The Golden Shisha
- Food: * * * *
- Service: * * *
- Atmosphere: * * * 1/2
- Overall: * * * 1/2
- Address: 609 James Agee St.
- Phone: 865-951-0536
- Hours: noon-midnight Sundays through Thursdays; noon-2 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays
- Seating: First come, first served
- Full bar service
KNOXVILLE — Middle Eastern ranks right up there near the top of my list of favorite ethnic cuisines. And it had been a long time since The Grub Spouse and I had enjoyed any, so once The Golden Shisha showed up on my radar, we made a beeline for James Agee Street, just a couple of doors down from Chaiyo's in the Fort Sanders neighborhood.
The smallish dining area carried distinctive touches of Middle Eastern decor, including burgundy tapestries, a few random ornate fixtures and some prominently displayed hookah pipes on a vintage upright piano near the entrance. For those who don't know, The Golden Shisha (shisha is a type of tobacco used in hookahs) offers such smoking devices for its patrons.
The Spouse and I were going smokeless and kept our attention on the menu, which is split fairly evenly between Middle Eastern fare and crepes, both sweet and savory. We were so fixated on getting our Mediterranean fix, however, that we passed on the crepes altogether. For the record, savory crepes are prepared with ham, turkey, pizza toppings and the like, while most of the sweet crepes feature Nutella spread and ingredients like walnuts, coconut, banana, strawberries and even Rice Krispies.
We started with the Golden Shisha Appetizer, which is a sampling of multiple small-plate dishes like hummus, baba ghanoush, labneh (yogurt cheese topped with olive oil), grape leaves and fried haloumi cheese.
But we weren't stopping there. No sir, The Spouse also ordered a lamb gyro, which is served with yogurt salad, and I got the kafta - a beef-lamb mixture seasoned with fresh herbs and served with rice and tabbouleh (Lebanese parsley salad with diced tomatoes, onions and mint).
There were a couple of issues that dinged this restaurant's first impression. First, a woman whom I presumed to be one of the owners was more engaged in the YouTube videos on her laptop than in keeping an eye on us. When she did focus on us, she was extremely pleasant and helpful. But her sitting with her back to us with headphones in ears certainly didn't win any points.
We also had difficulty with the tiny tables, which are only about 18 inches in diameter. They can handle a few drinks or maybe a single appetizer plate, but they were not intended for the multiplate spread we ordered. We had to pull two of the round tables together, which always reminds me of the George Costanza line, "That's no good; it makes an eight."
At least the food put things right. All the appetizer items were wonderful, especially the flavorful hummus and baba ghanoush, both served with soft, warm pita wedges. The stiffness of the salty haloumi cheese was unique, and the labneh was tartly pleasant.
The two fried kafta patties were likewise memorable, although the tabbouleh wasn't chopped as finely as I generally enjoy. The Spouse's lamb-filled gyro wasn't particularly a standout, mainly because of what I considered a mushy pita pocket, but it was still worth the effort. The accompanying yogurt salad was a treat.
Although there is definite room for improvement in some aspects of The Golden Shisha's operations, I wouldn't let that keep me from going back for the food. So put that in your pipe and smoke it.