The restaurant space at 217 E. Douglas might as well have a revolving door for how often businesses come and go from it.
Just in the past decade, the space has housed La Shish, Reflection Park Cafe, Coli, Bamboo House, Thai Kitchen, Stang, DK Kitchen and Onyx Bistro.
Fans of Mediterranean food in Wichita are hoping that the latest tenant – Holy land Mediterranean Grill – will end the trend. The restaurant, which opened Sept. 1, features Mediterranean cuisine that’s a bit different from what’s offered at most local Mediterranean restaurants, which tend to focus on Lebanese-style fare. Holy land’s food has more Palestinian and Jordanian influences and features wood-grilled meats, exotic spices and lots and lots of garlic.
The restaurant also is unique in that it stays open until 2 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays in an attempt to attract an after-hours bar crowd.
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ON THE MENU: The menu is filled with salads, sandwiches and entrees both familiar (hummus, falafel, kebabs and fattoush salad) and less Wichita-common (quail, biryani rice, and chicken shish tawook). Lamb is prevalent on the menu, which also includes a couple of shrimp dishes.
DON’T MISS DISHES: The smoky, spicy aroma that greets diners as they step into Holy land sets the tone for the rest of the experience. The air also is scented with garlic, which the kitchen uses so liberally, it hangs around on the palate well into the next day.
The restaurant’s owner, Junior Kahala, says garlic is one of the most important ingredients in his food, and that is apparent in nearly every dish. We started the meal with an order of hummus ($4.99), which was swimming in olive oil and topped with whole garbanzo beans and visible mounds of minced garlic. Though we could have done with a little less olive oil, the hummus had a good texture and was delicious scooped up with the hot, fresh, soft pita that accompanied it. Another appetizer, called arayes with meat ($7.49), was like a Mediterranean quesadilla, featuring a mixture of minced beef, lamb, parsley and garlic sandwiched between two whole pieces of pita bread, baked until crispy. The arayes also are available filled with Syrian cheese instead of the meat mixture.
The entrees we chose were beautifully presented and full of flavor. The Holy land mixed grill ($13.99) was a giant plate of food, featuring three generous kebabs, each made with a different mesquite grilled meat. The best was the shish kebab, featuring hunks of tender, seasoned lamb. Another kebab was made with large juicy cuts of chicken, and a third “kufta” kebab, made with ground beef, ground lamb, parsley and more garlic. My dining companion, who had spent time in the Middle East, was excited about the giant serving of biryani rice, which he said tasted exactly like what he remembered from his time overseas. The aromatic rice, a meal in itself, was seasoned with garlic, cloves and nutmeg and garnished with slivered almonds, and the platter was finished with servings of hummus and baba ghanouj. It easily was enough food for two, so we took much of it to-go. (Incidentally, the food was so garlic-laced that the leftovers filled the refrigerator and then the entire kitchen with the smell of garlic and had to be transferred from the Styrofoam take-out container to airtight zipper bags.)
We also tried the half chicken tikka platter, starring two pieces of juicy and tender bone-in chicken grilled with a salty, curry-flavored rub. It was $8.99 and also came with a mound of biryani rice.
Kahala is proud of a special dish called “manses,” made with lamb, rice and yogurt sauce, that he offers only on Fridays (the day we were visiting). The dish is not listed on the menu, though, and our waitress didn’t mention it.
AMBIENCE: The space has been decorated with a beautiful mural of Old Jerusalem and canopies over some of the tables, all of which are covered in a white tablecloth topped with a sheet of plastic – a common practice in Middle Eastern restaurants.
PRICE RANGE: Salads range between $4.99 and $6.99. Sandwiches are $4.99-$6.99. Entrees are $6.99-$13.99.
SERVICE: Our waitress was friendly if not a bit scattered and forgetful.