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This week's iftar: Palestinian homestyle cooking at Ameer's Mediterranean Grill.
Every night during Ramadan, Ameer's is offering an iftar buffet, full of off-menu specials.
I'm not going to lie. Finding restaurant "iftar specials" around Atlanta is harder than you think.
That's why I unexpectedly ended up at Ameer's Mediterranean Grill on Briarcliff Road for iftar on Thursday, instead of Dijla Cafe in Decatur, as I had planned. I had come across a "Ramadan Special" ad on the Dijla Cafe website earlier this week - a bright yellow graphic with pictures of kabobs that said $10.99 iftar buffet. I was intrigued by the "Iraqi kabobs" on the menu. A few hours before iftar I called to double check about the buffet special, and the guy who answered the phone had no idea what I was talking about. The information was outdated.
Through more phone calls and googling I came across Ameer's Mediterranean Grill - a small restaurant off Briarcliff Road in Atlanta. A man with a deep, gruff voice answered. To my surprise, Ameer's offered an iftar buffet. The man on the phone was the owner and head chef (or as he later corrected me, "master chef"), Sami Salame, originally from Jerusalem. I started asking him a bunch of questions ("When did the restaurant open? What sort of cuisine specifically?"). He told me I was tying up the phone line and to call him back on another line. The subsequent conversation was short - I would just come in and try the food that evening.
The buffet was a startling $24.99. With tips these days, it was almost $30. That's $5 more than the famous Mughal iftar buffet, and $14 more than the obsolete Dijla Cafe one. (Still less than the Chai Pani iftar box though!).
A sign was taped onto the side of the menu on display inside the restaurant, next to a giant painting of the old city of Jerusalem hanging on the wall: "Due to Rising Market Prices, ALL food items will be marked up by $2.00 starting Nov 29th, 2021."
At least they were up front about it. Ameer himself, the son of Sami, talked me through some of the items in the buffet - beet salad, fattoush salad, baba ghanoush, fried fish, chicken kabobs. The list was long. To my delight, there was a whole table set out just for salads.
But the shining stars of the buffet were the dishes Ameer's doesn't normally offer. It was the Ramadan specials that were well, most special. I tried mansaf for the first time, rice cooked with lamb and yogurt with a sprinkling of slivered almonds, a traditional Palestinian and Jordanian dish. And then there was the chicken musakhan, another classic Palestinian dish (pictured in the top photo) - chicken baked with generous quantities of onions and potatoes, and seasoned with sumac. There was also molohkhiya - a stew made of molokhiya leaves, a leafy green that also goes by the name Egyptian spinach or Jew's Mallow. All new to me.
When I asked Sami why these dishes weren't on the regular menu, he said that during Ramadan, people didn't want dry food like chicken shwarma. "When you've been fasting all day you want the taste of home cooked food at the end of the day."
By 8:30, all the tables in the small cafe were full. The customers were diverse- Black Muslim, Arab, South Asian, African - and over half of them were young men (possibly students from Emory University which is less than two miles away from the restaurant). Yes, the buffet is pricey. But for students who may be far from the comfort foods they're used to during Ramadan - slow cooked stews, rices, and soups - I could see how it could be worth the price.