When first eating at Shish Kabob, the new Persian eatery on Nolensville Road near Haywood Lane, local fans of Middle Eastern food may feel a strong sense of déjà vu. First the menu — the various kabobs, the kubideh, the kashk-e-bademjan, the stews, the salad shirazi — will seem strikingly familiar.
"Well, surely those are common items on many Persian menus," you say to yourself. But when the slim, thirtysomething owner with a warm smile and a welcoming gleam in his eye stops by your table to greet you, nodding at you like an old friend, you're positive you've been here before.
Well, you have — sort of.
That's because that friendly face belongs to Hikmat Gazi, whom local foodies may recognize as the man who started House of Kabob. In 2005, after five years of growing the Thompson Lane storefront into one of the most popular Middle Eastern restaurants in town, Gazi returned to his native Iraq to work as a contractor for the U.S. Department of Defense, helping to screen locals who were applying for jobs. He sold House of Kabob to his cousin, Hamid Hasan, who still runs the bustling establishment. (He also sold House of Gyros on Stewarts Ferry Pike, a restaurant he had started in 2004 and that is still thriving today.)
An Iraqi Kurd by birth, he spent three years helping the U.S. in Iraq before returning to Nashville. In addition to his work with the U.S. military, Gazi started a small construction company in Iraqi Kurdistan that he still owns. One of his cousins runs the business.
The experience was a far cry from his childhood years in the region. Gazi was 14 in 1991 when the First Gulf War ended. The Kurds, who had been encouraged by the U.S. to rise up against Saddam Hussein, were suddenly left to fend for themselves against a brutal dictator who had killed thousands of civilians in an unconscionable chemical weapons attack three years earlier in the Kurdish town of Halabja. Like many of their fellow Kurds, Gazi and his family fled Iraq for a refugee camp in Turkey. They lived in a tent in the desert for two-and-a-half years, with no access to cold water.
"People would come from the cities with ice, and we would trade them blankets for a piece of ice," Gazi says, adding that he had little use for blankets when the summer temperatures soared well above 100 degrees. At the time, he never dreamed he'd be a successful restaurateur.
Yet in January, after being back in Nashville for nearly two years, he opened his third restaurant, Shish Kabob, which revisits his earlier menus in an updated setting.
The first thing you notice upon entering Shish Kabob — in a small strip mall that also houses Sulav International Market, an international grocery Gazi opened last year — is the thoughtful decor. Amid artwork and tapestries that adorn the walls are several glass boxes filled with traditional clothing, bags and accessories from Kurdistan — subtle touches that transform what might otherwise be a typical strip-mall eatery into a dining room worthy of a date night. In one front corner is a walled section with low tables and cushions on the floor, for those who want the full traditional experience. For those of us too old, creaky or just plain lazy to get up off the floor, the rest of the room is filled with standard tables and chairs.
The appetizers are worth the trip alone. All patrons are given a complimentary bowl of a slightly spicy chicken noodle soup, a nice welcoming gesture. Our party consisted of four seasoned House of Kabob veterans, and we were thrilled to find kashk-e-bademjan on the menu, and equally thrilled that the dish — sautéed, pureed eggplant with spices, topped with cream of whey — was every bit as delectable as its Thompson Lane counterpart. Opinions were split on the hummus, with some finding it too tart and lemony, and others liking for the same reason. The stuffed grape leaves (dolmeh), however, were unanimously voted the best in town: The ground-sirloin-and-rice filling was accented with a subtle blend of herbs that elicited moans of ecstasy. And while many Nashville iterations of falafel are too dry for our liking, Shish Kabobs' falafel was moist and flavorful, and vanished off the plate in a flurry of blurred hands.
The appetizer bar was raised by the inclusion of traditional Kurdish flatbread, baked fresh at Gazi's market a few doors down. Slightly thinner than pita and specked with spots of golden brown from the hot oven, the delicious bread was perfect for scooping up the kashk-e-bademjan or dipping in yogurt sauce. Standard pita is also available, but after having the flatbread, you won't want to bother. Be sure to ask for it.
Though we were nearly stuffed to the brim after our app orgy, we ventured onto the entrées, and except for one slight misstep, we were delighted. The marinated chicken kabob was exceptionally tender and flavorful. The kubideh (long pieces of ground, charbroiled beef with ground onion and spices) and teka (cubes of marinated beef) amply satisfied our carnivorous longings. The shrimp kabob was also a hit, and is a particular favorite of this writer. We also dabbled in a couple of entrées that we'd never ordered before: joojeh (a marinated whole cornish hen chopped into pieces, skewered and charbroiled) and lamb chops. While the lamb chops were quite good, it was the excellent joojeh that had us kicking ourselves for not having tried it before. The only disappointment was the gyro — the meat was a bit dry, as if it had been spinning on the spit too long. All kabob entrées are served with either white rice with herbs or yellow rice specked with barberries, and also include salad shirazi (chopped tomato, cucumber and onion with herbs) and a grilled tomato. We didn't get around to trying either of the two stew dishes, though we look forward to sampling them on a future visit. An extensive lunch menu, served 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., includes lower-priced versions of most of the entrées.
We capped off the meal with a bowl of Persian ice cream, made with saffron and rosewater, and some Turkish coffee. The ice cream was a hit with three-fourths of our group, while one diner found the perfume-y aftertaste a little off-putting. The coffee, meanwhile, was fabulous — even though no cocoa is involved, the sweet, thick, grainy concoction had sublime chocolatey overtones.
Though summer temperatures in Nashville occasionally surpass the 100-degree mark, Gazi is thankful he doesn't have to trade blankets for ice anymore. And Nashvillians can be thankful that he's back in the restaurant business.
Shish Kabob is open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday.