Tarbouch Lebanese Grill and Hookah
With a little tightening of the ship, Tarbouch may yet avoid the rocks
Reviewed by Kate Thornberry, Fri., Oct. 2, 2009
Tarbouch Lebanese Grill and Hookah534 E. Oltorf, 326-2001
Sunday-Thursday, 11am-10pm; Friday-Saturday, 11am-12mid
The building that once housed the iconic Texicalli Grille is now home to Tarbouch, a new Lebanese/Mediterranean restaurant. Paul Nader is the head chef and owner, his previous establishment being Chez Paul, in Lebanon. Tarbouch is staffed with a friendly and enthusiastic crew, many of whom are Lebanese.
The walls are bare and white, and the atmosphere is stark. The room is dominated by the deli case, which is full of baklava, colorful flowers and fruits, and marinating skewers of lamb and beef. Atop the case are arranged several ornately decorated hookahs, which are available for use on the patio. Based on the love of color evidenced behind the glass, the dining room will be lovingly gussied up when the budget permits.
The portions at Tarbouch, no matter what you order, are enormous. The menu lists appetizers, salads, wraps, and plates, with a greater variety of meats than are generally offered. Everything at Tarbouch is made from scratch on the premises, and this is most obvious with the grilled meat dishes. I sampled the lamb kabob combo ($11.99), which consists of two skewers of lamb interspersed with onion, basmati rice, hummus, pickles, and grilled tomatoes. The lamb was tender and fresh, seared by the open-flame grill, and the slices of onion were nicely blackened at the edges, complementing the lamb well. The hummus was plain but good, and the pita bread that Tarbouch serves, while thinner than some, was fresh and heated nicely. The basmati rice, unfortunately, although a huge serving, had clearly been cooked earlier, refrigerated, and then microwaved, lending it an unpleasant texture and uneven temperature.
This is probably the biggest flaw in Tarbouch's execution: Though everything is made on the premises, much of it clearly has been made earlier in the day and ineptly reheated. Tarbouch's potatoes ($3.59), which are sautéed with cilantro, garlic, roasted chile, and lemon juice, suffered the same fate as the rice; though tasty, they were served to us rubbery, dense, and thermonuclearly hot from the microwave.
The Sheesh Tawook ($8.99) – skewered chicken breast grilled over an open flame and served with salad, hummus, and pickles – had strengths similar to the lamb plate; the meat was delicious and cooked skillfully, the hummus was plain (but good), and the salad was enormous. Tarbouch's house salad is made from iceberg lettuce topped with grated carrot, fresh feta, sliced black olives, and a few sun-dried tomatoes, dressed with a vinaigrette that bears an uncanny resemblance to Newman's Own. I appreciate the effort to make it a little bit special with the fresh feta and sun-dried tomatoes; it doesn't bear comparison, however, to the Middle Eastern salads at Tarbouch's competitors.
The falafel wrap ($5.99) and beef shawarma wrap ($6.99) are gargantuan in size and are served with giant portions of the house salad. For both, the most outstanding feature was their hefty size. But the falafel wrap did not come as ordered and had a stray piece of plastic wrap inside. All in all, I was left with the impression that though Nader clearly knows his stuff, some of his kitchen staff are inexperienced, or possibly just careless. With the modern trend in Austin toward culinary school graduates manning every station, this lack of attention to detail puts Tarbouch at a distinct disadvantage; our standards, even for a gyro, have gotten pretty high. With a little tightening of his ship, however, Nader may yet avoid the rocks.