April 11, 2012

Soup to Nuts: Middle Eastern fare is heaven scent in Portland

The intoxicating aromas of baking fill the small Forest Avenue kitchen of Audai Naser, who is cultivating a loyal and growing following for his Middle Eastern breads and sweets.

By Meredith Goad mgoad@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND — Audai Naser tosses a fat round of bread dough back and forth between his hands, making a slapping noise that fills his tiny kitchen on Forest Avenue for a few seconds.

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Audai Naser shapes flatbread dough before placing it into the circular tandoor oven to his right.

Photos by John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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Tandoor owner Audai Naser tosses a hot flatbread from the oven on to a table to cool.

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845-R Forest Ave., Portland. 871-0655

Then he lays the flattened dough on a cloth-lined sponge pillow and gently places it inside his tandoor oven. The dough sticks to the side of the hot oven and is there for literally a minute before Naser retrieves it with a pair of big tongs.

With the grace of someone who has been doing this for 29 years, Naser tosses the tenur, a traditional Iraqi flatbread, across the room onto a table piled with the freshly baked bread. He makes 200 of these flatbreads a day, along with 200 samoom, a traditional pocket bread.

"It's easy," Naser said. "Before when I worked in Iraq, I make bread (in) one hour, 1,000. I make every day 6,000 in six hours."

Bread is not the only thing Naser bakes at Tandoor Bread & Restaurant, his little bakery across the street from Baxter Woods.

Every day, he and his wife, Kanat Saad, and their helpers produce a good array of delicious Middle Eastern fare, from falafel and shawarma to baklava and other Arabic pastries.

Tucked behind Downeast Appliance and in the same row of businesses as Haggarty's and the Fishermen's Net, Tandoor is one of Portland's hidden gems. There are only two tables, so most people get take-out, and the decor is plain to say the least – but no one goes there for the decor.

Audai (pronounced Oh-day) Naser, an Iraqi refugee, has a small but extremely loyal following. Most of his customers are other refugees and immigrants, or students who are studying here and wanting a taste of home. Five Middle Eastern families regularly drive here from Boston, and another four from Vermont, just to buy his breads and other foods.

Recently, an Iraqi from Boston called Tandoor to say he had eaten Naser's bread three years ago but lost the name of the business, and had been searching for it ever since.

Naser estimates that maybe 5 percent of his walk-ins are Portlanders not of Middle Eastern descent who have heard about his food. Most of his business around town consists of selling wholesale breads and pastries to markets and restaurants.

He also produces and delivers Ariel's pita bread, developed in partnership with Ariel Glazer of Ariel's Hummus. Glazer is transitioning the pita bread business over to Naser.

Glazer admits he's biased, but he is one of Naser's biggest fans.

"I haven't had such good pita anywhere outside of the Middle East," he said. "He also makes a delicious baklava. It's made out of natural ingredients, it's fresh. It's not that overwhelming. Usually, baklava is very, very sweet. You have one bite and you're done."

Naser's baklava is flavored with rosewater and cardamom, and sweetened with a honey syrup. It contains both walnuts and almonds. He also makes bourma, a phyllo pastry similar in taste and texture to baklava.

On the savory side, Glazer is partial to Naser's shawarma – meats grilled on a spit and shaved for sandwiches. He says the Tandoor shawarma is "truly authentic."

Naser's falafel is extra crunchy on the outside, a great contrast to the ultra-creamy chickpea filling inside. His Za'atar bread, a breakfast flatbread that's eaten while it's still warm, is covered in a herb-and-spice mixture of thyme, sumac, sesame seeds and salt that's been moistened with olive oil. Order it with a cup of slightly sweetened Arabic tea, and it's a much healthier way to start your day than going through the drive-thru at the local fast-food joint.

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Additional Photos

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Among the products he prepares are, front, traditional favorites like falafel, left, baklava and bourma, and flatbreads such as tenur, pita and samoom.


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