ISLAMABAD   -    It seems the word Food Coma is a term coined only for the month of Ramazan. The eateries go bazaar in competing with one another on the number of dishes on the offer to draw customer’s attention right from the very first day of Ramazan moon sighting. Price tag is determined based on number of items on display which conveniently includes drinks and dates as well. Food aficionados in Islamabad however mostly make their pick based on a word of mouth and look for something unconventional but of course worth the money.

Arz Lebanon: This Lebanese restaurant located in F-7 near floral market is offering out-of-the-box ‘iftar’ dinner. So if one is not in a mood for a typical menu with ‘samosas’, ‘pakoras’ and ‘chaats’ on display, Arz Lebanon is the place. The décor is mediocre but the place is a paradise for the carnivores. Chef Abdur Rauf who has more than 10 years of experience working as a chef in Beirut, has designed a 30-day Ramazan menu with a few repeats every day. “I get a lot of regular customers during Ramazan opening fast at my place time and again so as a host, I should offer them something different every time so they don’t get bored with the same menu”, says the chef.

‘Tamrind’ and date juice are homemade and served fresh every day. According to chef Rauf, there is no comparison between a squash and any other colour drink with these organic juices made from extracts and kept overnight. One glass is good enough to quest the whole day’s thrust for water and an antidote for many toxins”, he added. 

Moving on to the ‘iftar’ display table, two different soups but mostly in the likes of tomato, broccoli, cauliflower and lentil so on and so forth are part of the starters. It’s better to avoid a soup on a hot summer day and go for mouth watering cold ‘Mezze’ routinely consisting of Baba Ghanouj, Hommus, Labne or Mutabal.

From salad bar Fattoush or Tabooli will be a good choice. Wait… the main course is still miles away as next in line is hot Mezze section offering an array of items in the likes of chicken Shawarma, Falafel,  Zaatar and Samosak, a Phillo-pastry filled with spinach and homemade cheese, a substitute for a samosa.

A word of caution… Go for small portions of these tantalising Lebanese delicacies if you are a meat lover as what waits at the end of the aisle is a treasure trove.  Take a rain cheque on the beef and lamb curries and  aim for the big  trophy: Full  steam  lamb with Arabic rice, a must item all 30 days of Ramazan and if it is your lucky day the runner up, Kabsa Chicken or Chicken Mandi spread in a big platter. These two show stoppers at Arz Lebanon are served by the chef himself as getting the right meat out of the big goat only comes with experience.

Shamadan Hall, Serena Hotel: This iftar dinner at Serena Hotel can easily be termed as the largest congregation in Islamabad catering to 500 guests at a time under one roof. The regular visitors here all 30 days of Ramazan are mostly corporate clients belonging to various national and multi-nationals organisations and government departments. Shamadan Hall during Ramazan becomes a status symbol when it comes to an invitation.

Iftar dinner at Shamadan is always a very lavish one. Anything and everything one can wish for is on the table. This time the iftar at Shamadan was run of the mill …mini samaos, pakoras, spring rolls, chicken wings, shami kebabs from the fryers and a few items from Bhala’s family checked all the iftar box items.

Having said that the other side of the aisle was a food Mecca; live pasta station, live fry station and a splendid spread of Pakistani traditional cuisine in the likes of Chicken Biryani, Nehari, Haleem, Saag, Mutton quorma  and lip smacking Daal Makhani on display to make a good combination.

A similar station on the other corner of the hall offered continental dishes in the same number; fish in butter sauce, beef rosemary, chicken tarragon and steam vegetables for all those guests who had enough of roti and naans every day. Live Shawarama also had a beeline. The setting in the beautifully manicured garden offered Live BBQ items. Beef kebabs, mutton tikka and chicken boti; the chef had made a good selection from all 3 meat variations. At Serena Shamadan, it is better to make a trip to all these stations pre-iftar and make your choice accordingly; otherwise, it will be very difficult to make a decision at the 11th hour. 

