When we entered Naral’s and mentioned to the woman stationed at the front that we had a reservation, she responded with a smile, saying she was the dancer and not the hostess. Owner Nabin Naral quickly appeared and sat us at a booth that could have been in several establishments in Portland — exposed brick walls, large glass windows, a motif of black-and-white furnishings. Two TV screens over the bar flashed color.
The similarity to any standard eatery ended there. Soon, the exotic music started — bongos, a singer and a clarinet player. Two belly dancers shimmied near the musicians and occasionally sashayed alongside the tables, their midriffs jiggling almost at eye level. The women were skilled dancers arrayed in colorful costumes.
This was fun, and PG-rated. But avoid the entertainment hour on Friday and Saturday nights if you want to engage in hushed conversation with table mates.
Some items on the menu brought us back to mainstream Maine — seafood basket, burger, onion rings, Caesar salad. (This last came with tomatoes. For people with long memories, here’s an irony: This restaurant occupies the spot of the former No Tomatoes restaurant.)
The majority of the menu presented food from the Arabian peninsula and nearby: Falafel, babaganoush, hummus. We skipped these Middle Eastern standards and went with the less familiar. And we found several dishes to enjoy.
For $4, we dug into a rich and enormous bowl of harira soup (lentils pureed in a savory meat broth) served with ample warm pita bread. Bitingan ma’li, an entree-sized appetizer of fried eggplant, a tomato-based sauce, ground lamb and rice, was another delicious bargain at $8. Likewise, a kofta wrap (kofta is a meatball, and in this version, chicken predominated) was substantial and cheap ($5), the tahini sauce, lettuce and tomato making the somewhat dry spheres appetizing. We could have stopped there and been full and satisfied, but we hadn’t yet delved into entrees.
Moroccan-style roasted chicken (dajaj mahammer), nicely enhanced by a saffron, cumin, paprika and turmeric seasonings and served with rice, was tender and flavorful ($13). A delicious filet of catfish was breaded, pan-fried and topped with a sauce resembling spiced-up ketchup ($13).
Only the Yemeni roasted lamb shank (mandi) broke the $20 mark (it was $24), and there was so much tender and fatty meat on the bone that I took it home and made soup the next day. Overall, the entree was good — the lamb was strongly flavored and hearty — but the tasty sauce seemed almost identical to the chicken’s.
All entrees were served with rice, although the menu noted a choice of couscous or rice. We didn’t think to ask, but our server didn’t offer.
Moussaka made with ground beef was greasy and skimpy on the eggplant, potatoes and bechamel sauce. The melted cheese topping did little to make up for it ($15).
All this was washed down with Avalon Sauvignon Blanc ($24), which was fine, but we were disappointed that the listed Turkish white wine, Cankaya, was not available to try.
Naral was born in Nepal and raised in Singapore, which is where he learned the restaurant trade, including how to cook Middle Eastern cuisine. His restaurant has been open for nine months and making inroads in what he calls “a burger and pizza town.”
To that end, Naral keeps those few standard and family-friendly items on the menu, and maintains an attractive if somewhat characterless decor. He also varies the entertainment offerings widely. As we departed, a DJ was setting up in front of the bar, and the dining tables would be moved for contemporary dancing that involved covered bellies (presumably). He also rents out a banquet hall next door and caters.
The minor incongruities of atmosphere and purpose make the establishment a little confusing to someone hankering for an authentic ethnic meal, but it’s not off-putting. The space is comfortable and roomy. From a restaurant goer’s standpoint, Naral’s offers large portions of good, unusual cuisine at fairly economical prices. We could have easily made a dinner of Middle Eastern appetizers, and both palate and wallet would have been quite happy. The single Greek salad ($9), with lots of fresh feta cubes and an excellent vinaigrette, was family-sized — big enough for four.
Overall, the flavors at Naral’s were robust and enjoyable, but didn’t vary as much from dish to dish as one might expect. And the same accompaniment — a sharp slaw of green pepper, raw onion and lettuce — came with every entree and most appetizers.
We concluded our meal with a communal pot of Yasunn tea, an Egyptian beverage of cinnamon, fennel seed, honey and black tea ($5). Baklava had that rich, butter and honey syrup and delectable pistachio and walnut paste, but the filo layers were tough to cut into, and lacked a delightful crinkle upon biting. Basbusa (also $7), a dense cake made from semolina flour, coconut and almond, was new to us and delicious.
Naral’s is open every day, from 11 a.m. into the wee hours, and the kitchen serves during that time too, for late-night munching. The owner appears to be working hard to create an inexpensive venue for food, drink and dancing. “We want people in this town to be happy,” he said.
Nancy Heiser is a freelance writer and editor. She can be reached at: