I’ve been meaning to sample Lebanese food ever since I watched the back to Lebanon episode on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. On the show, Lebanese food looked different that the other kinds of Middle Eastern food I’ve had before. It looked like a mix of lighter Middle Eastern cuisine and Mediterranean food, with the liberal use of olive oil, lemon, seafood, fruits, starches, and vegetables.
A little bit of online research drew my attention to Nuba as the de facto local Lebanese restaurant. The various online restaurant reviews sites seem to indicate that Nuba was quite the popular restaurant, expanding from it’s original Seymour Street counter-service establishment to a total of five locations.
I targeted their location in Gastown on West Hastings St. as the restaurant that was to serve as my introduction to Lebanese cuisine. It was their largest restaurant and seemed to be their only location with a table-service format. I wanted to have table service as opposed to counter service because I was looking for a substantial, sit-down meal rather than a grab-and-go quickie lunch. I wanted my first Lebanese meal to resemble the spread that was at every meal that Anthony Bourdain had in Lebanon. I wanted to feast like Bourdain did in Lebanon.
Lunch today seemed to be a perfect opportunity for a Lebanese feast. I had just gone on a 19-mile run in the morning and was extra hungry from not being able to have lunch until well past my usual dining time. I was in Richmond running some errands from around 12 PM to around 1:15. When I was done, I gunned it and picked my wife up at 1:43 PM from an undisclosed downtown location. I then drove us straight to gastown and found a street parking spot a few steps away from Nuba.
Entering the subterranean restaurant, both my wife and I were surprised by how cavernous the restaurant was.
There were a lot of tables, more than we had imagined there would be. The restaurant was still quite full at around 1:55 PM. I took this popularity as a sign that indicated the restaurant served good food. It took a few minutes for one of the busy servers/hosts to notice us and lead us to an empty table.
I was extremely hungry so I wasted no time in opening the menu and looking for items to order. Quickly reading over it, I was a little disappointed to find that there wasn’t a lot of variety. The description of most of the dishes were also pretty similar to a lot of the other Middle Eastern food I’ve had. I was equally disappointed that all the different categories in the menu contained the same basic items in different configurations with different starches. I couldn’t order a variety of items from the different categories without getting duplicates of the main components…I guess a feast was out the window…Looking at the tables around us, I noticed that the pitas looked like hefty burritos while the plates looked like salads. Furthermore, the descriptions of the plates and pita wraps showed that they were mainly composed of the same primary and secondary ingredients. It was just a matter of choosing which form factor we preferred. We were both very hungry and we weren’t about to order measly salads for our meals, so be both ordered the pita wraps.
Being in a variant of the Middle Eastern restaurant, it was my obligation to order the falafel pita.
The pita bread wrapped around four falafels with some lettuce, tomatoes, and pink-coloured pickled vegetables. It was supposed to come preloaded with both tahini and hot sauce but I was not able to even taste a faint hint of spiciness when I ate the pita. The overriding feeling I got when I was eating the pita was healthiness. The abundance of crisp lettuce and pickled veggies made me feel like I was eating something light and fresh, that I was doing my body more good than harm by eating the pita. They covered up the falafels pretty well and the crunch of the lettuce and the sourness of the pickled veggies almost entirely masked the deep fried texture and spiced chickpea plus fava bean flavour of the falafel. Eating the falafel pita basically felt like eating a sour coleslaw salad wrap.
Unfortunately I wasn’t looking to eat or feel healthy for the meal. Rather, I was looking to load up on carbs and proteins and I wasn’t able to achieve this objective by eating the falafel pita. After a few bites of the wrap, I opened it up so that I could see if I could get a more satisfying feeling by eating the falafels by themselves. The falafels by themselves certainly had a more substantial mouthfeel. But they were too dry. Both the exterior and the interior of the falafels were dry. They were drier than most of the other falafels I’ve had over the years (I don’t claim to be an expert on falafels so I’m not sure if a good falafel is supposed to have a dry texture). These falafels were also lacking in flavours. I wasn’t able to taste any of the spices or even the chickpeas that were used to make the falafel.
In contrast to my vegetarian falafel pita, my wife had the relatively carnivorous chicken tawook pita.
Other than the chicken, it had the exact same ingredients as my falafel pita. My wife commented that it also tasted like a pita wrapped with healthiness. After eating about half of the pita, my wife commented that her hunger felt no sense of satisfaction. She said that it felt like she hadn’t eaten anything. I asked her to open up her pita like mine and to pick out the chicken and eat them by themselves. After she opened up her roll, she offered me a piece of chicken and I accepted. From it’s description on the menu – marinated in lemon, thyme, garlic confit, and paprika – I was expecting a complexly flavourful piece of chicken that was beautifully tender. What I got was a piece of dry, bland white meat that felt like it was left in a pot of boiling water for too long. It once again tasted very healthy.
We also ordered Najib’s special, which was healthy cauliflower prepared with the rather unhealthy cooking method of deep frying.
I had read online that this was Nuba’s signature dish. This was the one amazing dish that all the online reviews and reviewers raved about. It supposedly had this crispy outer texture that was totally different from all other cauliflower preparations. The interior of the cauliflower was supposed to be cooked but still crunchy and amazing in it’s own right. This was THE dish that I was looking forward to trying at Nuba. All that other healthy nonsense wouldn’t matter if this tasted as good as the hyperbole attributed to it. As I drew my first piece of cauliflower towards my mouth, I was ready to have my mind blown by it’s awesomeness.
I tasted it. I chewed it. I ingested it. My mind was not blown. There was no awesomeness to be found. There wasn’t even any crunchiness or crispiness to be found anywhere from the flowers to the stems. The pieces of cauliflower were limp and they had the same texture as regular cooked cauliflower. They also tasted like regular cooked cauliflower. Let me rephrase that: They tasted like sour cooked cauliflower. When dipped into either of the two included sauces, they still tasted like sour cooked cauliflower. My wife and I both happened to like cauliflower and the taste of sourness, so we had no trouble finishing the dish. It was an okay tasting dish that was borderline good, but it was a long ways away from being a very good dish.
The overarching theme of the food I had at Nuba was healtiness. The overriding taste that was most apparent in the three dishes we had today was: sourness. The overall feel we got was disappointment. The food we had at Nuba wasn’t bad, it just didn’t meet our needs for the day. Looking around at the surrounding diners, dining environment, and thinking about the food we had and their descriptions on the menu, I realized that Nuba would never be a restaurant that would meet our needs. It looked like a cool, popular, young, energetic, and healthy restaurant that targeted and attracted a specific demographic: hipsters. And hipsters my wife and I are not. We are more the fattening, unhealthy, way-too-spicy, too-much-sodium, environmentalist-disapproved, decadent, and over-the-top demographic. We are foodies; We are texture nuts and we are flavour junkies.