A chef who once worked for a royal family in the Middle East. A dessert dubbed Lebanese Nights. A hidden garden near one of Fresno’s busiest intersections that makes what may be the richest, freshest herbal tea you’ve ever tasted.
All of these things come together to make El Basha Restaurant. It’s a business that’s been around since 2010 as a hookah bar and restaurant at 5048 N. Blackstone Ave., near Shaw Avenue.
But now there is a new owner. Shahir Shalabi divided the business into two separate locations so people looking for a family-friendly atmosphere can dine without smoke at El Basha Restaurant. Customers can still smoke hookah and listen to live music next door at El Basha Hookah Lounge.
This is the first restaurant owned by Shalabi, an accountant by trade (and dad to 2 1/2-year old triplet girls) who has handled the books for other restaurants. He bought the business as an investment last year, and started changing things up after his busy tax season was over.
The restaurant itself has been entirely revamped: New floor, new ceiling, new chairs, etc. He added a bar with bar stools, though the restaurant does not serve alcohol.
A new chef, Gilda Stephanian, has joined the restaurant from Los Angeles. She was once the private chef for the sister of a Qatari prince and her family, returning home to the U.S. take care of her father.
The food at El Basha is Mediterranean. In Fresno, that’s often a catchall term for cuisine from several countries. El Basha’s new chef is Armenian. The restaurant owner’s family is Palestinian. During our interview a friendly debate erupted about whether a dish was Jordanian.
More change is in the works, and like any restaurant with big changes, there may be a few kinks to work out.
Expect to see a revamped menu in the weeks to come, including more of a fusion between Middle Eastern and American foods, more vegan options and more of the pastries and desserts Stephanian specializes in.
For now, you’ll find plenty of familiar Mediterranean favorites on the menu.
The spicy chicken is the most popular dish – cubes of chicken breast stir fried with onion, roasted garlic, spices and garlic sauce. The lula kebob is also a popular option, made with ground beef, Mediterranean spices and garlic sauce.
“It’s a healthy food,” Shalabi said. “We don’t use a lot of fat. We use lots of vegetables and fruit.”
There are several vegetarian and vegan options on the menu.
The meat is halal, slaughtered according to Islamic law – for example, with one cut and not in the presence of other animals being killed.
And that dessert, Lebanon Nights, is a fluffy white pudding-like confection with ground pistachios on top. It’s Stephanian’s take on an old recipe. She’s secretive about what’s in it, other than saying, “It’s made like a custard, but with heavy cream.”
And the herbal tea is made with fresh mint and oregano plucked from a tiny garden behind the building.
The restaurant is open from 11 a.m. to midnight most days and much later on weekends – but there’s no alcohol.
“People, they want to meet for business, for class, without interruption from any drunk people,” said owner Shalabi. “I’m trying to create a nice atmosphere for people.”
The restaurant has free Wi-Fi and customers are encouraged to bring a laptop and stay awhile.