Eastern Mediterranean Staples Fail To Earn The Crown At King Tut

Lebannon restaurant serves authentic, but uninspired cuisine.

Red plates and red napkins, along with amber lanterns and moody, dark wall-hangings puncture the sedate white, ivory and beige hues that serve as the backdrop of the dining room in the strip-mall space that is King Tut restaurant in Lebanon. The colors pop, and bring life to what could be a drab setting for a restaurant located hard on Route 22.

As I ate the dishes of the Eastern Mediterranean that dominate King Tut’s menu—largely, staples from the Middle East and specialties from Egypt—I wished that chef-owner Kal Nasr would bring the same attitude to his food that the decor provides. For more pronounced seasonings and accents are needed to elevate fare that is, by and large, bland and humdrum.

I am certain, for instance, that if the dollop of red pepper sauce brought to the table at the start of dinner in a tiny metal ramekin was somehow integrated into the right dishes, they’d have spirit and voice. The meat borek, for instance, was prettily plated with a chop of red bell pepper and flakes of parsley that played up the subtle floral design on its plate, but the phyllo pastry that encased the pie was tough and the ground beef-egg filling dull. Add a dollop of the sweet-tart red pepper sauce, and the borek was elevated from ho-hum to pleasant.

Meat borek

Baba ghanoush, that mash of eggplant typically enhanced by a dash of tahini and smoky notes that come from long, slow roasting or grilling, is another starter with a meek voice. Here, the eggplant is dominated by the mildest tahini I’ve ever encountered and there are no noticeable notes of lemon and peppery olive oil to relieve the monotony. Mostly, the dish needs smoke.

We needed responsiveness when we tried to catch the attention of the floor crew. With the dining room about one-quarter full and one of the servers sitting at a table using his cell phone repeatedly, I wondered if anyone actually would have cared that we’d been served the wrong lamb tagine had they checked in at our table or bothered to cast eyes upon us as we raised a hand for assistance. Would the Algerian-style braised shank, billed to come with prunes, almonds and herbs, bettered the King Tut shank with its dull mushroom sauce? The meat was tender, but had no discernible seasoning, and the vegetables—think a slab of carrot, an oval of zucchini, a quarter slice of under-roasted red pepper—were set on the plate exactly as they were for another entree of salmon with a falafel crust. Doesn’t lamb deserve sides selected to enhance its character?

Lamb shank

Anyway, that falafel crust excited me when the server announced it as a special with sun-dried tomatoes and a mustard sauce. But it was a mere swipe on the top of a skinny slice of overcooked salmon topped by a plentiful, but impotent sauce that was more appropriate as a dressing for the raw spinach on which the whole thing sat. Sad, and unexciting.

Salmon

Here’s the good news: King Tut does a solid couscous. We snagged the chicken, which is cubed and splayed around the mound of tiny beads of pasta with carrots, zucchini, slices of onion and a snip or three of parsley. It may have lacked seasoning, but its elements bonded over an attitude of comfort. Which, for this dish, is spot-on right.

Couscous

Desserts are displayed on a tray carried by a server, rather than on a printed menu; they are described as made in-house. A layering of coconut flakes with raw and toasted nuts was as feeble an effort as I’ve encountered in a homemade dessert: The coconut was stale, the nuts largely pulverized as to be indistinguishable and the accompanying vanilla ice cream was half melted upon delivery. A swirl of whipped topping sprayed from a can crowned the unappealing mess. An almond layer cake, served in a portion about half the size of the sample on the tray, gave no indication it paid any allegiance to the almond as it was made.

Dessert

King Tut, the restaurant, has been around since 2013 and chef-owner Nasr is a veteran of the restaurant industry. There’s a definite interest in the foods of the Middle East, Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa in New Jersey, as evidenced by the popularity of the Ottolenghi cookery books, as well as by established restaurants that include MishMish in Montclair and super-hot newcomer Reyla in Asbury Park. The folks behind the books and the restaurants exhibit no shyness when it comes to using seasoning, spice and a variety of authentic accents—and they waste no time by hesitating to charm and educate with a dose of the new, either.

Given the proprietor’s experience and the public’s clear interest, King Tut should take steps to revitalize its menu and re-think its out-of-date attitude. The public is ready and willing to eat authentic food.

King Tut, 1271 Route 22 in Lebanon. Open daily for lunch and dinner. 908-840-4668. kingtutrestaurant.com.

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