OMAR AL-KHYAM: Garlicky, lemony Lebanese delights. Bradley Hanson
Omar Al-Khyam Restaurant
354 Sunset Blvd N, Renton, 425-271-8300
Mon-Fri 11 am-9 pm, Sat 4-9 pm.

Why does the Pita King have to hold court so far away? I wanted to go to an Arabic bakery with my Kuwaiti friend, Carmen, and Everett hadn't sounded like much of a trip, but that's because I'd mixed it up with Edmonds. It was a hell of a drive, but we were having fun ogling kibbe and string cheese, stocking up on syrups, flower waters, labne (kefir cheese), za-atar bread, and (naturally) pita, when Carmen asked if there were any good Arabic restaurants in the area. Our pita salesman, politely smitten with Carmen (88% of straight men are, politely or otherwise), smiled and pointed to some business cards on the counter. We paid up and he carried her groceries to the car, leaving me to tote my own.

And that's how I ended up at the other end of the earth from Everett, reviewing my second South-of-Seattle restaurant in as many weeks, and I promise (sorry Renton), the last for a while. A random card on a Pita King counter: As a food critic, you have to go where the wind blows you.

Having called from the road, slightly lost, Andrew and I were greeted outside Omar Al-Khyam's pointed-arch façade by a bouncy young waiter. Never mind that it's named for a Persian mathematician-poet; Omar Al-Khyam is a Lebanese restaurant--a good thing in my book. A month ago, my meal at the Lebanese Taverna in D.C. made me feel like I was tasting ordinary things--eggplant, cucumbers, yogurt--for the first time. I like Lebanese food because it basks in sharp, bright flavors and is clear about its priorities: lemon and garlic. This is not to say Lebanese cooks don't know how to throw in a subtle twist here and there, such as lemonade scented with a little rosewater, a drink that gave me the momentary illusion of being more ladylike than I actually am. That was, of course, before the garlic consumption began in earnest.

The meal at Omar Al-Khyam started with fattoush ($5.75), the Middle Eastern version of bread salad, made with toasted pita chips. At Omar Al-Khyam, there's no lettuce--just the crisp pita, tomatoes, sweet scimitars of onion, a piece of cucumber or two, and mint leaves. Everything is slicked with olive oil and lemon juice (natch) and tossed with a spice mixture that includes sumac, a magenta powder that only underscores the salad's tanginess. It is the kind of dish that can get you through the summer, and thanks to the pillow-sized bag of sumac I picked up in Everett, this just might be my own summer of fattoush.

Zahra ($5.75), our fried cauliflower appetizer, fell flat, by comparison--cauliflower always seems to be falling short when I eat out these days--with vegetables that crisped up nicely enough in hot oil, although the tahini sauce that went with it somehow only echoed the dish's earthy flatness, without complementing it. What it really needed was a little more lemon and garlic.

Entrées came with a cup of soup to start: tomato with incidental carrot cubes and peas, but with a sweetly spiced broth that had a pervasive, mellow lambiness to it and a few fall-apart hunks of long-stewed meat. Even though my mom mostly kept me in Campbell's when I was a kid, somehow the soup made me nostalgic for my elementary-school thermos.

Lamb cutlets ($14.95) and shish tawouk (chicken skewers, $12.95) each came--mildly enough--with a molded cylinder of soft rice-and-noodle pilaf, a spoonful of hummus, and some romaine leaves. But on top of each dish was a dollop of stiff garlic sauce, made with what must be a head of garlic per serving. Eaten alone, it is too much, but smeared on hot meat (or plain pita, for that matter) its garlicky excess seems just right. The lamb, topped by two jaunty tomato slabs, was rather too done for my taste (in my mind, lamb should either be cooked forever in liquid, or cooked until just pink over dry heat). Despite its lemony marinade, the chicken, too, was on the safe (that is to say, dry) side of doneness, but that garlic sauce--I'd smear it on shoe leather and be happy. And so Andrew and I, stinky and sated, began the long drive back north.