There are drapes on the ceiling and walls. Brass lamps hang overhead. A calm hymn plays on somewhere in the narrow room — low enough to set a soothing mood, but not so loud that it hampers conversation. “This one is a prayer, we have some songs as well,” says Mohamed Moiz, the man behind Al Souk in Hyderabad.
The idea behind Al Souk is to acquaint with the “authentic” taste of West Asian cuisine, “not the Indianised or Americanised versions we are used to,” says Moiz. But the first thing we taste feels very nostalgically Indian.
Karkade is a cool, tea-like drink that you can order with hibiscus version or without. At first sip, however, I am reminded not of a flower, but of the exceedingly sour, beloved little berries every child has munched on after school back in the 90s. The colour draws a tantalising line between black and purple — depending on which way you tilt your glass — and is sweetened just enough to be palatable without losing its delicious sourness.
A plate of four little Spanakos pitas follows, with creamy interiors of feta and spinach and crunchy exteriors glistening with oil. But I’m not complaining, because each hot little pita pocket is airy and light, and collapses as soon as I bite in.
Among the vegetarian options, I go for jibnah bel ajeen, a vegetable and cheese-stuffed bread. Soft, slender and over a foot long, the stuffed loaf is cut into broad slices for the diner’s benefit, with curled dough running down its centre like the rim of a pie crust. The bread itself is soft as pizza crust, and the cheesy stuffing is dominated by onion and carrot. At one point, I start sipping the cheesy filling from one end, to prevent it dripping down the other. The fun in this dish lies in just that: the taste itself is mild and forgettable.
Amid all this, we also have a basket of pita and a spread of dips. You have the usual suspects, including mayonnaise and roasted eggplant, but the rust-coloured roasted bell pepper hummus stands apart. It has a slightly burnt tinge to it and is refreshingly different from the others.
But enough about the little bites. If you order the Sultan beef kabab tenderloin, you will receive five sizeable chunks of it served on a bed of pitas, basmati rice cooked with vermicelli, and fries. Not a bad meal for the price, but salt-heavy and a tad too chewy.
The kebab khashkash, on the other hand, comes with the same accompaniments and forms a delicious meal for one. The minced meat chunks arrive topped with a tomato relish, and are so soft that they come apart under the fork at the slightest cut.
There are a number of options for dessert, but the one I go for lets me adapt it to my taste. The kunafa looks delicious, with a crispy golden exterior and soft, cheesy interior. But biting into it immediately would be a mistake. Instead, I pick the little jar of syrup that comes with it, and pour. Taste, grimace, and pour again. Till just the right amount of sweetness soaks into my dessert, and I finish my meal, my way. #KhabarLive