Location: 235 Queen Street West, Toronto
I’ll admit that I didn’t have particularly high expectations for Azkadenya, a “mezza diner” with locations all over the Middle East. Aside from the fact that it’s a chain restaurant, the slick decor and quirky dishes made me think it would be style over substance.
Well, don’t judge a book by its cover, I guess? This place was actually quite good, though the restaurant is clearly at its best when it sticks with the classics and doesn’t mess around too much.
We started with the hummus, which is creamy and tasty. It didn’t quite knock my socks off, but it’s a solid bowl of hummus. It helps that it comes topped with healthy amount of good quality olive oil, with a bottle available on the table to top it up (which you should absolutely do — hummus and EVOO are best friends and should never be apart).
Actually, I should mention the multiple bottles at the table — there’s olive oil, a couple of tasty hot sauces, a tahini sauce, and something labeled “sour but sweet” that I completely forgot to try (I know, what’s wrong with me?).
Servers are constantly walking around to replenish your supply of pita bread — they bake these things fresh in what appears to be a wood-burning oven, so yeah, they’re quite good.
Next up was the falafel, which comes in an order of eight. This was easily the highlight of the meal. They’re nicely spiced and not too big, which gives you the perfect ratio of crispy exterior to fluffy interior (too many places make huge, almost tennis-ball-sized falafel, and the crisp-to-fluffy ratio is all wrong). They’re also not dry in the middle, which is another common issue with falafel in the GTA. They’re really good.
Then there was the beef “shawarma.” I’m putting that in quotes because, I’m sorry, but this isn’t shawarma. It comes essentially looking like a kabob (though the beef is sliced, even if it doesn’t look that way). It’s a fun gimmick, and the presentation is certainly striking, but it’s not shawarma. It tastes nothing like shawarma.
Still, it’s tasty enough for what it is. The meat is tender and nicely marinated. Once you put it in a pita with some of the condiments (it comes with pickles, tahini sauce, garlic sauce, and tomatoes) it’s quite satisfying.
Last up was the kunafah pops, which takes the traditional Middle Eastern dessert and turns it into little deep-fried balls. Like the shawarma, this was the restaurant being a bit too clever for their own good. All of the textures are wrong — the exterior is a bit too crunchy, the cheesy interior doesn’t quite have the gooeyness you’re looking for, and it has a mild oily flavour from the fryer. It certainly wasn’t the worst thing I’ve ever eaten, but traditional kunafah would have been vastly superior.