If there were an award for Most Transformed Interior in a Restaurant or Retail Space in Richmond, the Phoenician on Broad Street would win hands-down.
Instead of using old Mexican sombreros paired with maracas and the occasional tired painting of a burro, owner Naji Kadi has transformed his former La Casita into a Middle Eastern fantasy of burgundy and gold with dramatic silk curtains, Oriental rugs and a whole lot of grapes and vines. It's like entering a great big tent in the middle of a far-away desert. Traditional Lebanese music alternating with what I can only assume is Middle Eastern pop plays softly on the sound system, and even at lunchtime it's dark and a little mysterious inside.
It's a great match for the food. I have to confess that I haven't eaten a lot of traditional Lebanese food beyond the offerings at the Mediterranean Bakery, so my point of view is that of a relative novice. But the Phoenician has made me an enthusiastic convert.
It helps if you like Greek food. Although the two countries are an ocean apart, they share plenty of culinary similarities. There's an abundance of garlic, lemon and olive oil -- all things I like a lot. The dining culture is a little like another Mediterranean neighbor: Like Spain, Lebanon is a country of little plates mezze or lots of little dishes that can start a meal or become the meal itself. Small plates of olives, tahini-laden hummus drizzled with olive oil, and pita are set down before you when you order drinks. After that, it's up to you how the rest of the evening will proceed.
Many of the entrees, like the kebabs or falafel, are also available as starters, so it's a great way to taste several different things if you aren't familiar with the food. I've had plenty of falafel, and the Phoenician's version is one of the best crunchy and light, with a snap of garlic. Kibbe, pointy-ended morsels, are made of fragrant minced meat mixed with pine nuts and encased in bulgur and baked a deep, golden brown. Pine nuts make a guest appearance in the fatayer spinach, light pastry envelopes of lemony spinach and tomatoes. A friend recommended the fettoosh, a chopped romaine salad with lots of onion, tomatoes and, best of all, big pieces of deep-fried pita crusted with salt and tangy sumac. There's lots of fresh chopped Italian parsley in there, and combined with lemon, it all tastes sharp and green.
The lemon-bright tabbouleh is good too (although I wanted more bulgur with my parsley), and the hummus is silky smooth. Both the chicken and the beef shawarma work better at lunch as sandwiches than as dinner entrees because somehow, the soft, extra-fresh-tasting pita brings out the cinnamon in the marinade and the nuttiness of the tahini sauce better than when left alone.
Enormous chunks of charred chicken in the chicken taouk work well either way, although the mayonnaisey garlic puree is better left off than on. The kafta kebab, grilled patties of spiced ground beef spiked with onions, works well with the dinner's rice and side of green beans, and the beef kebab is full of fat chunks of tender meat, fragrant and hot from the grill.
You might as well give dessert a miss, because the baklava is forgettable and the knafe, a Lebanese cheese pie, is microwaved beyond recognition. That's a small thing, however, in light of the meal that came before it, and along with attentive service, the Phoenician easily grabs a spot on my weeknight dinner rotation. It's the kind of food that you want to try again and again, until it's as familiar to you as the quesadillas and enchiladas that used to haunt the same building. S
The Phoenician Restaurant
4401 W. Broad St.
Monday-Thursday: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.
Friday: 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Saturday: 5-10:30 p.m. Closed Sunday.
Handicapped accessible and non-smoking.