Hawker-style stalls and hookah smoke. Waiters in keffiyehs and harem pants. A swinging bazaar and street food spiced right with zaatar. Take the Middle Eastern route to Yalla! Yalla!
‘Yalla! Yalla!' I first heard the phrase on a camel. I was mid-way through a rather smelly, if scenic, commute on the majestic ship of the desert. Struck by vertigo just minutes after my languid, cud-chewing dromedary started ambling across like a sulky teenager, the last thing I wanted was someone yelling ‘Yalla! Yalla!' (Which roughly translates as ‘Come on. Hurry up'.) Those tanned sheikhs on the covers of Mills & Boon might look glamorous on cantering camels. I just look like a bag of potatoes.
Fortunately, the Radisson Hotel GRT's newly-opened Middle Eastern Restaurant Yalla! Yalla! is more scenic oasis then rambunctious desert safari. And, there isn't a camel in sight. Phew.
Set by the swimming pool, the outdoor restaurant is shrewdly squeezed into what's essentially a corridor-shaped space between the hotel and its boundary wall. Following a Middle Eastern street food theme, it's cheerfully haphazard, featuring hawker-style stalls, cabanas and beanbags. Waiters in keffiyeh scarves and enviably-chic harem pants scuttle about dramatically whipping their heads around in time to belly-dancing music. The sweet smell of hookah smoke lingers in the air. It's all very cheerful, and a little bizarre. A swinging Middle Eastern bazaar interspersed with the sound of aeroplanes taking off overhead, random car announcements from the front porch and the inevitable foolhardy mosquitoes.
As a waiter hunts downs those mosquitoes, brandishing an electric zapper like Anakin Skywalker with a lightsaber, we settle down with a glass of deliciously pulpy orange juice. The menu's styled like a newspaper, in an attempt to recreate the feel of a busy Turkish street — where customers presumably drink endless cups of thick sweet coffee bent over the daily papers.
Our meal begins with vegetarian mezze. The service is swift and friendly, the mezze bright and fresh. We eat falafel, biting through the crisp golden-brown crust into fluffy steaming parsley-laced interiors. Although the pita bread's average, it's jazzed up considerably by a rainbow of dips. There's baba ghanoush, which makes up for its anaemic appearance with an intensely-smoky flavour, enhanced by the juicy pop of gleaming pomegranate. The vibrant tabouleh's finely chopped and generously showered with lemon juice. Garlic mayonnaise is a no-brainer, as ubiquitously popular as ketchup and, the hummus is expectedly silky. What stands out is the addictively tart labneh, simply hung curd seasoned with salt and a dash of olive oil.
Spice it right
We try the Samak Qubob, marinated with zaatar, that uniquely Middle Eastern spice. It's astonishingly versatile, used in everything from meat rubs to stir-frys. A friend even introduced me to zaatar cheese toast from a tiny café in Dubai: teamed with steaming masala tea, it's an ideal end to a night on the tiles. The only danger with zaatar is it can get overpowering, but our chefs seem to have conquered the spice. The fish is delicate and flaky, gently tinged with zaatar and served with a fiery red chilly dip. There's also a shish tawook, featuring plump chicken kebabs skewered with coloured peppers. Sizzling hot, they go well with a pot of cool labneh. The portions are petite, but satisfying — provided you're not hungry enough to eat a camel.
There's baklava for dessert, of course. While it's not as flaky as expected, the unusually dense fudginess does have its own charm. There are also cold stone ice creams, from the popular Ice Cream stand set in the Radisson lobby. Our vanilla blended with strawberry preserve, three kinds of chocolate and nougat is intricate but achingly sweet.
Executive Chef Vijayakumar says this is a “fair weather restaurant”. If you plan to eat here, you had better get moving, because they'll close it once our Chennai ‘winter' draws to a close and people regretfully put their ear muffs away. Or, as they say in the desert, “Yalla Yalla, or you'll miss the next camel out.”
Yalla! Yalla! is at Radisson Hotel GRT. It's open for dinner from 6 p.m. onwards and a meal for two should cost approximately Rs. 1,500. Call 22310101 for reservations.