There's a rickety charm to this long-running
Sanyuanqiao joint, and late nights perched among the crowd in its plentiful
outdoor seating, shisha in hand, do make for a legit experience. Al Safir is
also one of the city's best priced options, with a pan-Arabian menu featuring
sharing plates of classic hummus, baba ganoush, falafel and salads all clocking
a reasonable 25-30RMB; at 90RMB, its loaded mixed grill is also a relative
steal. Points are lost for seemingly store-bought wraps for the dips (5RMB for
two) but, bread qualms aside, Al Safir is a winner.
Onto the now-bustling Xiaoyun Lu Courtyard, packed with people and the scents of myriad cuisines all vying for nostril space, arrives Al Safir. What was once largely Home Plate territory has since burst into life, expanding to include Mexican, various regional Chinese and now Middle Eastern fare.
Inside, this four-table restaurant already looks a bit lived-in and in dire need of a quick tidy-up, so we opt for sitting at the foldable tables outside. The added element of spicier options on Al Safir’s menu piques our interest, and the moutabal (spicy aubergine dip; 20RMB) is smooth, tangy and mild, with added yoghurt wooing us further.
Our dishes arrive quickly with the benefit of two of Al Safir's owners at the helm. We like it hot, so order the spicy falafel (30RMB), six crispy and herbaceous balls of crushed chickpeas. Using our fingers to break open each, we paddle piece after piece into the moutabal, wiping the dish clean.
Appealing to light summer appetites is the baba ganoush (20RMB), a hearty rendition of smoky eggplant mashed with chopped bell peppers, and the Arabic salad (20RMB), a healthy, cheese-less version of the leafy Greek standard.
Told the salmon is sold out, we opt instead for the Arabic BBQ fish (45RMB), which we’re told is sea bass, but is muddy, overly pungent and not worth it. We end with mint tea; a disappointing pot of three Liptons teabags and a handful of mint leaves, served free of charge, as it was nearly forgotten.
The chaps who run Al Safir are friendly and accommodating. But you won’t find alcohol on the menu and you’re not welcome to bring your own. It’s a down-to-earth location, without bathrooms, though there are public facilities nearby. Order as much as your appetite permits, as the prices won’t thwart any craving and your hunger will find satisfaction.
By Shanti Christensen