The sandwich board advertising The Lemon Tree Restaurant sits out on the corner of Queen Street and Spring Garden, inviting you down the street to the little pink storefront in the middle of Queen Street's eclectic Vintage Row rainbow.
Entering the restaurant, we're each warmly greeted by Muallah Gunduz, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Gino Bora, the Lemon Tree's chef. She gestures to a free table near the kitchen, and plunks down little silver mugs of fresh lemonade. It's a lovely way to be greeted.
There's a sweet, vintage feel to the room, a slightly dog-eared breeziness that makes it feel more like a family dining room than a restaurant, amplified by the fact that it bleeds into a very casual kitchen. A TV screen sits haphazardly on a chair on the border of the two, bland neon flickering inconsequentially as Turkish music pours out. It's pleasant with its citrusy brightness, though, and with the spices wafting out from the kitchen.
We want to try as much as possible, so we opt to split a mezze combo ($12) and the mixed kebab combo ($17). We ask for recommendations from the wide array of available mezze, and Gunduz sings the praises of the freshly baked borek, gives us a nod and tells us that she'll put something together that we will enjoy.
What we get are two small plates packed with flavour. Roasted red pepper is sweet and silky with hints of pungent garlic. Imam bayildi, usually a stuffed eggplant, here is a sort of hash: the diced eggplant offers mildly earthy, nutty notes and a creaminess that contrasts beautifully with the sweet acid of tomato. Piyaz, a white bean salad, is dressed in a zingy orange-tinged olive oil that has a hint of heat from chili powder. It's a pleasant salad, with just enough bite left in the bean and onion to give a nice textural contrast to the other dishes.
We're served flatbread to use with the dips, along with kisir, a bulgur salad dotted with finely diced onions, given depth with tomato and pepper paste, and crisp, subtle sweetness with finely diced cucumber. And the borek really is a highlight: the flaky phyllo gives way to a creamy filling of spinach and feta that sings with a slight saltiness.
We finish the course with tiny cups of strong, bright coffee ($3) that are served with little shortbread cookies that are dusted with sugar.
The mixed kebab combo has richly seasoned, tender meatballs and moist chicken with just the slightest bit of smoky char. The rice is bland filler; it makes the plate long for hummus or cacik on the platter to help round out the flavours and textures. The choban and carrot salads, though, are fantastic—they are, respectively, refreshing and vibrant, sweet and creamy.
As we are enjoying our meal and chatting, the chef pops out of the kitchen: "Would you like some tea?" Allison accepts, I decline. Perhaps it is that the homey atmosphere makes the offer seem like a show of attentive courtesy, but I'm surprised to see it on the bill ($3) at the end of the meal. Since neither of us had even thought about the tea before it was offered, it ends up feeling like a bit of an upsell instead of a moment of homespun hospitality.
When we are done, it takes quite a long time to get our bill. As much as it feels like an invitation to relax, it is awkward: it takes so long to get anybody's attention that it starts to feel like we've stayed too long at a party that ended so long ago that the host went to bed.
A few bumps aside, this was a very nice lunch. While there's no shortage of Mediterranean restaurants in Halifax, The Lemon Tree is a nice, low-key addition to the collection.
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