It's the Ramadan buffet at Nara Bistro in Anaheim's Little Arabia.
Each night until Ramadan ends after sundown August 18 the restaurant sets out an elaborate selection of appetizers, main dishes, drinks and desserts. This is for Iftar, the dinner that breaks the daily fast observed by Muslims.
The food is not only generous, but each night has a different menu. It's mind-boggling to think of how much cooking goes on in Nara's kitchen.
The food is Syrian, Egyptian and Palestinian. It was unusual and fascinating, at least for me, because I've never traveled in the Middle East. I went with friends and fellow food writers Faye and Yakir Levy, who are experts in the region and explained what I was eating.
We waited with other customers until around 7:40 p.m., after sunset, when the buffet opened. It closed at 9:30 p.m, but people lingered, smoking hookahs, playing backgammon and drinking tea. The restaurant is open until 4 a.m. on weekends.
Chicken beryani wasn't the usual layered chicken and rice dish. The chicken and its sauce were in one container, the rice in another.
My plate was also loaded with baked kibbeh (above), okra with top sirloin, a rice and seafood combination, ground beef kebabs in tomato sauce, filo dough stuffed with cheese, and so much more I had to get a second plate to hold everything.
Appetizers included baba ghanouj (above). Look how nicely it was presented. Others were hummus, fried cauliflowerets that were so tasty they disappeared quickly, fried eggplant chunks, a mixed salad and stuffed grape leaves.
But the best was yet to come, as they say, at least for anyone with a sweet tooth. The dessert table (above) was pure heaven. In addition to fresh fruit, there were big trays of kunafeh (the first tray), which is syrup-soaked kadaif dough layered with mild cheese, and baklava (at the back). A casserole of Egyptian rice pudding decorated with dark cherries came out later.
Aysh el saraya (in the middle of the three dessert trays and in a closup above) was better than divine. Restaurant owner Salee Zawerbek says it's a family recipe--and easy (if you know what you are doing). The bottom layer is bread soaked in syrup flavored with rose water. Over this goes a layer of thickened milk, which is then covered with crushed pistachios. The components are put together while hot, then refrigerated until set.
The beverages were just as interesting. There were three--jallab, a dark, fruity mixture that incorporates grape molasses, dates and rose water; amr el deen, a golden drink made from soaked apricot leather, and vimto, a mixed fruit drink that originated in England.
After such a heavy meal, one wouldn't be hungry for many hours. However, the observant had to be up early to eat breakfast before 4:44 a.m., when the sun would rise and another day of fasting would begin.
Nara Bistro, 1220 S. Brookhurst St., Anaheim, CA 92804. Tel: (714) 991-6800.