You know when you are near Madena because the air becomes redolent with spices. Unfortunately, the promise in the air doesn’t always reflect in the food that comes to your table.
Located in the Gregory Building, it is a tiny place of five tables for two, more on sunny days when they can put tables outside. This is a hole in the wall; comfortable, but nothing fancy here, just basic concrete walls adorned with bright artwork. The music was rather incongruous, Taylor Dane and Flock of Seagulls playing on my last visit, and the whole atmosphere is more Pearl District then Lebanese.
Appetizers can be good depending on the day. The garlicky baba ganoush is good, a smoky, smooth puree of eggplant, olive oil, and garlic served with flatbread for dipping. I’ve had the hummus a few times and while it has been good it is nothing special. The flatbread is just okay — At other restaurants such as Cafe Aladdin, it comes out steaming hot and puffy from the oven. Here it is a bit crispy and gets tough after it cools down a bit, then one night I got food to-go, it and was still in the bag from the grocery store. Oops.
The falafel is a bit dry for my taste and the spice blend varies from pretty good to way over salted. It doesn’t really compare to versions in some of the other restaurants in town. Finally we get to the grape leaves, again nothing special, nothing that stands out from many other places in town.
A maza platter is available at dinner for $9.25 that includes a sampler of hummus, baba ganooj, falafel, tabouli, and grape leaves. Unfortunately they are normally out of at least one of the listed items.
The fattoush salad made up of romaine, cucumber, tomatoes, radishes, green onion, sumac spice, garlic, baked pita, fresh mint, and lemon/olive oil dressing is refreshing. The spices are good but not overpowering. It is huge, a meal in itself, and it worked quite well when I had it one hot summer evening with a cold beer.
If you travel in the Middle East, you will invariably come across chicken shawarma. It is usually found as a sandwich but here it is a large plate. Fork tender chicken with a wonderful spice blend of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, allspice, garlic, and green cardamom over basmati rice, accompanied by fresh sweet onion coated with yet more spice mix. This is a difficult dish to rate because shawarma is a country-by-country dish, changing taste and texture from place to place. When the restaurant first opened, Madena’s version was pretty good. Now, however, it is short on flavor, dry, and tastes like it was made days ago and reheated. The beef version is pretty much the same, again served with basmati rice. The beef is a bit tough, and has been cooked until there is no juice left in it. Again, it is very bland.
Chicken coco comes as a marinated baked chicken breast with herbs, 7-spice, and garlic, topped with coconut curry sauce, again over rice. Another disappointment, the ‘curry sauce’ is bland leaving you wondering if they even have spices behind the counter.
I have to say the one trend I notice every time I go to Madena is the lack of consistency. I tried the chicken coco and it was so salty I had a difficult time finishing the dish. The same day, a salad had so much lemon I couldn’t taste anything else. One week a dish will be pretty decent, the next there will be way too much cardamom. With the meat dishes, the spice mix is not distributed evenly, leaving some bites spiced and others with little flavor at all. Sometimes the hummus has too much lemon, other times too little.
Though this restaurant has been open for several years, it doesn’t seem to be getting any better; if anything it’s getting worse; a disappointment for those who would like to have a decent Lebanese restaurant in the Pearl District. The last evening I was there, I noticed an interesting thing: they don’t seem to have a vent hood. Anywhere. Just an exhaust system above the front door. That makes me think they probably do the heavy cooking somewhere else, and bring it to the restaurant for reheating. That could explain a few things.
Appetizers and sandwiches run mostly in the $4.00 range, soups and salads around $5.00 and Entrees $7.00. You get a good amount of food for your dollars. Service is very attentive.
- Phone: 503-231-1000
- Address: 432 NW 11th Ave, Portland OR. 97209 Google Map
- Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday.