Date Night: Black Iris
In a time when even casual restaurants are painstakingly designed, it's refreshing to come across a place as humble as Black Iris: some beaded lamps, a few throw pillows in a blocky pattern, and benches carved with domes, minarets, and other elements of an Arabic skyline constitute the sum of the decor. We heard tell of a garden area but didn't see it. Instead, this cash-only Middle Eastern restaurant in Fort Greene offers good food cheaply in an amiable atmosphere, and these days that's quite an accomplishment.
The assorted plate ($9.50) works well on a date due to its excellent shareability. As you select five appetizers to split, you can learn about the other person's crazy hippie aunt who always brought bulgur to family potlucks or bond over a shared love of babaganouj. Forks click, portending other touches. You might laugh as the bread gets popped, revealing plumes of steam.
Speaking of bulgur, too often it can be all nutrient and no taste, but this lentil and bulgur salad had spirit, due to a light vinaigrette and well-cooked grains. The stuffed grape leaves were compact, firm, and not too spiky with lemon juice, while the spinach and chickpea salad was extraordinary and bright. Again, the effect was one of mildness, rather than in-your-face-ness. The foul's big brown fava beans arrived unmashed. Part of its secret, for sure, were the strips of caramelized onions. Like butter or free money, these make everything better. Finally, the Black Iris salad had tomatoes, cucumbers, and red onions, a typical, uncomplicated dish served everywhere in the Middle East. Use fresh ingredients, and the product itself will be fresh. Done and done. All the salads are available in small or large sizes, perfect for lawn or carpet picnics.
Next came the lambajin ($8), smaller and flatter than an American pizza, more of a distant cousin than a sibling. Piled atop the thin crust were lamb, onion, parsley, spices, and tomatoes. Its overwhelming sensation was meatiness, unadulterated savory protein, like an edible Axe body spray. All the other components on the "pitzaa" were subsumed by the lamb, in a way we found delightful but others might find overpowering.
The chicken kebab platter ($12) could easily serve six. OK, so perhaps the chicken had spent too long making friends on the grill. Nevertheless, some pieces exuded the juicy marinade, the rice was fluffy, and a mint-yogurt dip cut down on the occasional overcookedness. Frankly, the amount of food meant we got our fill.
And for dessert, basbousa ($2.50), a cake made with semolina, yogurt, and honey. In its dry graininess, the cake resembled cornbread but lacked cornbread's dark brown flavor seal (a.k.a., the crust). Pouring rain kept us inside, eating forkful after forkful, but you could probably pack an umbrella and skip this. Or go for the baklava ($3), with cinnamon and walnut.
To drink, a glass of loomi ($2), made from limes that have been boiled in salt and sun dried. The result retained a hint of citrus, but only just, and sips ranged from sweet to bitter. We like a refreshment that refuses to be homogeneous. You can also bring your own beer or wine.
Earlier, when we walked into the small dining room, a man had greeted us from behind the takeaway window. The whole place smelled of mint. He paused as he sat us to wave to two people walking by outside. Women strolled along in wedges and billowy strapless dresses and returned his greeting. A man in a t-shirt and Walkman stopped by to say hello. Later the host had a glass of wine with a trio celebrating someone's birthday. Another accomplishment: creating a neighborhood place in a neighborhood that's rapidly changing. From where we sat, we could see not one but two luxury pet boutiques. Get here before it's gone. Black Iris is best for: an understated date.
228 DeKalb Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11205 (map)
About the authors: Jessica Allen and Garrett Ziegler have been eating out together since 2002 and writing We Heart New York since 2006.