"Are you for hookah or no?”
Frankly, that isn’t a question typically heard when entering a restaurant. My party declines, albeit reluctantly. Thank goodness for the labneh, exquisitely simple yogurt cheese served free immediately after we’re seated at Nora, a Taste of Lebanon. Its olive oil coating and thick texture almost, but not quite, erases the sweet smell of pipe smoke.
It’s rare that a free appetizer at any restaurant is a reason to return. Chips and salsa at a Mexican joint are great starters, but going back specifically for those is unusual. But the labneh is return-worthy, and the delicate toasted pita for dipping completes the score. The rest of the meal, save a few wobbles, is equally as good — especially in a town where Lebanese food done well is tough to find.
The wine list, mostly Lebanese bottles with a smattering of Argentine wine, clearly is chosen to go with Nora’s spicier, multifaceted cuisine. Menu items are explained by each server in great detail, yet the number of dishes still daunts. Perhaps the restaurant understands this issue. It serves many multiple-item plates that work as great beginner courses to those unfamiliar with Lebanese cuisine or as refreshers for diners like me who can’t seem to decide on just one thing.
Pastries ($11.95) — cheese, spinach and meat — are wrapped deftly in thick bread. It’s a little overwhelming for the light cheese pastry, but it’s an appropriate casing for the allspice-laden beef in the sambusek and the notes of tea in the spinach pie. The meze platter ($11.95) has hiccups. The grape leaves are a little soggy, and it’s one of Nora’s blander offerings. During another visit, the grapes leaves’ bland rice is dry, but is transformed when mixed with ground beef laced with nutmeg — a better showing. Falafel are the size of small meatballs, dense, mushroomy and dry.
But the mixed grill ($17) is beautifully done. Enough for three, maybe even four, the platter is stacked. Large chunks of well-done but tender beef and pretty pieces of chicken are charred with dark grill marks.
What sets the platter apart are two hearty pieces of ground beef, shaped like long sausages and peppered with parsley. At first glance, it isn’t the most attractive item, but the meat concoction tastes exquisite and herbaceous.
Pizzas range from the familiar (Americanized with mozzarella, $8) to za’atar and sesame seeds ($5) on crisp house-made pita. Chicken shawarma ($7) is tender but could use a touch more tahini, and the sandwich is oddly (or appropriately) served to us wrapped as if we ordered it to go. Kibbe is glorious offered either raw ($8.50) or fried. Similar to tartare, I prefer the raw and its flecks of cracked wheat and onion.
Some plates arrive with sides of rice mixed with pine nuts and dried spices, but those are best left alone in favor of the seasoned yellow squash and zucchini. The vegetables are mixed with vermicelli and served with panache. It’s a side dish that could stand alone. All of the offerings at Nora are incredibly well-priced for their size and are balanced for myriad palates.
On every visit, I wish that the ambiance was better and the music softer. On weekend nights, there’s belly dancing. It feels strange to watch with a kebab in hand, but as the night goes on, the patrons are mesmerized and entertained. On West Broad Street, Nora could go unnoticed the way many of its predecessors in the same space have been. But it shouldn’t be ignored. Like the belly dancing, the restaurant and its location might seem a little strange in the beginning. But Nora is easy to warm up to — and you’ll return for more than just the labneh. S
Nora, a Taste of Lebanon Restaurant
8902 W. Broad St.
Sundays-Thursdays 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m.