Monal Tree House: Located in the foothills of Margalla Hills, at Pir Sohawa, Monal Tree House is a sister concern of Monal restaurant and can easily be termed as its English version. The distance from Margalla Road to the venue is around 13 kilometres and safely 30 minutes drive. Once at the Tree House, it is worth every kilometre and every minute of effort. This wooden deck patio has a breathtaking view of Islamabad. The cheery on the top is that sunset view which comes free of cost with iftar-dinner.

Monal Tree House menu dominates Italian, French and Mediterranean cuisine for dinner whereas Iranian Khajoor, Chinese sesame chicken cubes, Prawn Tempura, Drum Sticks and assorted Samosas and pakoras for Iftar. The smart thing to do is savour the Prawn Tempura and Chinese sesame chicken being dished out from the wok and skip the run of the mill iftar items. Save your appetite for the best in store. Dinner is laid out after Namaz break. The tea drinkers and regular smokers can fill in their thirst for caffeine during this gap while the dinner preparations are given a finished touch.

Turkish and Creaser salad for starters is a good choice. Crisp and crunchy, iceberg entangled with Black olives, diced tomatoes, cucumbers, coarsely chopped onions infused with flavorful seasoning, made this appetizers very nutritious. Thai Chicken with Oyster Sauce, Sole Mediterranean, Spicy Fettuccine and Beef Steak in Béarnaise sauce and Tarragon chicken looked quite appealing to the eyes but it would be wise not to mix everything together. One chicken item either Moroccan chicken or Chicken with oyster sauce will do the craving for the bird. Similarly, beef steaks either with peppercorn sauce or béarnaise will fill the appetite for the beef portion. 

At Monal Tree House, the regulars never miss out of their famous bread and butter pudding. No doubt. The love for this dessert specialty is not limited to the sweet tooth guests only, the freshly baked bread and homemade caramelized sauce easily wins over all and sundry.  

Shakespeare Lounge:  Housed on the second floor in F-7 market facing Margalla Hills, this small eatery which can cater up to 40 guests at a time has an interesting iftar-only menu whereas hungry tummies can order main course from the regular menu on a discounted price. A close to home setting, with Victorian style crockery, printed upholstery and murals picturing Shakespeare’s books and his portraits, the place is a work of art. A small book rack collection includes Hamlet, Othello and Macbeth to name a few of Shakespeare’s great works. The unique selling point at Shakespeare Lounge is that the owner, Naveen Ahmad, is present throughout the iftar time and ensures that dishes get replenished round the clock with piping hot platters coming out of the kitchen. She keeps an eye on every table. “I want my guests to feel at home. Being a small set up, I have an advantage of personally overseeing every guest table and catering to their needs”, says the 30 something entrepreneur. 

The menu at Shakespeare Lounge is out of the ordinary. Spinach and corn calzones, Smokey buffalo dips, lollipop chicken, sesame fish, Pepperoni Crostini’s, Pasta, Lasagna and a complete package of desi iftar assortments in small containers to savoir. The iftar is laid out in platters instead of silver containers making it easy for the guests to make rounds whenever the platters are replenished. Lollipops chicken was the winner on the table amongst the many competitors. Crispy fried chicken wrapped around skewers accompanied by honey mustard dips was just lip smacking. It not only looked pretty but juicy from inside and pregnant with different seasonings. It was easy to lose the count while eating. It was polished off in matter of minutes. Pepperoni Crostini’s too did not lag far behind. Thinly cut slices from the freshly homemade loaf, laced with pepperoni sauce and loaded with mozzarella cheese, topped with crushed tomatoes and fresh basil; it went well with the iftar bouquet. The oozing burnt mozzarella cheese, crusty bread and the aroma of the basil leafs oomph the taste pallets on the very first bite. Fish was not as crisp as it should have been so one can pass on this; pasta too could have been a notch spicier to satisfy the taste buds as per Pakistani spice threshold.

The writer is a freelance contributor