Friday, October 3, 2008


"Oh! hookah of the magic bowl,
Thou dost bring me greatest pleasure, Who likes not thee, hath not a soul, And can know of joy no measure. Thy fragrance brings me visions bright-- Dispels the shadows of the night."
- G. Frank Lydston

One of the Joys Of Madison is that we have such a weird and mixed culture. The word "diversity" has recently been politicized beyond recognition so it's starting to leave a bad taste in my mouth but you know what I mean.

We have numerous cultural enclaves and most of them have brought their food with them. Pretty much all of Asia has made the party, Ze Germans and the rest of Europe are here of course, as are a general representation of our African brethren, those crazy guys from the Caribbean, and just about everyone in between.

has a "Mediterranean" menu that is something of a fib. Read as having a few Greek, Italian, Lebanese and Middle-Eastern recipes with a lot of seafood and some mandatory Midwestern staples (because restaurateurs feel like people will set the place on fire if there is no hamburger on the menu... sheesh) like a Tenderloin and Shrimp Scampi. They even have a Friday Fish Fry.

Having had the food however, I'd be willing to bet there is a Lebanese or Greek cook in the back, doing some very fine work.

We went to Hookah on a Sunday night with our friend Jim. Jim was kind enough to treat us after I scraped 423,827 viruses off two of his computers.

The establishment is broken up into a bar area where you can smoke cigarettes and a dining room that has it's own bar area, where you can't smoke cigarettes but you can smoke the restaurants namesake, the Hookah or water pipe. There are about a dozen tables as well as a room full of cocktail tables/couch/settee groupings more suited for drinking and smoking than food. It's a very casual environment, a number of small TV's are set around, the booths are very Buddha friendly and admitted my large belly with comfort.

Since Jim was paying, we took relentless advantage of the bar service (to be fair, with Jim's urging). It is thereby that I can report that the Bartender/waiter (it was Sunday) mixes a very solid Martini. I give it about a 6.5 out of 10. Good for a restaurant. I also appreciate that they served their drinks in smaller 5 ounce glass. I don't equate quantity for quality in a cocktail and I think a smaller drink is more refined and responsible. Now a days places serve with 8 or 12 ounce cereal-bowl-on-a-stick glasses that make a "three martini lunch" a trip to the ER for alcohol poisoning.

I had the Shawarma plate. Shawarma is one of those dishes for me where once it is spotted on the menu, all debate has ended.

I love food I get to assemble and I love being able to eat with my hands (much to my Bride's Dismay sometimes). It's just more tactile and involved. Being able to tune up my little wraps of pita bread, meat, veg and condiment till I had a perfect mix of spicy, chewy, cool, creamy, rich and tangy... it's more fun than just shoveling food into my maw.

My Bride had the Mediterranean Pizza. She is a food-whore for anything with tomatoes and feta cheese involved.

To Quote My Bride,
"I loved the tanginess of the artichoke hearts in combination with the rest of the toppings. And as a lover of feta cheese, I especially appreciated how there was a nice, healthy dose of it. It's so frustrating to order something that says it includes feta and then have there be so little that you can't even taste it. Not an issue with this pizza at all."
The food, like the drinks, was solid. This is not lay-down awesome fare, this is not WOW food. This is just good food, flavorful, and just exotic enough to be interesting. The flavors are not everyday, but they are not so challenging that I couldn't eat them every night.

I get nervous not saying a place was EXCELLENT or FABULOUS or INCREDIBLE these days. People can be so dismissive and unappreciated of nuances. Not every restaurant is El Bulli or the French Laundry and gawds help me I don't want them to be. There is a place for every level of restaurant in this world and no matter what, someone out there will appreciate it.

Hookah is a great, casual, repeat restaurant and that is a rare thing in itself. I get the distinct feeling that I could go to Hookah 1000 times and never have a bad meal.

Now, food aside, after we finished our meals, the real star of the show made it's appearance.

I am a man who enjoys his tobacco products. There are few tobacco products out there that can be lit on fire and inhaled that I have not tried.

Before you begin with your healthy admonitions, let me add that I did successful quit smoking a few years ago and that now, apart from the occasional stress smoke at work and those shrinking few occasions when I find myself in a bar where smoking is allowed (now done mostly for nostalgia), I have cut myself down to the occasional pipe.

I possess a beautifully carved Meerschaum Calabash pipe and quite simply, life without some sublimely delicious pipe tobacco on occasion is not worth living.

I had, however, never tried a Hookah before, much to my shame.

As a pipe smoker, I was incredibly dubious about the idea of "flavored" tobacco. The idea of "Mint Mohito" flavored tobacco reached into the very base of my brain, clamped onto my fundamental core of cynicism and pulled HARD. In my mind, flavored tobacco is for blunt smokers and rave kids. Real tobacco has exotic names like Burley and Latikia, Black Cavendish, Golden Virginia.... not Watermelon.

I thank my Maker and good sense that I knew enough to let the more experience one in our party, Jim, make the call... and he made a beeline straight for the Mint Mohito.

Hookah tobacco is rolled in flavored molasses and is roasted by the application of small charcoal sticks rather than burned directly. combined with the passage of the smoke through the bubbling, water filled base of the device, it produces THE mildest smoke I have ever had. Great gasping lungfuls of the stuff could be inhaled with no discomfort in the least, all to the merry bubbling of the great glass tower which added a fantastic aural element to the experience.

Every tobacco product has it's own particular idiom. Cigars are best smoked after a meal and when you have extended time to relax. They are strong and flavorful as they need to be to reach your palate after it has been blasted senseless by a long period at the table. Conversation over cigars is permissible but are best suited to long winded old men as they require a minute of constant puffing to keep them lit, every few minuites, allowing you to speak your piece and retire into smoky consideration while your companion speaks theirs.

Cigarettes are best for short, excited conversations and debates. Something with a little more energy. They stay lit, but end quickly, allowing for the repeated act of theatric, incandescent relights. They also add weight and style to expansive hand gestures as they trail smoke or can be stubbed out firmly to punctuate the end of a sentence like a flaming ember for a period. The glowing inhalation, the puffing of smoke in long thin streams, short coughing gouts, sudden explosive bursts or slow, erotic swirls are all within the smokers repertoire. Ultimately, cigarettes are unsophisticated, rough and rude... but that's why we like them.

Oh, and they give you cancer, don't forget that part.

Pipes are unsuited for any conversations whatsoever. Beyond the occasional guttural grunt or short, one-word responses, one must puff rather constantly to keep ones pipe lit. This may sound like a detriment until you realize that pipe smoking requires you to be silent. Pipe smoking is best suited to silent reflection, away from other human interaction. A moment of self-indulgent solitary pleasure. And pleasure it is. There is no more flavorful, robust and potent way to take tobacco than by a pipe.

Hookah's are social creatures. To me, the idea of taking a Hookah by yourself is somewhat absurd. The passing of the pipe, the anticipation, the shared experience and shared pleasure add up to a very jolly, bubbling, social experience. I strongly recommend trying it before our Nanny State takes away all smoking privileges from us, it's poor, untrustworthy children.

In summation, Hookah is a fabulous casual experince that will not disapoint. It might not blow you away, but it will not disapoint. But do not go just for the food. Go for the social interaction in a comfortable enviroment... and the hookah.

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