As word gets out about Ishtar, I predict it'll be a place where little gray area exists for diners. With the ghosts of its former occupant still lingering--most notably the carved wood booths that read "Chapala" in halty script--and its overall plain-Jane attitude, Ishtar will immediately be a turn off for some. For others, it will be quaint crush at first sight.
Lunch is a simple choice from a double-sided picture menu: kabobs, shawarma, falafel. As directed by the one-man-show, an affable 20-something, who runs both the attached market (selling everything from bleach to baklava) and the restaurant kitchen, kabobs were my dish of choice. As the lone diner one weekday afternoon, I sat in an utterly silent dining room while my host bounced between the kitchen and the store. It started with the beeping of microwave buttons followed by a flurry of vegetable chopping. After a few moments, he flew into the store to ring up a few chatty customers and then it was back to the kitchen with a loud clanging of pots and pans.
In all, the meal was two courses. First: a basket containing two soft, golden pieces of home-baked, sesame seed-dusted bread, the size and shape of flattened footballs, and three small plates--one with an earthy sumac-sprinkled hummus, a second with a mint, chopped cucumber and yogurt salad, and a third with a heavily garlicked baba ganoush.
The second course was a golden hill of steaming saffron rice, two long and heavily seasoned beef kebobs, one grilled and smashed bitter tomato, and a moat of chopped romaine. The first course had been enough food for two meals and with the addition of the main course, another two meals sat before me on the table. As a whole, it was an impressive spread for $8, and of the eight items that comprised my lunch, I'd rate them all well.
Being of the latter category of diners--those who fall squarely on the quaint-crush side--I've already put Ishtar on a short list for future lunch choices. And I've made a mental note to go with the falafel in the future. Heck, for that matter, I'd be happy with just the starters. Or even the bread alone, which is also sold daily in the market.