Falafel Hut: Mediterranean Makeover

The new Falafel Hut does not disappoint

With the sun firmly past its solstice, the Tennessee summer now awakens from his fitful sleep. Rolling up his sleeves, cracking his knuckles, and lifting his trusty cudgel Fahrenheit, he is ready for another season of violent repression. For the next 12 weeks he owns the very air and all who live in it. Roaming his dominion, he will crush without mercy any mortal foolish enough to break his daylight curfew.

It's too much for some. The orange flags have been folded and UT undergraduates have sounded the retreat from Fort Sanders. Yes, a few stragglers and deserters remain, but their spirits have been broken and the area has been declared officially safe once more for the middle-aged.

There aren't many gastronomies that retain their appeal in such heat as this. The heavy, rich sauces of haute cuisine lose all charm, and one would no more contemplate a curry than an Aran sweater. Over in Paris, the best restaurants are being boarded up for the summer as chefs scurry off to dip their toes in salty waters, and Knoxvillians can mirror this exodus to the Mediterranean courtesy of Falafel Hut (601 James Agee Street).

With beloved former owners Renee and Sameer Jubran now having passed the baton to Mike Soueid, the Lebanese entrepreneur has lost no time in revitalizing this hardy perennial. The exterior is still under reconstruction, but the interior is as clean, bright, and fresh as the food.

There is waiter service at dinner, but ordering at the counter for lunch seems closer to the true spirit of the place; informal, friendly, and right on top of the kitchen. At the counter, too, small morsels of the day's specials are handed out with abandon, and the brisk, cheery daytime experience is blighted only by the grim plastic cutlery.

Far and away the best introduction to the place is the $10 Falafel Hut Platter of hummus, baba ghanoush, grape leaves, tabbouleh salad, and falafel. The ghanoush is wonderfully tangy and although the eponymous element of the platter is perhaps a little too dry, the hummus compensates with its splendid lightness.

Main dishes are all bounteous, well-prepared platefuls in the Mediterranean mainstream tradition. The sliced, marinated beef shawarma is gentle of spirit yet firm of voice, and the tender chicken kebab with garlic, olive oil, and lemon is refreshingly straightforward.

The best approach to the menu, however, is to order a plentiful spread of mezze accompanied by the beautifully warm, pillowy-soft pita bread. The grilled halloumi cheese is moist yet pleasantly chewy, the flavors of the cucumber yoghurt are perfectly balanced, and the simbusik meat—perhaps the best appetizer of all—is a delicate pastry-wrapped parcel of subtly-spiced comfort.

There is nothing here, perhaps, that pushes the envelope too aggressively and arguably the Falafel Hut is best understood as the Mediterranean equivalent of a decent sandwich shop. The only wrong notes on its menu are sounded by the small handful of boring American dishes. Not only that but even a chef's special, here and there, is served with (groan) fries. These nervous gestures of conciliation to the Western palate are totally unnecessary. Both the restaurant's reputation and its customers are better served, I would imagine, by total fidelity to its Middle Eastern principles. Either Soueid should give chef Wissam Tarhini a longer leash, or Tarhini should have more belief in his considerable abilities.

Such gripes are soon forgotten, however. This is a great little eating place and its menu shines with a respect for basic ingredients and their freshness. Visit while you can still get a seat.