Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Dinner at the al-Rashid

One of the things I liked best about being stationed in Korea in the mid-90s was that on almost any night you weren't out in the field, you could go off post into Tongdaechon and sample the local cuisine. (Even in the field, every unit had a Korean family that followed you around from one assembly area to the next selling Korean cuisine from the back of a truck. You have never truly enjoyed Ramen noodles until you've had them in 20-below weather).

So it is frustrating that security conditions prevent me from going out on the economy for an authentic Iraqi meal.

However, after the Council of Representatives meeting concluded Saturday evening, I was planning to catch a ride back to the Republican Palace with a Colonel who'd been attending the session as well. Since he was parked across the street from the Baghdad Convention Center in the al-Rashid Hotel's lot, we decided to have dinner at the hotel.

The al-Rashid is best known for two events. First, in January 1991, it was the location from which CNN filmed its amazing coverage of the air campaign against Baghdad during the First Gulf War. More recently, in October 2003, it was the hotel at which Paul Wolfowitz was staying when insurgents fired six rockets at the hotel, killing an American officer travelling with the Deputy Secretary.

But today the al-Rashid stands squarely within the International Zone, which while reducing the bustle you'd expect at one of Baghdad's two modern hotels, means it is relatively safer than it was for either Peter Arnett or the Deputy Secretary of Defense.

To get to the restaurant, we had to navigate a maze of corridors on the first floor, passing a variety of shops selling Persian rugs, jewelry, faux Babylonian/Sumerian sculptures, and of course, pirated DVDs. We passed through the lattice screen at the entrance into the main dining room. The restaurant was dimly lit, with lamps covered by shades in the shape of minaret domes. Geometric patterns were carved into the white walls, and the room was furnished with brown carpeting and chairs. Two large stuffed birds stood against the far wall, and throughout the room Mesopotamian-looking pottery and cookware was laid out for decoration.

Because all the reporters who live at the al-Rashid were still at the Convention Center, the Colonel and I had the restaurant to ourselves. When we arrived, Iraqi dance music was blaring from the speakers in the ceiling. However, after ten minutes, the waitstaff realized we were their only patrons and switched the radio to an American Easy Listening station.

This absolutely killed any sense of authenticity I hoped to experience.

We split bowls of hummus and baba ganush as appetizers. The Colonel ordered the lamb kebabs, and upon the waiter's recommendation I ordered the "Iraqi Mixed Grill." Although it was not on the menu, the waiter asked if we would like French Fries as well. I was afraid this would kill the Arabian nights feel to the meal, but the poor server seemed so proud to offer us the fries, I couldn't say no. (They were actually pretty good, especially with spicy Jordanian ketchup). The mixed grill ended up consisting of beef and chicken kabobs, two slices of lamb, and some type of ground white meat that was likely pork.

The food was good, but not quite the quality of any Lebanese Taverna back in the DC area. (It may have tasted better with a nice Cab Sauv accompaniment, but thanks to General Order #1, we stuck to bottled water). The final charge was $48 for the two of us, plus tip. In the end, it was a little bit disappointing given how eager I am to experience something authentically Iraqi.

I will definitely be back to the al-Rashid, however. I think I saw about $1,000 worth of trinkets that would look good in our house, and if Marya puts in an addition this summer, we'll need some new rugs with which to decorate.