I’ll be completely honest: Melh Al Zaad looks decidedly grotty from the outside. Tucked away down a dirty, cement-lined side street just off Exhibition Road, behind the GOSI complex, and up a grubby staircase, this is the sort of place you would normally pass by without a second glance on your way to somewhere more savoury looking, even if you were starving and there were no other foody places for miles. We were only here because we’d heard good things from friends who’d stumbled upon it by accident and because we were intrigued by its claim to be the ‘First Iraqi restaurant’. First one to open in Bahrain? First as in best? We were here to find out.
Pushing open the heavy, quite decorative wooden door, it took our eyes a few moments to adjust after coming in from the sun-bleached street, and what we saw when we could see again was quite startling. The walls were entirely covered in bamboo and the ceiling, which was quite low, appeared to be made from reed matting. Team this with rickety shelving on every wall displaying 1940s-style telephones, radios and knick-knacks, rows of diner-style tables, and a couple of private booths fashioned out of bamboo walls and containing floor cushions and rugs, and you’ve got yourself one curious looking interior. Points for being unique, at least.
We settled ourselves in among the all-local, all-male clientele and perused our menus. The pictures were lovely but it was all in Arabic. Our waiter hurriedly brought over some disposable English-language ones with apologies, which was very sweet of him, but actually didn’t enlighten us much: the Arabic squiggles now read as the equally mystifying bania, aswad, shabzi, chelfrai, dholma, teman. Ummmm..... We interrogated the waiter at some length and he answered all of our questions with patience and slight bemusement, he was very helpful indeed. We finally settled on the safe option of mixed mezze to share for starters, with a cheeky Iraqi’s pickies (we hoped that meant pickles) thrown in for good measure. It arrived looking lovely and was fairly standard Arabic fare, but very good for all that. The houmous was deliciously creamy, the tabouleh crisp and refreshing and the baba ganoush divine. Oh and the pickies were pickles, but maybe unneeded given that we were already feeling quite full on the starters alone.
Definitely unneeded, we realised immediately on seeing the sizes of our mains when they were brought out to us a short while later. Good grief, we’d have been better off skipping the starters altogether. But they were good. My meat ghouzi reminded me of dishes I’ve had in little out-of-the-way places in Morocco and Jordan: a mountain of ‘red rice’ topped with so-tender-they’re-about-to-dissolve hunks of lamb. Some bits were slightly fattier than we Europeans would normally go for but this is down to the Arabic habit of not letting any part of the animal go to waste and doesn’t lessen the experience in the slightest. The whole thing was superb and I was only sorry I couldn’t eat more of it.
My friend had ordered the fish muttabaq, a combination of Arabic bread with gravy and vegetables, topped with white rice and noodles and pieces of fish. Slightly more grey than he would normally have looked for in his fish, but still delicious and, again, fabulously tender.
There was no way, after the obscene amounts of food we’d eaten, indeed after the obscene amounts of food we’d left untouched, that we could justify or fit in a dessert, so it was with some regret that we passed on the offer of kunafa. This is a typical Iraqi sweet (though we’ve also seen it described as ‘typical Jordanian’ and ‘typical Saudi’, maybe it’s safer to just declare it ‘Arabic’) consisting of a fried vermicelli-like crispy coating filled with cream, and we’ve heard it’s exquisite. But we’ll no doubt be popping in again when we’re next in the area and needing something to eat, so we’ll try it next time. We settled for finishing off with several tiny cups of sweet Iraqi tea instead and left Melh Al Zaad feeling very stuffed, but also very chuffed at having found such a great little place. We never did find out whether the ‘First’ on the sign did mean first-opened; we very much suspect it actually means ‘best’.
The bill (for two) Mixed mezze BD1.800 Baba ghanouj BD0.800 Meat ghouzi BD2.500 Fish muttabaq BD2.500 Pepsi BD0.300 Lemon juice x 2 BD1.000 Total BD9.200
Melh Al Zaad
Time Out Bahrain staffhttp://www.timeoutbahrain.com