Last June when Nawwaf Said and his wife Bayan opened La ShiSh café in Cary's Reedy Creek Plaza, they were hoping to fill a niche. Like many people who open restaurants, they were looking to start the kind of restaurant that they themselves had wished for but could not find in the area--a family-friendly, sit-down restaurant serving homemade Middle Eastern and Greek food.
Since then, La ShiSh has acquired quite a following, for good reason. All the food has something special, a personal touch that goes beyond the norm, even for a family-run restaurant. The fresh lemonade really is fresh-squeezed by the order, and with a touch of orange flower water, it tastes like no lemonade you've ever had. The babaganoush has a smoky flavor that is addictive. The baklava, a dessert that is usually way too sweet for me, is built around crunchy phyllo and nuts, the sweetness just right.
This month, for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, they are offering something else: a special Ramadan menu, geared toward Muslims who end their fast at sundown each day as well as non-Muslims who are interested in the holiday delicacies of the Middle East.
Ramadan is a month of fasting and prayer for Muslims, a month in which friends and families break the fast at sundown together. During Ramadan, it is traditional to forgive one's enemies, and the fast is considered broken if the faster lies, slanders or denounces someone behind their back. The month ends with the three-day festival of Eid, where people exchange gifts and eat special cookies filled with dates and nuts. In the Triangle, the Muslim community gathers at the fairgrounds for Eid, and Said estimates that between four and five thousand people attend.
Ramadan, like Christmas or Thanksgiving, has its traditional dishes rarely seen during the rest of the year. Because the daily fast lasts from sunup to sundown and requires that fasters abstain from both food and water (as well as sex, smoking and foul language), traditional Ramadan dishes are made to deliver immediate hydration and blood sugar, and there is heavy emphasis on beverages and desserts. La ShiSh is serving a variety of special drinks and desserts that you won't see at any other time of year.
Tamarind, licorice and apricot flavored drinks that are made from paste and resemble thick juices are designed to pack that hydrating sugar punch. My favorite is an Egyptian drink that consists of milk filled with dried fruits and toasted almonds. "After a day of fasting, the philosophy is that when the sun goes down, I deserve the best," Said says. These drinks are seen as special treats, and it's easy to see why.
After breaking the fast with perhaps a single date and a fruit drink, it is traditional to eat lentil soup, which La ShiSh serves with lemon wedges for squeezing into the soup. There are a couple of Ramadan entrées, including a baked okra casserole, but the real emphasis is on desserts. If you can tear yourself away from the fabulous baklava, it's definitely worth trying the kataiaf, a kind of folded pancake pocket stuffed with nuts, or the konafo, a pastry made with shredded phyllo and layered with either cheese or nuts and raisins.
La ShiSh's special Ramadan menu appears as a pull-out leaflet in their regular menu and will be served throughout the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, which ends on Nov. 14. If you love Middle Eastern food, this is a great chance to try some things rarely available outside the homes of practicing Muslims, as well as a way to treat yourself to some truly delicious foods. x
La ShiSh is located at 908 N.E. Maynard Road in Cary. 388-8330, www.lashishcafe.com. Hours: Monday-Thursday 11 am-9 pm, Friday & Saturday 11 am-10 pm, closed Sunday.