Two new eateries border on the extravagant
Reviewed by Kate Thornberry, Fri., Nov. 19, 2010
Phara's111 E. North Loop, 632-7067
If there's one thing Phara knows how to do, it's creating a magical atmosphere. Phara's is located in one of the low-ceilinged, cement-bunker-style storefronts where North Loop jogs into East 53rd, and from this unpromising material, Phara has created a space that is vivid, relaxing, and exciting. The dining room is small, colorful, and cozy. The walls are painted in bold colors, and the corrugated metal ceiling is almost low enough to touch, but the romantically low lighting of brave floor lamps and strings of tiny white lights manages to turn this ugly duckling of a building into a remarkably exotic setting. This sleight of hand is repeated when you step out onto the patio, which holds most of the seating. Spacious and airy, the space is crowned beautifully with lights, creating a fairyland effect that somehow manages to seem quintessentially Austin. The tables are spaced around a central fire pit, and individual tents with transparent sides border the patio, each creating a semiprivate dining area where customers can enjoy reasonably priced hookahs and shisha (flavored Turkish tobaccos, $12-15). Wednesday through Sunday, a belly-dancing floorshow starts at 8pm. Also, Phara's is BYOB, charging a mere $3 corkage fee for bottle disposal and the use of glasses.
The service is friendly but erratic, a problem stemming from the fact that Phara's is favored by large parties and usually has more than one big top monopolizing the staff and kitchen. And though most of the food is excellent, there's some unevenness to the menu as well. The creamy hummus with roasted pine nuts ($5) is full-bodied, garlicky, and lemony, with lots of tahini; it's very good. The baba ghanoush ($5), also heavy on the tahini, is tasty but almost indistinguishable from the hummus. The dolmas ($6) were dreadful – bland and oversteamed to the point of near-disintegration – but the tzatziki ($5), made with real Greek yogurt, is excellent: cool and refreshing, with pronounced cucumber, dill, and garlic flavors.
The lamb shish kebab ($17) was superb: Fresh cubes of lean lamb are grilled to a perfect medium, flanked by rice, tzatziki, and grilled vegetables. The tender, firm basmati rice was adorned with minced green onion and dried cranberries, a unique and artful combination. But what made the dish were the grilled vegetables. Much of the time menus promise grilled vegetables but deliver soft, flabby vegetables that have been sitting in a steam table. These were the genuine article, still firm, with heat-softened exteriors. The onions, mushrooms, squash, and green peppers bore char marks and the bloom of flavor that only comes from roasting over coals.
Phara's Thali Sampler ($13) consisted of the aforementioned hummus, baba ghanoush, tzatziki, dolmas, and basmati rice, with the addition of Aegean salad, tabbouleh, Greek olives, and oddly, canned green beans. The Aegean salad was very simple but good, featuring romaine lettuce, tomato slices, Greek olives, a decent amount of feta cheese, and an authentic, Greek oregano and lemon juice vinaigrette. The Greek olives are lovely, and the tabbouleh is outstanding, with a clean, fresh parsley flavor, its dense grains providing a needed textural contrast to the rest of the plate. The little pile of green beans was really just confusing and detracted from the dish in both texture and flavor.
The food is extremely good overall; if it can rise to the magical level of the atmosphere, Phara's could become an Austin institution.