Saturday, when the sky was grey, the air was biting and the icy streets were treacherous, we drove along a woeful section of Cleveland just north of Poplar to get to Al-Rayan.
And there we found the remedy to all the unpleasantness listed above. It's called selta — or salta, depending on which menu you're reading. The robust stew, which Al-Rayan owner Hindi Nahwi makes with lamb and potatoes, is a traditional dish of Yemen, and arrives bubbling in a black clay pot. Combine it with a cup of the hot Arabic sweet tea, steeped in cardamom and cloves, and you've set a standard for winter comfort food.
Or, if you're not a meat-eater, have the lentil soup, which arrives in a clay pot as the selta does, and looks like a mini-pool of bubbling lava. Nahwi blends vermicelli noodles with the lentil broth; you add the hot sauce. Two versions are offered, a red and a green chile. The green chile is perfectly balanced with garlic, tomato and parsley.
Then move on to some classic Middle Eastern and East African dishes. Nahwi's roots are in Yemen and Ethiopia, but she grew up in Saudi Arabia. She works with her two friends — one from Iraq and one from Mexico — and the three women clearly know their way around the stove, the kitchen and the market.
We ordered the Al-Rayan plate, which included a dense, spicy kufta, or sausage; shish kabob, marinated roasted lamb served off the skewer; and falafel, crisp golden chickpea croquettes; along with rice seasoned with black peppercorns and stewed vegetables.
The dining room is simple, with walls of painted cement block, and over the Arabic TV in the background, we heard pots banging, oil sizzling and the blender churning. It took a while for the hot plates to come out; in the meantime, we had the rice-stuffed grape leaves, which were, as our menu promised, "shiny in olive oil." And the salad of chopped vegetables — lettuce, radish, cucumber and tomato peppered with oregano. And hummus and tahini, served with fresh-tasting and puffy hot pita.
We saw the selta go by, sizzling dramatically, while we were waiting for our main dishes. When we asked what it was, Nahwi sent us a sample. A striking presence in a brilliant silk head scarf, her eyes defined with kohl, Nawhi goes back and forth between the stove and the tables, checking with diners to see how they liked their food.
At lunch on a weekday, we tried the buffet, which is set up in chafing trays on the counter — rice; a pleasing vegetable dish with stewed green pepper, celery, okra and onion; tandoori-style chicken; and a simple but tasty oven-baked fish — which Nahwi identified as cod -- served whole. Also, there was spaghetti. Yes, spaghetti.
The pita sandwiches — shawarma, shish kabob, falafel — are served with tahini and hummus, lettuce and tomato. They're a genuine bargain at $4.
Address: 288 N. Cleveland
Telephone: (901) 272-0227
Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m., Monday through Saturday
Reviewer's choices: AL-Rayan plate ($13); Selta plate ($10); Shawarma sandwich ($4).