With the feeding frenzy of food-related television programming — from No Reservations to Man v. Food — you've got to wonder how the TV folks find so many edible gems so far off the beaten paths of Los Angeles and New York. Well, for one thing, they call around to local newspapers. We at the Scene have fielded no shortage of calls from young and efficient-sounding interns at popular travel shows who want to know, "Where do you guys eat down there?" We always welcome the opportunity to brag about our favorite places — and fortunately, the information flows both ways. Like the time we discovered Café Rakka on an episode of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.
In fact, we had heard plenty about Café Rakka, which opened in 2008, even before its Food Network debut. Scene readers had recommended Syrian-born owner Riyad Al-Kasem's repertoire of Mediterranean and Indian cuisine, which spans the culinary gamut from chicken tikka masala and lamb biryani to falafel and baba ganoush. But it was the prime-time televised nudge from the gregarious Guy Fieri that prompted us to head north in search of Al-Kasem (a.k.a. Chef Rakka) and his signature beef filet grilled on a Himalayan salt block.
If you're on a laser-focused mission to sample this particular specialty, as we were, be warned: It is not on the lunch menu. Still, there are more than enough delicacies on the noontime roster to make the 10-mile hop from Nashville worth your while. (Chef Rakka's wife, Linda, says that ever since the Diners episode aired, folks are making the hop from all over the country.)
Café Rakka doesn't serve alcohol, and BYOB is not an option. So start your meal with a glass of pomegranate tea sweetened with honey, wet your whistle with a glass of water steeped with cucumbers and lemon, or take a heart-healthy swig of red tea brewed from flowers alleged to lower your blood pressure.
Then, if you're looking for a way to taste as many things as possible, team up with your fellow diners to order the sprawling vegetarian sampler. Velvety baba ganoush with hints of garlic and smoke was bejeweled with pomegranate seeds. Silky-smooth hummus with stone-ground tahini (sesame paste) was laced with parsley frills and lemon juice and drizzled with olive oil. Minced parsley, mint and cucumber outweighed cracked wheat in the unexpectedly refreshing tabbouleh, which filled the role of green salad and added bright crispness to the assortment of spreads. And yes, the falafel were the good kind, infused with enough fresh herbs to give the nutty chick-pea batter a vibrant green hue under a deep-fried bronze crust.
If you're more hummus-centric, take advantage of the so-called "hummus bar," which comes with a choice of two toppings, such as roasted garlic, roasted mushrooms, spiced cilantro or roasted eggplant.
Everything we ordered at Café Rakka was extraordinarily fresh and flavorful, accented by subtle spices and fresh ingredients — ginger, lemons, garlic, cucumbers, cilantro, eggplant, olive oil and endless jars of earth-toned spices — that are displayed on shelves and refrigerators throughout the small casual dining room. From the shish tawook (grilled kebabs of chicken marinated for two days in saffron water) to the shawarma on the sajj (strips of marinated beef cooked in a wok with onions and tomatoes), all our dishes arrived with generous portions of rice, iceberg lettuce tossed with a delicate citrus dressing, pita and cool yogurt sauce. On our evening visit, each massive dinner portion arrived with a trio of grilled tomato, onion and banana pepper. But while many plates overflowed with a consistent setup of salad, rice, bread and sauce, the entrées were distinct and memorable.
At our dinner table of four, we could reach no clear consensus on our favorite dish, though grilled rack of lamb lacquered with a chocolate-pomegranate reduction was a front-runner. On the other hand, the inelegantly named Spinach and Meat captured the kitchen-wise imagination of our group: If only we could reverse-engineer the earthy blend of cumin, cinnamon and coriander in the minced lamb and beef, then theoretically we could toss sweet grilled onions, ground meat and fresh baby spoon spinach to approximate this rustic wilted salad and win the admiration of family and friends.
Even the shrimp jalfrezi — which would have made a better first impression if it had included larger shrimp — dazzled with its subtle sauce of tahini and citrus riddled with salty capers.
Now, back to that beef grilled on the Himalayan salt block. Despite the fact that we called ahead to make sure the filet was available at dinner, our server informed us that there was no beef. I'm not sure whether I actually begged her, or whether she simply saw the crestfallen look on my face, but either way, the server checked again and — Behold! — Chef Rakka had set aside a filet when I had called in the afternoon. Himalayan-salt-grilled beef was mine!
Here again, I'm not sure whether I actually clapped my hands together in greedy glee, or whether the server wisely sensed the need to manage my expectations surrounding this unusual cooking method of heating a salt block until it's hot enough to cook meat. Either way, she warned, "You're not going to get to see it." Apparently, the salty spectacle is confined to the kitchen.
I admit, I was a little disappointed. For whatever reason, I had built up the image in my head of an ancient saline tablet mined from somewhere just beneath the summit of K2 and hauled to Hendersonville to sizzle my supper.
OK, so it didn't exactly go down like that. Nonetheless, the half-dozen skewers of tender and subtly salted beef — licked with peppery marinade and served on a bed of saffron-tinged basmati rice with char-pocked folds of naan — were excellent.
In fact, you might even say the whole meal — down to the date cookies and house-made baklava with crushed walnuts and pistachios in honey-drenched folds of phyllo — sizzled. So much so that the next time the food shows come calling for a local recommendation, I know where I'm going to send them.
Oh, wait, they've already heard.
Café Rakka serves lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday.