KHALIL'S II | Restaurant Reviews | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper
When I entered Khalil's I was surprised to find myself in a windowless first-floor room. Having passed this Baum Boulevard fixture many times, I've always associated it with its glass-enclosed second floor. Evidently that's the banquet room. Downstairs, I couldn't take my eyes off a very large painting where a street-view window might be: a roly-poly sultan propped up against cushions while his harem danced for him and, by extension, us.

For the very hungry or for those who can't make up their minds between several items, the bargain here is one of the dinner specials. You get a meat entree, plus rice, choice of soup, salad, pita bread, three appetizers, coffee or tea, and dessert -- all for $16.95. In the interest of sampling as much as possible, I went with a dinner special. I ate what I could but took home three boxes of leftovers.

I really enjoyed the lentil soup. It wasn't one of those thick, porridge-type lentil soups, but a rich chicken broth with rice, small bits of pasta, onions and split lentils. The rice, pasta and lentils had been cooked to that perfect softness so they fell apart with the slightest pressure from one's tongue.

The side salad was a substantial plate of Romaine lettuce and tomato wedges, garnished with an olive and a wonderful lemon-and-mint dressing. For an extra dollar, they'll add feta cheese to your salad. I recommend it: The fresh feta -- several ounces' worth -- is soft and creamy, and just the thing to smooth the sharp edge of the dressing.

The appetizers were large portions; so much for my theory that it might be a gimmick with three appetizer tidbits. First came a big bowl of hummus -- mashed chickpea dip and a half-dozen pieces of pita bread to scoop it up with. The hummus was slightly sweet with a little edge from the sesame oil, garlic and pepper. I've never seen hummus served this way before, though I've no complaints: The dip was harboring a large baby carrot. The leftover hummus just about fit into an 8-ounce container.

The second appetizer, bamia -- okra -- was also enough for two. A lot of folks don't care for okra, but the secret is to surround it with lots of distracting tastes and textures as it was here, stewed in a thick tomato sauce with onions and peppers. Only the third starter -- two grape leaves stuffed with moist, seasoned rice -- seemed to be appetizer-scaled. My companion, not realizing how many appetizers I'd be laden with, had ordered his own starter: artichoke bi taratoor. This was a big plate of soft artichoke hearts marinated and served in a thick sesame sauce.

For my entree, I had chosen the basic lamb shish kabob. It came off the skewers -- beside a heaping pile of rice accented with pine nuts and two lemon halves. The lamb had been marinated before grilling; it was a bit salty and nicely smoky. The two pieces I ate before surrendering the meal to the doggie bag weren't as tender as I'd hoped, but I loved the lamb, lemon and pine nut combination.

My companion had opted for one of the less expensive, and less meat-intensive, entrees. (Khalil's does offer several vegetarian main dishes -- and of course, I learned that a couple of meatless appetizers would easily make a meal.) His dish was a casserole -- shekh el mihshee. Eggplant and ground lamb had been combined with tomatoes, onions and spice, then baked until the eggplant had broken up all loose and chunky. It proved to be the sort of hearty, stick-to-your-ribs dish that deserved better placement than at the end of a long line of filling appetizers.

And I still had dessert and coffee coming. Among the dessert options were ricotta pie, farina cake and two kinds of baklava. I chose the smallest item, which looked like a large cookie oozing fruit filling. The waitress explained it was called "mamool" -- a popular cookie filled with either figs or crushed walnuts. (This sweet came out of a wrapper, but some desserts are made in-house.) I picked one with fig filling and found it was just the perfect accompaniment to my cup of strong coffee.

I took one last look at the sultan before leaving. I'm not sure I'd want the trouble of a harem, but sated as I was, I certainly envied the ease with which he rested upon his satin pillows. ***

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