Every now and again, less frequently perhaps than a blue moon, a perfect night coalesces around an extraordinary dining experience.
There was the time in Swakopmund, Namibia, when our host called over to the Hansa Hotel to see whether they had Mozambique prawns and learned that they had just received a batch of langoustines with tails the size of chicken lobsters. They were not yet on the menu, but the chef came out to our table and asked how we would like them prepared. Three of them covered a dinner plate.
There was the tiny, four table Mexican restaurant in Worcester, Massachusetts where our friend from El Paso, Jesus Mendoza, took us for an unforgettable authentic meal like his mother used to make.
And there was the meal we had last week at Naji's Mediterranean Restaurant in Great Barrington, Massachusetts on the recommendation of our friends at Domaney's Liquor Store who said that if we were looking for outstanding Lebanese food, particularly Baba Ganoush, Naji's was the real deal.
Baba ganoush from the grocery store is to the exquisite version served at Naji's what Taco Bell is to that little Mexican restaurant in Worcester. The eggplant was roasted, the garlic and lemon notes accented the tahini, and the flat bread was warm and fresh. We ordered it as an appetizer and bought more to take home.
We also ate pressed spanakopita that used a moderate amount of filo and let the spinach and feta shine through, and steamed mussels in a tomato oil broth that were indescribably wonderful. The service was attentive, and when my companion said she was allergic to bell peppers, the chef owner came to our table to determine whether the lamb shish kebab she had ordered would be a problem. When it was clear that the juice of the pepper was the source of the allergy, he cut four or five medallions of lamb and grilled them with tomato, pine nuts, garlic and coriander and served it with rice pilaf and broccoli and eggplant fritters. It was so good, and we were so clearly enjoying it, that he made one for himself.
As this was a birthday night out, they gave me some homemade baklava. The most expensive entree was $18.99 and there was a decent wine list with several unusual selections from Lebanon that I will try the next time I go.
What these meals have in common is food lovingly prepared with a personal touch. Whether in the dining room of a three star hotel or a small patio with a handful of other diners, the effect was as attentive and intimate as a gourmet meal cooked for friends.