Old World style with modern elements
Tiqa is Iraqi slang for kebab, a word familiar to Deen Haleem. As an Army Reservist serving in the Middle East, he was often tasked with making the “tiqa run” for his fellow soldiers, who were tired of Army food. He was also deployed to southern Europe and northern Africa, kindling an interest in the cuisine of these regions. Haleem is one of the owners of Tiqa, along with his wife Carol Mitchell, general manager Patrick Morang, and executive chef Bo Byrne.
On the back of Tiqa’s menu is a map that shows the wide range of cuisines represented at the restaurant. The area stretches from Portugal
and Spain to Syria and Israel. In between lie southern France, Italy, Morocco, and Turkey. The map is a helpful guide to navigating the varied menu, which Haleem calls “pan- Mediterranean.” “When we started Tiqa we asked ourselves, ‘Are we going to do traditional versions of dishes, or are we going to do Maine versions?’ We came up with a formula that’s about 90 percent traditional, and we take creative liberties with the rest,” says Haleem. The menu has evolved over the past year and a half, through in-house research and with the help of consultants, and changes are made every season. “We start working on a new menu almost immediately after releasing the last one,” he says. Haleem’s Palestinian heritage plays into menu development, as does his wife’s Lebanese background.
Chef Byrne was excited to take on the challenge. “It was a chance to dive head first into a new cuisine,” he says. “What drew me to Tiqa is the fact that I hadn’t done anything like this before.” Byrne and his crew have picked up knowledge from cookbooks, like Jerusalem, by the iconic chef Yotam Ottolenghi, and Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking, a James Beard Award-winning book by Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook. “These are the blueprints for how dishes are done,” Byrne says. “But then I change it a little. You have to know the rules to break the rules.” He presents us with a plate of kebabs, one skewer of pork belly and one of scallops, both atop chili sauce sweetened with pomegranate molasses. Topping the tiqa is chermoula, a fragrant relish containing “a grocery list of spices and herbs,” says Byrne. The complexity of it, redolent with cumin, coriander, and chiles, contrasts beautifully with the simple grilled seafood and meat. The dish is a play on the ever-popular bacon-wrapped scallops, by way of Portugal and North Africa, and is typical of Byrne’s ingenuity.
The mezze plate leans more towards the traditional, with Tiqa’s creamy hummus as the star. It’s served warm, as it typically would be in the Middle East. “We have a commitment to doing it the real way, using a multi-step process that takes about 36 hours,” says the chef. Also on the platter are baba ganoush, deliciously crisp and tender falafel, olives, and roasted Brussels sprouts, an unexpected but welcome element. We’re glad to see the house-made pita bread served alongside. We’ve been watching as baker Devyn Burke forms rounds of the traditional bread, and places them in the oven for just a few moments before flipping them over. They come out, hot and puffy, and the fragrance is mouth-watering, wafting into the dining room from the open kitchen.
A copper and blond wood bar surrounds the kitchen, providing a view of the action. The two dining areas are inviting and comfortable, decorated in neutrals with bright bursts of turquoise and orange, a mix of Old World elements and modern comfort and style. A recurring theme in the decor is the honeycomb shape, inspired by the interior shape of the six-pointed star of knowledge, an ancient motif frequently found in Middle Eastern architecture. The hexagon shape can be find in many elements throughout Tiqa, including the floor-to-ceiling glass wine cooler, ceiling panels, carpet, and banners that separate the lounge from the bar. Both areas are popular at happy hour and beyond, but in good weather it’s the large outdoor patio with a fire pit that draws a lively crowd. Imaginative cocktails are created by beverage director Zara Edwards and bartender Gigi Mall, often using house-made infusions, with Mediterranean flavors such as rosemary and fig. The Spicy Blood Orange Martini is full of fresh citrus flavor and spiked lightly with hot sauce. “It’s all about the balance of sweet and savory elements,” Edward says. The wine list represents the geography of the menu too, with choice from Greece and Lebanon, as well as Italy and France.
Haleem and the staff are taking on another big project this summer—the opening of Tiqa Cafe and Bakery in Deering Oaks Park. The park’s small castle-like structure is being completely renovated as a full-service cafe, including an outdoor deck. It will be open all day, from early morning with coffee and pastries, through lunch with sandwiches and salads, right into happy hour. With a location adjacent to the Saturday farmers’ market in summer and the skating pond in winter, Haleem hopes to bring the Tiqa experience to another part of town. “Portland has been really warm to us,” he says. “We’re so happy to be a part of this community.”