You wouldn’t expect to find a restaurant on Orange Blossom Trail serving entrees at $30 per plate, but then again, who would expect a former Friendly’s restaurant, left to decay at the Sand Lake Road intersection for the past 8 years, to be gutted, refurbished at the cost of nearly $2 million and transformed into one of the most attractively ornamented restaurants in the city? Not many, I imagine, but there she stands, all dolled up and equipped to receive lovers of Mediterranean cuisine. Yet, unlike other segments of the strip, pleasure-seekers are nowhere to be seen, refuting the notion that if you build it they will come.
Inflated prices may have something to do with it, though lack of direct access to Maraya off either OBT or Sand Lake Road may also be a deterrent. But once inside, you can’t help but admire proprietor Violeta “Sabrina” Haddad’s interior design skills – the beautiful Italian porcelain tile floors alone are worthy of a prostrate perusal, and the wrought-iron wall hangings lend a pleasing rustic touch. Rustic touches appear on the menu as well, as in the simple roasted rack of lamb ($29.99), four succulent chops marinated in a blend of rosemary, thyme, bay leaves, cinnamon and other “Middle Eastern” seasonings that supplanted the lamb’s distinct flavor with an essence more akin to beef. Just as outstanding was the accompanying mound of rice, boiled in a veal-and-chicken stock that underscores the high standards of the kitchen. One sip of the broth in the chicken soup ($6.99) is all it takes to confirm the stock’s authenticity, while haricots verts and carrots add a bit of texture.
An appetizer plate of customary Lebanese staples ($15.99) offers a proper gastronomic cross-section of the owners’ native land: dense, crispy falafel; crackling kibbeh stuffed with seasoned ground beef, pine nuts and onions; creamy hummus with sesame tahini; zesty tabbouleh with fresh-squeezed lemon; and a flawless, garlic-tinged baba ghanoush.
Fish Parisienne ($17.99), spaghetti Bolognese ($14.99) and deep-fried Dubrovnik shrimp ($12.99) are somewhat representative of the region, but chicken kebabs ($16.99) are a truer, and extraordinary, Mediterranean offering. An assertive dip of garlic paste sharpened every juicy bite, augmented further by that wonderful rice. The beef kebabs ($19.99) proved too meager to endorse – I would’ve expected twice as much even if I were paying half the price.
Kenafa ($8.99), a baked pastry filled with semi-soft ackawi cheese and drizzled with a light syrup, ended the affair with intrigue. At once sweet, salty, flaky and sticky, the dense dessert filled the void left by the beef kebabs. Chocolate sauce and cinnamon overwhelmed the tiramisu ($7.99).
It’s a tall order, but if you can look beyond the prices, there’s some outstanding food to be had here, and if you can’t, prices on the lunch menu are much less steep. Even so, one can’t help but root for Maraya to press on in the face of facelessness and pull out all the stops to attract patrons to the restaurant. A new sign on OBT will help, as will belly dancers and a beautiful outdoor hookah terrace, but in the fickle world of the food and beverage industry, smoke and mirrors can only go so far.