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Monday, August 13, 2012

Dancing at Nicola's

Posted By on Mon, Aug 13, 2012 at 10:30 AM

Nicola Ayoub dancing with a customer
I'm not fond of belly dancing during dinner, as I've written a zillion times before. So, when my Friday-night dining pals announced they wanted to go to Nicola's, I wasn't thrilled. I'm pathologically shy, and I'm uncomfortable enough with a dancer undulating table-side. But I especially don't like being all but pulled on the dance floor to join the dancers and other wine-dosed diners.

"I need to warn you," I told my friends. "You can't eat at Nicola's without enduring a lot of belly dancing."

They shrugged. And 45 minutes later, two of our group were out on the floor dancing with owner Nicola Ayoub and a belly dancer. Ayoub opened the festivities by dancing with a platter of lit candles atop his head. A family there was celebrating a young guy's recent graduation from college. He was pulled on the floor, and others followed. Eventually it all turned into a three-deep line dance of wriggling buttocks.

The food? Nicola's has been open 27 years and, as such, is one of the first Middle Eastern restaurants in our city. My default dish here has always been the lamb shank, one of the best in the city and, incredibly, is only $12.95. For years, Nicola's was about the only place I could find a lamb shank, something my mother used to cook frequently. Back then, it was considered an inferior cut of lamb and was dirt-cheap on the few menus that did include it, like the Colonnade. It became popular and its price rose dramatically.

The menu here has changed very little over the years and there's nothing you can't find at other Middle Eastern restaurants, from shwarma and falafel to grape leaves and lemon chicken (which is weirdly made with chicken tenders).

But, unless you're as introverted as I am, you'll enjoy the ambiance Ayoub has created. He is far from the usual restaurateur/chef — an immigrant who worked as a janitor at Woolworth's, got a master's degree in educational psychology, operated a cookie concession at a Sears store, and worked as a server before opening Nicola's. Check out his bio, which really does brim with a sense of beauty, hospitatlity, and optimism.

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