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Baghdad Nights

Done, but not Overdone

Americans have grown accustomed to the politically charged images of Baghdad in flames in recent years. Either in spite of or because of the current military climate, a culture of which we knew nothing a decade ago has been slowly creeping into our own; in media, in language, and -- what’s of most interest to us here -- in food. Does this Iraqi restaurant go beyond the same old Middle Eastern fare that has made hummus as mainstream as salsa?

As is so often the case, what is global is also local, and since late 2007, the fire-engine red sign of a recent Lower Haight eatery burns with a different heat; one that’s warm, welcoming, and promises innovative yet familiar cooking with much allure, but the results are hot and cold.

The menu presents some exotic new vocabulary, such as “jajeck” and “rihan” from the left side, and “tabsi” and “bamieh” on the right, with most mains priced under $15. But any intimidation goes up in smoke once we read the fine print and realize that what chef Riyee Alibrahmi has created -- here from Iraq via Boston -- is exceedingly similar to typical Middle Eastern fare.

Owner Husain Nasir has created a playful and date-ready environment that’s done, but not overdone. Rich tapestries adorn the walls of the ample room, and dim, peach-toned lighting work well with your skin, but not with plates of meat, veg, and rice. It’s immediately apparent that the wine and beer list will do as many laps ‘round the room as the weekend belly dancers, with equally intoxicating results.

The popular Iraqi Maza ($13 for two, $17 for four) was the grand slam of all dishes tasted. Perfect to share and soak up beer and wine, this is a painter’s palate of brilliant pickled turnip, crisp cucumber, deceptively pale hummus, the aforementioned rihan (Iraq’s answer to babaganoush), a cucumber salad of yogurt, garlic, lemon, and dill (a.k.a. jajeck), and a chewy “taboli” that was more parsley than wheatberry. All was to be slathered atop and sopped up with housemade tandori bread, which, while delicious, would have been much better if it had been served warm.

We also sampled kubba veges ($8), a toothsome hush puppy of ground rice, nuts, vegetable and feta dunked in a lemon garlic yogurt sauce, that was flavorful, unique, and left us wanting more.

Mains were a letdown by comparison. By our server’s suggestion, we sampled the tabsi ($15) and the “sea food” (sic) berani ($17). The first was described as “seasoned minced lamb,” but was, in fact, a compressed sausage of hot dog quality that was vaguely lamb-like, left to sink or swim in a cruel puddle of clunky tomato and eggplant puree. The quality and freshness present in the appetizers were left back in the kitchen, as the dish was neither cohesive nor attractive.

The filo-housed berani could have been good if the seafood hadn’t been that many days off the boat, but the result was bland, fishy, and disappointing. Counting those Baghdad days, it seems, can sometimes be lost between the nights.

Dessert was neither offered nor missed. Another Hoegaarden, however, brought the night to perfect closure.

Iraqi/Middle Eastern
Lower Haight
$$

Reservations essential? No.