Thanks to Ottolenghi et al, Middle Eastern flavours are this season’s hot tastes for cool people. Sadly, they are surprisingly difficult to find in South Africa. Johannesburg diners have long frequented The Sheikh’s Palace on Rivonia Road for Lebanese opulence. I made my recent booking with high hopes. I knew the venue to be a many-times winner at the Diners Club Winelist Awards. I remembered earlier epicurean encounters at Sheikh’s Palace when I had feasted on succulent olive oil-drizzled loubieh green beans, samboosek jebneh cheese pies and znoudel el set pastries filled with soft, sweet, fragrant rosewater confectioner’s custard.
This time, my Sheikh experience was not regal. There were burn holes in the table cloth –they looked like they had been there for quite some time. The pita bread had the dense, clammy texture that comes with a long refrigerator sojourn. The houmous be tehinneh had a similarly stale taste and mouth-feel. The lahme meshwieh beef kebabs were teeth-grindingly over-cooked. Service was not customer focused. I got the sense that my waiter was eager to speed me up and send me on my way. He pushed the high-priced, set-platter options and was monosyllabic when asked for opinions or advice. However ho-hum the food is, the wine list is remarkable – it includes Chateau Petrus 1996 (R49 100), Chateau Margaux (R28 800) and Cristal Rose 1995 (R38 800). Not having a spare R49 100 on me at the time, I cannot attest to provenance and storage of such wines.
At the other end of the Middle Eastern price bracket is King Arabic Sandwiches in inner-city Mayfair. Palestinian refugees Hanan Ahmed and her husband Mohammad Sultan arrived in Johannesburg from the al-Shati camp in Gaza in November 2013. Their tiny bakery/cafe, King Arabic Sandwiches, is the newest Middle Eastern eating option in town. The moniker is a misnomer since (other than fantastic, house-made, light and bouffant pita filled with falafel and maqdoose walnut stuffed aubergine) sandwiches are about the only foodstuff not sold at King Arabic.
The setting is simple and the suburb insalubrious but the flavours could not be more regal. Delicacies are stacked behind a glass counter to be picked and taken away or eaten on site at one of the four tables covered with spotless, burn-free, gingham cloths. There are disk-shaped, date-stuffed mamool biscuits, orange-blossom-syrup-drenched hareesah semolina cakes and rose-water-infused rice puddings. Savoury treats include sunflower shaped manakeesh zaatar flat breads and a parsley green tabouleh fit for a coronation. On Fridays, after mosque, the snack type treats are joined by Palestinian main meals such as maqloopah (which translates from Arabic as ‘upside down’). This cumin and sumac infused, layered aubergine, chicken, cauliflower, potato and rice dish is turned out of its cooking pot, upside down, and holds its shape like a tart tatin. King Arabic Sandwiches is strictly Halaal and no alcohol is served but fragrant hibiscus juice is a delicious accompaniment to the Friday food. A diner can eat like a king and still struggle to spend R100.
The service at King Arabic is so sweet that one wants to weep. The bakers have lived through difficult times and arrived in South Africa with nothing but their skills and hopes for a better future. Hanan Ahmed and her husband nurture and value customers. They take genuine pleasure in explaining their food culture. The shy smiles of their children bringing biscuits are graciousness personified. In a contest of King v Sheikh, king takes the crown.
King Arabic Sandwiches 074 292 6191: Shop 2 Hanover Street, Corner 9th Avenue, Mayfair. 8.30am -9pm. No email or web presence.