Have you ever seen Nicola Ayoub dance? I still haven’t.
For the 15 years I’ve lived in Atlanta I’ve been hearing about hearing about the extroverted owner of Nicola’s Restaurant, the gent who likes to coax diners up and out of their chairs, all the while balancing a tray of lit candles on his head.
And every time I drive by this 27-year-old Lebanese fixture on my way to Buckhead, I think it’s an Atlanta dining experience I need to have, like a Ghetto Burger at Ann’s Snack Bar or a Frosted Orange at the Varsity.
Sunday may not have been the best night to first go.
What we found on this quiet weekend night was a sweet, creaky restaurant from an earlier generation.
With its dim lights, knotty pine paneling, framed pictures of landscapes and flowers lining the walls, silverware in burgundy cloth napkin rolls, enormous ceremonial pepper grinder, paper place mat menus, it made me think of the immigrant diners I grew up with in the mid-Atlantic, the ones that got nicer and a little more upscale with each renovation. It was like the place my mother liked to go because it was kind of fancy, and where my dad liked to go because it was cheap and unpretentious. The place that had a famous chicken cacciatore or moussaka.
I feel a soft spot for this place, particularly when I pause in the foyer to admire all the awards Nicola Ayoub has earned from groups as diverse as the United States Army and Refugee Family Services. He seems like a good soul who has given so much to his adopted country.
The food? It also belongs to another generation. The award-winning lamb shank still brings its A game — tender, fatless, with that silky, shreddy texture that shows an experienced hand in the kitchen. Chicken a la beef is kind of a hoot –a multi-animal rice party topped with raw almonds and sided by a vegetable stew made with those “baby” (actually mechanically infantilized) carrots.
A Mediterranean salad with feta and olives comes in a sugar-sweet house dressing — probably something that played a little better in the 1980’s when folks didn’t know what to expect from Lebanese food. Tabbouleh, on the other hand, brings a pitch-perfect parsley and bulgur salad.
Unfortunately, a plate called “Nicola’s Mediterranean Delight” felt old and off. Dry stuffed grape leaves met up with a square patty of kibbe (rather than the crunchy torpedo you find elsewhere) and a kofte kebab that didn’t taste at all fresh. Only the rice topped with eggplant stew was appealing on this plate.
But when some lovely gratis baklava came with the check, we couldn’t stay mad for long. I’m not sure Nicola’s serves the kind of Lebanese food I search out, but it has a spirit I won’t forget. Even without dancing.
- by John Kessler for the Food & More blog