Shaam Nights on City Road is, at the time of writing, in the TripAdvisor chart at number five out of 600 eateries, the tip which drew me to sample its wares. Syrian by inclination, the menu I checked out online was a riot of mezze favourites including houmous and flatbreads.
Unfortunately I did show a lack of cultural awareness when I attended during the Islamic calendar’s month of fasting. It didn’t have any impact on the food – more of which shortly – but it did mean that the atmosphere in the cavernous hall was slightly subdued.
Anyway, it was a hot Tuesday night when we ducked into the restaurant and were greeted with wide smiles. Being led round to our large circular table, it immediately felt like another time and another place, the walls encrusted with bright murals, intricately rendered in colours that caught the light shining from the Moroccan-style lamps hanging from the ceiling.
As one of just three tables, the venue seemed cavernous, but the soft Arabian music and friendliness of the staff helped us to settle immediately. Another cultural impact is that there is no alcohol served, so my partner and I ordered soft drinks – sparkling water and Diet Pepsi – and studied the menu.
In the strangely soporific calm, we gazed around feeling as if we were on holiday, and the menu only helped to cement our interest and pique our appetites.
A mammoth selection, starters alone come in “hot” and “cold”, with lots of familiar names like the aforementioned chickpea dip houmous, vine leaves and falafel as well as unusual foods that I’d never heard of before like kubba nayyah (sort of a lamb salad, apparently). I could have ordered the whole lot, but restricted myself, and we elected to share the Shaam Nights Mix Mezza.
When it came, I could have cheered. A handsome plate of hummus along with aubergine dip baba ghanoush, sweetly-flavoured vine leaves, hot and crunchy falafel and freshly-flavoured tabbouleh, a Middle Eastern salad that’s heavy with herbs.
The plate came with three warm flatbreads which were freshly made in a stone oven in the corner, and their flavour was almost enough without the myriad of dips, moist and melt-in-the-mouth. There was almost an argument over the last one, but we did the wise thing and split it in half.
When it came to the main courses, my choice was simple. Chicken shawarma, a favourite since my childhood – roasted thin slices of chicken with spices that I’ve tried to recreate at home a hundred times to no avail.
Sadly, perhaps due to the month’s events, there was no shawarma ready, and I was told very apologetically that it would take 45 minutes to make. Instead, I asked for recommendations, a little disappointed to miss my treat.
Given the option, I ordered chicken shish over lamb shish – I don’t eat lamb – and we relaxed and waited.
After about 15 minutes, the waiter reappeared with lamb shish for me. I explained the error and, very apologetically, he gave us the mistaken plate anyway “on the house” he assured us, a kind gesture for a meal that would cost £10.
My boyfriend tucked in, and spoke excitedly of the chargrilled flavour which gave the lamb a crisp exterior and soft meat.
I waited patiently for my original order to be made, and when the waiter brought out my chicken shish tawook, the menu error, the absent shawarma, and everything else was completely forgotten.
Perfectly moist chicken cubes marinated with house spices and chargrilled, they were little lumps of heaven, at once the perfect texture and lightly fragrant. Served alongside garlic sauce and a spicy chilli sauce, the dish was complete with yellow perfumed saffron rice which I will always regret I couldn’t even finish.
My boyfriend ordered klaftico, which I wasn’t familiar with – an oven-baked lamb shank cooked with potato, garlic and onion and served with more of that delicious rice. The lamb fell from the bone, soaked in tomatoey juices, and the whole dish didn’t last long.
After all that, the proprietor came to speak to us about the restaurant – how did we find it, what did we think? He was so proud of the TripAdvisor rating that he showed us on his smartphone – it was clear he knew how delicious his food was.
Pondering what to round off the meal with, he took the decision for us, bringing out an decorated pot of gently spiced Arabic tea.
Poured into delicate glasses, its minty, cinnamon scent was the perfect accompaniment to a dessert of katayef.
An Arab dessert commonly served during Ramadan, it was a sort of sweet dumpling filled with what tasted like Chantilly cream and finely ground pistachios.
Although the taste was delicious, it was the presentation which brought the whole evening to such a special close. The icing on the cake, if you like, was that the final bill was incredibly reasonable, considering the quality and quantity of what we had enjoyed.
Perhaps it was the quiet, or maybe it was the exotic decor, but dining in Shaam Nights felt to me very much like being let in on a very special secret – except that, according to the internet, everyone else already knew about it. Did you?
What we had
Shaam Nights mix mezza £8
Chicken shish tawook £8
Sparkling water £1.50
Diet Pepsi £1.50
Flavoured Arabic tea £2.50
Shaam Nights, 116-118 City Road, Roath, Cardiff
029 2048 2824. www.shaamnights.com