Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
Sometimes restaurants we visit are great, and sometimes they aren't very good at all — but until we tried Al Seraj on Rodney Parham, we'd never been to one that was both in the space of a single week. Our initial impression of the place was that Little Rock had gained a valuable addition to our international food scene, but a second meal left us scratching our heads and wondering what went wrong.
The restaurant is in the former Great Wraps location next to Bedford Camera, and on our first trip in, we were impressed by the clean interior, which despite being at the height of lunch looked as though the restaurant had just opened. Walking past the prep bar to the register to place our order, we noticed the wide variety of fresh salads and ingredients available, and our mouth always starts watering the minute we see a spinning column of gyros meat ready for shaving.
We decided to start small for lunch with an order of hummus ($4.69), and we were excited when the plate hit the table. The chickpea puree was silky smooth and the splash of olive oil over the top added a delightful pungent note to the dish. The pita served alongside appeared to be handmade, and while we can't be sure that Al Seraj is making it in house, we can say with some certainty that wherever the pita is coming from, it's being made fresh. Hummus is a simple dish, but those can often be the hardest to pull off, and we were more than pleased by this version.
A couple of wrap-style sandwiches followed, and we were equally happy with them. The Kufta Beef Kabob ($5.99) was flavorful and moist, with an ample portion of kabob-style ground beef nestled among vegetables and a tangy sauce. The Chicken Kabob ($5.99), marinated grilled chicken, was moist and flavorful. The bread for the sandwiches was a flatbread-style wrap, and again it was clear that Al Seraj is using homemade bread. We finished lunch and left already planning our next trip. It was a fantastic meal.
A return trip for dinner proved to be about as far from fantastic as could be imagined. If there was one highlight of this disastrous second meal, it was an order of falafel ($2.99). The hushpuppy-sized chickpea patties were tender and well spiced, and while we found the tahini sauce on the side to be a touch thin, the flavor was spot on. Falafel is a dish that can easily be served either too dry or falling apart, but these were firm, moist and delicious.
Unfortunately, that's basically where the good times ended. A Half-and-Half Platter ($12.99) with gyros meat and chicken shawarma committed sins that were avoided by our previous meal: The meat was dry, spongy and uninspired. Gyros meat should be shaved from the column and lightly crisped in a pan; this was just shaved and dumped onto a plate. The shawarma had a good flavor, but it was so dry that sip after sip of water was required just to get it down. A side of baba ganouj didn't help matters, veering from pleasantly sharp to bitter, despite having a good texture and consistency.
Most disappointing, though, was the Lamb Kabob ($12.99). Four sad chunks of gristly, tough lamb made us wonder if we were actually at the same restaurant that pleased us so much just a few days prior. A side salad of cucumbers, tomato and tangy tzatziki sauce was tasty and fresh, and our other side of basmati rice was fine (if under-seasoned), but we had really come into the place with a taste for lamb, and thus left disappointed. It was as if an entirely different kitchen had prepared our food the second time around. The attention to spice and flavor that we enjoyed so much during our previous lunch seemed more slapdash and inconsistent the second time around, with some items (like the lamb) having very little flavor while others were prepared well.
Given that Al Seraj performed so well the first time, we are inclined to give it another chance to reach those heights again. Perhaps the place is simply better equipped to do sandwiches and other lunch-style dishes, or perhaps there is a better crew in the kitchen during the day. Whatever it is, we still recommend giving the place a try, because while we found our dinner dishes lacking, that first lunch had enough sparkle and taste that there is obviously potential at Al Seraj.
Al Seraj Mediterranean Restaurant
11400 N. Rodney Parham Road
It can be a little confusing knowing where to order at Al Seraj, and there aren't any signs to guide the way. Go back to the rear of the restaurant along the prep bar to place an order. Meals from the restaurant are also available for delivery through Chef Shuttle.
11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday.
All major credit cards accepted; no alcohol.