The closing of Natchez Restaurant earlier this year was met with sadness from many people in the restaurant community. Chef Alexis Jones was and is loved by many, and most foodies can tell you at least one of two of her dishes that they will remember for a long time. And while Natchez’s food will be difficult to replace, the space the restaurant once occupied has quickly found a new tenant. Arbela Middle Eastern Grill has opened its doors to the downtown lunch crowd at the Tower Building, so I stopped by to see what it has to offer.
There is no shortage of Mediterranean-themed food in the Little Rock area, but Arbela might be unique in its singular focus. The menu boasts a scant 10 entrée items and a small handful of sides and desserts. Visitors can choose a plate dish, sandwich or a salad made quickly at Arbela’s assembly line-style prep area. And Arbela’s system is effective. The small menu and efficient setup means your dish is at the cash register in just a few minutes.
Arbela’s owner is Buck Sayyah, a young Jordanian-American who has spent several years in Little Rock’s restaurant scene. This is Sayyah’s first time with his own menu, and he has used the chance to make sure Arbela’s food is well made. The gyro meat is tender and juicy, even though it is sliced quite thin. Arbela’s chicken uses a marinade that Sayyah is still tweaking, featuring noticeable garlic and citrus notes.
Speaking of citrus, you might not find a hummus with more lemon flavor anywhere in town. It’s just one of the successful vegetarian options, too. I tried the falafels by themselves and in a pita sandwich, and I found the crispy chickpea patties full of flavor. Even the basmati rice is noteworthy, with cumin, cardamom and cinnamon creating a warming sensation on your tongue.
There are two reasons I think Arbela can succeed where Natchez did not. First, it is only open for lunch from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. The restaurant space is somewhat isolated from any after-hours downtown activity, so skipping dinner service is probably a good idea. Second, Arbela’s fast-service model should attract the business lunch crowd that needs to dine quickly and get back to work. That combined with a careful take on Mediterranean food make it easy for me to recommend giving Arbela a chance for lunch. Call-ahead orders are available by calling 501-374-2633.