique flavouring of his dishes.
"We offer tastes people don't expect," he explains. "We offer traditional Middle Eastern cuisine - but differently. We use a lot of unusual spices like suman, zattar and rosewater.
Prices are fair and include classics like Falafel, Tabouleh, Sishkebabs, Chicken Kebabs, Baba Ganoush and the like.
"People have actually told me that I should raise my prices. They can't figure out how I make money because the quality is so good."
Hakim prepares everything fresh from scratch daily, including lunch, diner and takeout, and also carries some phenomenal baked goods that are hard to find elsewhere.
I thoroughly enjoyed the sandy, silky Mamoul ($1.99), a delicious compact pastry made with heart wheat, honey, walnuts and rosewater. Other varieties of Mamoul come with pistachio ($1.99), or with dates and rosewater ($1.59). They're definitely worth trying and would be well-paired with a cup of tea.
Other delectable sweets include the Ghrybe ($1.29), a white cookie-like pastry with honey and pistachio, dusted with icing sugar, and the Mini Finger Dates ($1.00), a small tubular cookie made with heartwheat and honey, filled with dates and topped with crunchy sesame seeds.
The friendly Middle Eastern oasis Arabesque (1068 College St. W.) stands out at College and Gladstone, a ways removed from the commercial strip of Little Italy, and considerably father from its erstwhile location in the midst of a competitive stretch of Queen St. W.
Out near Dufferin, where the rent is cheaper, this small café has thrived quietly for the better part of this year, built on honey-kissed desserts, a tasty falafel and a signature brew called Blood of the Pigeon - a powerful cup of Bedouin-style, mint-infused tea - all at reasonable prices. Vegetarian and meat-filled sandwiches and drinks are served up by Zoher Hakim, father of Fadi Hakim, co-owner of the equally laid-back Canteena and the Chelsea Room.
On chilly afternoons and lazy weekend days, the few available tables fill with patrons curling up with a hot cup of "the blood" to stay warm.