By Molly Snyder Senior Writer Published Mar 27, 2006 at 5:33 AM

Many Middle Eastern restaurants in Milwaukee display hookahs as decorations, but Amir Rasouli, co-owner of the new restaurant Shi Chai, activated his collection of ornate water pipes from mere adornments to burning, bubbling vessels of post-meal enjoyment.

Shi Chai, 832 E. Center St., opened quietly in Riverwest last week, and thanks to a cozy-yet-spacious atmosphere and a stellar menu stuffed with Mediterranean soul food, it's the most promising venture to open in the area since African restaurant and nightclub, Club Timbuktu.

Rasouli, an Iranian who grew up in Kuwait, perfected a menu-full of Persian and Arabic eats. Because of the incredibly affordable prices -- everything is $5.99 or less -- on a recent visit we basically went buck wild and ordered whatever jumped out at us on the menu.

While waiting for our feast, we sipped cups of blood orange, jasmine rooibos and coco mint tea, chosen from an extensive tea list. All of the teas are served in hand-stuffed, hand-tied tea bags, and Rasouli, working as both chef and wait staff, was quick to refill mugs with hot water.

The name "Shi Chai" is a combination of the word "shisha," meaning "smoke," and "chai," meaning "tea."

Although the space was formerly an appliance shop, it easily transforms into a groovy, sophisticated lounge. Tiled floors give the environment an overall clean feeling, while red and gold walls and draping textiles make the large space feel warm. Co-owner Anne Rasouli says they plan to add more pillows in the sitting areas -- a detail that's definitely needed to make the experience even more like "Alice in Wonderland's" rabbit hole, where a caterpillar tokes on soft mushrooms. However, the current seating arrangement didn't prevent us from staying for almost three hours.

Overall, the food is wonderful. The portions are large, and the value is incredible. Most impressive are the textures; Rasouli nails the ghanough, an eggplant dish that's often too chunky or watery or both. His is creamier, more like hummus, and the perfect dip for warm, soft pita bread that comes with most of the meals. Also, the ghanough has a roasted, slightly smoky flavor, which we had never tasted in this dish before.

The lentil soup is dark and earthy, and also has a fantastic texture, deep and rich yet not too thick.

We also tried the foul -- a spicy mix of fava beans, lemon juice, garlic and olive oil, the hummus -- we liked how it wasn't overpowered with garlic -- and a plate of dolmeah, delicious grape leaves served warm. One of the diners in our grouped remarked how they, literally, melt in your mouth.

The slightly buttery taste in many of the dishes comes from, we think, the olive oil, and puts many of the meals in the "comfort food" category.

We also tried the spinach pie which had a perfect crust and comes with potato salad, surprisingly a traditional Middle Eastern dish. This potato salad is different from the American or German version, and tastes like deviled eggs.

There are five wraps and sandwiches available, including a Mediterranean grilled cheese. We tried The Alchemist, a mammoth wrap loaded with hummus, fried eggplant, onions, shredded lettuce and tomato oil. It comes wrapped in lavash, Persian bread that's a cross between the softness of a tortilla and the appearance of matzo. Again, the texture was right on -- a delectable mix of crunchy and soft, warm and cold. This was, perhaps, the highpoint of our meal.

After stuffing ourselves -- yet still having enough food to take home to kid-sitting spouses -- we decided to fire up one of the hookahs.

To ensure the best possible flavor, Rasouli says he has more than 60 hookahs for customer use because he never uses more than one flavor of shisha in a water pipe. The shisha menu features about a dozen flavors, including kiwi and strawberry, double apple and cardamom, vanilla and lemon, and pomegranate (in season). The cost is $5.99-$7.99, with enough for three people to smoke for roughly 30 minutes.

Shisha is almost entirely made from molasses and various fruits, but does have .005 percent tobacco. You must be 18 years old to smoke a hookah. Cigarette smoking is not permitted in the restaurant, nor do they serve alcohol.

Hookah lounges cropped up all over the country in the last few years, and, ironically, are extremely popular although many cities are going smoke-free in bars and restaurants. Wauwatosa's Shiraz, 2 Sweet International Delight on Locust Street, and Mantra Nightclub also offer shisha.

The day-after affect of hookah smoking isn't as intense as being a non-smoker in a bar and getting a "smoke hangover," but we could definitely feel post-hookah affects in our lungs. Smoking a hookah makes you feel lightheaded and happy, but the buzz only lasts for a couple of minutes.

According to Ann Rasouli, Shi Chai will have live music in the near future. "With this amount of space, it's really exciting to think about all the different directions we could go," she says.

Ironically, while the United States' government is in conflict with the Middle East, halfway around the world there's a cozy, friendly lounge where people share a hookah, peacefully.

Shi Chai is open weekdays from 10:30 a.m. to midnight, with carry-out available until 2 a.m. Friday and Saturdays, carry-out is available until 3 a.m. Sunday hours are 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Call (414) 755-4455 for more information.

Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.

Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.