My eyes were closed as my teeth rested in the juicy, flavourful shawarma. It was beautifully spiced and juicy meat, wrapped in a warm pita along with lettuce, hummus, tomatoes and a homemade Tarator sauce.
I was instantly transported back in time, 30 years, to Oromocto, New Brunswick. It is where I tasted my first donair.
I had wanted pizza or a burger, but my friends just scoffed at me.
Back in Ontario, I fretted for five years at not being able to find this treat again.
Ahhh, my mind is now back in Whitehorse, sitting by the window in The KEBABery, and I have now bitten off my first taste of shawarma in 25 years.
I feel warm and satisfied, but my mind races back again, this time to Ottawa, Ontario. It is 1984 and I am a taxi driver, awaiting those painful three hours between driving the last drunk home and picking up my first airport run for the day.
We all gathered at Tomorrow’s Restaurant, at the corner of Bank and Somerset, and I was looking at the steaks (it was a good night for tips). “Hey, this is a Lebanese restaurant,” someone told me. “Order a shawarma. You’ll love it.”
It arrived on a plate with its own heavenly chorus and a radiant spotlight. It was my long-lost donair. But it tasted different.
Bobbi Rhodes and Louie Gagnon, owners of The KEBABery, listened to my little story. It is one they have heard many times since opening their Middle Eastern restaurant last month. The dates change, but it usually involves a city in the east.
“You’re from Ottawa, aren’t you?” Gagnon had said to one customer.
“Someone said to me, ‘I’m so happy, I could cry!’,” says Rhodes.
“Just this morning, a guy waited in his vehicle for an hour before we opened,” says Gagnon.
To understand this kind of passion for the shawarma, you need to consider that marinating the beef for two to three days – chicken and lamb, overnight – along with the slow cooking of the meat on a large vertical spit, creates the tenderest and juiciest of meats.
And the preparation of the meat has been developed through trial and error for thousands of years by a people who really, really know their spices.
But every region has its own variation and the Rhodes have picked and chosen from what they consider to be the best for their menu.
“The lamb is Moroccan, the chicken kebabs are Greek and the chicken shawarma is Lebanese,” says Gagnon.
Even so, you enter this restaurant, near the corner of 2nd and Main, where Doc’s Deli was once located, and that familiar smell hits you.
“What is that smell?” my LDC wanted to know.
“That’s fenugreek,” says Gagnon. “And … [he jumps up from the table and brings back a container of a a dark-red granular substance] … this is sumac; it is crushed berries.”
He explains that an Arabic customer declared the meal to be perfectly authentic … except it didn’t have sumac. He was glad to report that it was coming in the next day.
Starting up a restaurant is a complicated business. The Rhodes wanted compostable and recyclable food containers for the opening, but they hadn’t arrived yet. So, they bought Styrofoam containers and just apologized a lot until the “green” containers arrived.
And they are still waiting for the debit card terminal. Fortunately, they share the intersection with three banks.
Another happy problem is that they have been underestimating how many meals they would be serving.
They are getting the hang of it and will have a second spit ready to go soon.
As much as I like meat, I was really taken with their Midmed Platter. It is a sampling of many of their vegetarian dishes.
There is the creamy, homemade hummus, nicely spiced tzatziki, a pepperoncini bursting with flavour, and pickled turnip that even my LDC enjoyed: “I don’t like turnips, but I like these.”
There are also dolmades and falafels, two of the few things in their kitchen that aren’t made from scratch.
The baklava, warm and heavy with orange-blossom water and walnuts, takes Rhodes an hour to make.
Eating at The KEBABery does require a different mindset. Those who know shawarma from eastern Canada know that such a place is built for speed. Even though it looks elegant and sophisticated inside, you won’t be served at your table.
Instead, you line up, place your order and then take it home, or to the office, or to one of the generously spaced tables in the restaurant.
My LDC was enjoying the soft music and the Middle Eastern music, when Rhodes leans in and says, “No Christmas music.
“And no bulletin board,” adds Gagnon. “People want to get away from all of that.”
But is this a healthy way to eat?
“I’ve lost weight,” says Gagnon. “And I’m the cook!”
He explains that the dressings are all homemade and that the beef is Triple A and the chicken is Grade A.
“And the vegetarians love it,” he says.
“And meat lovers love it, but they are getting a ton of vegetables at the same time,” says Rhodes.
The KEBABery is open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and then 5 to 8 p.m. Monday to Friday. On Saturdays, it is open 5 to 8 p.m.
This review is not meant to judge the quality of the food or service. It only describes the experience offered by the reviewed restaurant. The owners were informed in advance of the review and the meals were provided at no cost.