Sky Full of Bacon

#6: Habibi vs. the Pillow of Rice

(The number refers to my pledge to write about 50 restaurants largely untalked-about on food sites to date. Others are accessible by clicking on the Restaurant Reviews button at right.)

Middle-eastern restaurants fall into two categories for me. Dives and “pillow of rice” places. Dives, like Salam or Alma Pita, have tasty authentic food in a dineresque no-atmosphere atmosphere. Pillow of rice places, like Reza’s, have a dressier atmosphere and serve grilled meats atop a pillow of rice which would feed five. Pillow of rice places may seem of good quality at first, but they inevitably bore the spit out of you long before you’ve eaten even a quarter of all that rice. Spare me the massive, flavor-extinguishing pillow of rice.

Habibi is a newish Egyptian place in Rogers Park which has definite pillow of rice tendencies— it’s done in a style that might be called Restrained Garish, photomurals of Egyptian archeological treasures around the walls, a fountain in the middle of the room, neon in the floor. The food is of high quality and often had bright fresh-spice flavors that can be missing in other middle eastern spots, but it’s a bit undercut by some pillow of rice-isms.

One son had falafel, which were freshly made and had a fresh-garlic bite; another had a beef shawarma sandwich which tasted of good meat and a little dash of something (cumin? sumac?) I had maklouba, said to be a kind of vegetable stew, though it was more like some freshly sauteed vegetables atop a pillow of rice, covered in turn with some pretty good, slightly overdone by fine restaurant standards slices of lamb. The maklouba would have been better not overwhelmed by a pillow of flavor-reducing rice, just as the hummus we had for a starter would have been better if it hadn’t been counteracted by day-old pita.

They brought us not one, but two freebies to try— mint tea (which the kids didn’t really touch, alas) and a fattoush salad which was very fresh-tasting and nicely made. They’re trying hard, and overall the food seemed a cut above, but some pillow of rice-isms are holding it back a little, and would make it a little hard for me to race back here when there are dives not far away offering tasty food without starchy impediments.

1225 W. Devon Ave., Chicago
(773) 465-9318

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