Dining spotlight: Castle Restaurant's Mideast fare stands out

A Whining & Dining blogger mentioned I should check out the Castle Restaurant on Park. I happened to be in the area recently, it was around lunchtime, and, well, why not? If I hadn't read about it on the blog, I would likely have driven right by, so please, bloggers, keep your suggestions coming and thank you, ErnestTBass.

Nada Hammoud, delivering results of her work at the Castle, specializing in Middle Eastern fare,  at 3992 Park.

Photo by Photos by Mike Maple/The Commercial Appeal

Nada Hammoud, delivering results of her work at the Castle, specializing in Middle Eastern fare, at 3992 Park.

Hammoud's grilling technique  seals in  juices and chars natural sugars in the meats she serves. Below, 'the meat deal.'

Hammoud's grilling technique seals in juices and chars natural sugars in the meats she serves. Below, "the meat deal."

Flavors in Hammoud's dishes  work in distinctive harmony.

Flavors in Hammoud's dishes work in distinctive harmony.

Above, a range of offerings on  the  Castle's menu.

Above, a range of offerings on the Castle's menu.

You'll thank him, too, from your first bite of falafel to the last crumb of house-made baklava.

The Castle is a simple place with just a few tables in the dining room and a couple out front under umbrellas; in fact, the kitchen is probably twice the size of the dining area. But it's clean as a whistle, comfortable, and when you taste the food

coming from the kitchen, you'll be glad that's where the space is devoted.

I visited twice. The first time we ordered Castle combinations. The "meat deal" is served with grilled chicken, kefta and gyro meat that has been frizzled on the grill to give it crispy bits. It's served over rice, garnished with a few grilled onions and tomatoes, served with a garlicky tzatziki and a small salad of freshly chopped tomatoes and cucumbers and pita.

But that plate -- and I'll tell you about it in a minute -- didn't come with the Middle Eastern goodies like baba ghanoush, hummus, dolmas, falafel and so on. What could we do but order the "veg deal"?

It's easy to find hummus and baba ghanoush seasoned so similarly that you can barely tell the difference between your chickpeas and your eggplant. At the Castle, owner/chef Nada Hammoud makes a distinction between the two. Since all but the primary ingredients are the same, credit must go to her deft hand. The hummus is creamy and lemony, rich with garlic and tahini, yet none of the flavors overwhelms the simplicity of the beans and olive oil.

The baba ghanoush, heavier with garlic, is lighter in texture. It's possible Hammoud lightens it by adding yogurt instead of tahini -- whatever her treatment, you won't confuse it with the hummus.

The falafel, deep-fried chickpea fritters, are indeed garlicky (just the way I like 'em), as is the tzatziki. It's also a thicker version than you often find, so it's either made with strained yogurt or whole-milk yogurt. It verges on decadent (the actual garlic paste that comes with the kabobs makes it all the way) and you'll find yourself tearing off pita just to dip in it.

Back to the meat: Kefta is heavily seasoned ground meat (usually lamb, though sometimes it's mixed with beef) shaped into a log and cooked on a skewer. Hammoud's is full of parsley, mint and garlic -- a Middle Eastern meatloaf.

The generous chunks of chicken are tender, even succulent, and Hammoud knows how to cook meat. She spices it generously enough, but she doesn't overdo it. She doesn't need to, since she takes advantage of her grill and puts a perfect sear on each piece. The method provides flavor, sealing in natural juices and charring natural sugars.

Nowhere is this technique more appreciated than in her gyro meat. A combination of pressed lamb and beef, gyro meat comes in a loaf that's cooked on an upright rotisserie. Order a sandwich and the cook slices lengths of meat to order.

But at the Castle, Hammoud takes the tender strips and throws them on the hot grill. The result is heady, intense flavor infused through the crisp bits that form on the edges. It's excellent.

You can also find a fine cheeseburger and a gyro sandwich at the Castle. You'll probably be so full you'll have to take it to go, but be sure to try Hammoud's homemade baklava. The selection changes daily; if the pecan is available, consider it your lucky day.

Castle Restaurant

Address: 3992 Park

Telephone: (901) 320-1020

Hours: 10 a.m.-8 p.m., Monday through Saturday.

Price: $

No smoking

Handicapped access: Yes

Alcoholic beverages: None

Don't miss: The gyro meat, whether on the sandwich or on a plate.

What's hot: A changing selection of house-made baklava.

-- Jennifer Biggs: 529-5223

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