Plain ol' storefront restaurants in Chicago are always so damn deceiving. Places that you'd never dream of entering usually turn out to serve some of the most unique and delicious meals you've ever (or never) tasted. There is always the crazed (usually hunger-rage-induced) internal dialogue that goes on before entering a new restaurant: The front is too plain, there is too much glass-window exposure, the lighting is too god-awful bright, I don't like the table layout, I can't deal with the shiny wooden tabletop…the list just goes on for why I simply pass certain places up time and time again. Such is the case with Fattoush. I must have walked by the just-over-a-year-old Lebanese restaurant in Lakeview a thousand times, but never once did I think to actually try the food at the plain-faced-but-still-insanely-popular Lakeview eatery. It just never hit my belly's radar; that is, until I did a google search for "The best Lebanese food in Chicago," and they were splayed all over the Top 10 page.
Online user reviews can make or break a place (most hard-core foodies rip through them and actually trust them far more than they do a big write-up in the paper) and Sam, the happy-go-lucky owner of Fattoush, has the golden rainbow shining on his smooth, little bald head on that one. Peppered with quotes like, "the best Lebanese food I've ever tried," and "I went back three times in one week, it was that amazing," the online raves are so good you'd think they paid to put them there. After sampling half the menu this past weekend, I quickly figured out the rabid fans of Fattoush were just telling the truth, spreading the good word as fast as their wee fingers could type.
Though a bit pricy on the entree portion of the menu, the appetizer section is rife with low-budget possibility. Always the ultimate way to go, ordering five or six smaller plates to share is a dream here. The Fattoush (King of Salads) is a big bowl of freshly chopped vegetables and tiny chunks of lettuce, all lovingly tossed with sumac spice, extra virgin olive oil and fresh lemon juice. The clincher is the bits of toasted pita chips that top the salad, all of which could easily be bagged up and sold as a carryout item by themselves (pocketing Sam a small, but tidy fortune). The shockingly bone-white cream of potato soup (very soupy, save for the hunks of semi-firm potato throughout) is a steaming hot bowl of creamy rapture, especially when you grab a toasted, super-thin piece of Lebanese pita bread and swish it around the bowl for a final remnant soak through.
The spinach pie is fresh whole leaf spinach chopped to smithereens and simmered down with dry mint, olives and gobs of olive oil. Encased in homemade dough, the glistening spinach is blasted with fresh squeezed lemon juice and baked to perfection. Even the simple yellow rice side dish is awesome. Studded with slivers of toasted almonds, the cup-shaped presentation is instantaneously crushed into a scant few heaping tablespoons and gobbled down within seconds.
But, the winner of the table was the Foul appetizer. The huge bowl of tenderly cooked chickpeas and earthy brown fava beans is somewhat soup-like, just chillin' in its own juices, and the wet sauce is so infused with lemon juice and olive oil that the immediate pucker competes with the look of awe reacting to the bold, never-been-tasted flavor. Maybe it's more of the sumac?
Every one of these dishes costs less than five bucks, and being a BYOB, you could easily be out the door (for two, mind you) for about $20 even. Be careful, though, of the baklava: These house-made desserts are served three different ways (with cashews, pistachios or walnuts) and could easily trump your teeny-but-wants-the-whole-damn-pan pocket book.
THE FINAL RAVE: Perfectly timed, the kitchen managed to bring all of our dishes to the table piping hot and perfectly executed. It was a work of art. There was no standing by, and no dish was cold from waiting on other's to be cooked. It was just a shining example of how food should be served.
KEEP IT GOING:
Read It: Maza
A touch less expensive than Fattoush, the menu at this Lebanese favorite features a mini-book full of delectable small plates of Lebanese food. You can't really go wrong here, so order 'em all.
Eat It: Chicago Historical Society
Come April 9, Maureen Abood, a local author specializing in Lebanese cuisine, will examine the Lebanese people and the soul of their table. Not only will she share all of her lovely words with you, she'll also share a taste of Lebanon with the attendees. 'Nuff said.
Drink It: Spring Hafla Dance Performance & Party
On April 24, join Jasmine Jahal, one of the world's finest belly dancers, as she twists and turns her belly into exotic positions for a live audience. And, in August, toss back a quick slug of Lebanese aniseed liquor and break out your own moves at the Chicago Shimmyfest, where she'll teach the wanna-be's her rock star gyrations.
Get Crazy With It: Chicago Lebanese Club
These folks love to plan trips home to the mother country. If you're really interested, shoot them off an email, express your love for hummus and start packing. They leave this summer.
Fatcake Misty Tosh explores back-alley eateries, holes-in-the-wall and seedy ethnic joints as she treks the city in search of the next raving dish. Join her in the quest.