DINING & DESTINATIONS: Nawal's offers age-old family recipes made fresh daily

It's not that I don't like travel when autumn begins.

Nothing beats Michigan in the fall, when Mother Nature takes her brush and paints colors of oranges, yellows and reds across our state's tree canopy.

I've simply had no time to leave the area.

I have been busy baking breads, cookies and pies to keep up with the wonderful harvest of different squashes, apples and pumpkins.

With my weekends filled with baking and my weekdays filled with reporting, this week's dining destination had to be close to home.

So, why not hit up one of the many places at which you can eat good downtown? Especially since I've been told that Nawal's is a place I can get one of my fall favorites: bread pudding.

Bread pudding is a comfort dessert that I love to make for family gatherings once the holiday season ramps up. It's especially good warm with a whiskey or bourbon sauce topped with a little whip cream on a cool fall day.

At Nawal's, this dessert has received great reviews on Trip Advisor and has pushed Nawal's into the No. 1 spot to dine at in downtown Big Rapids. At least that's what the website said yesterday.

The owner, Nawal Braden Swart, is a very nice woman, who cooks up everything fresh, from her own family recipes.

With delicious lentil soup and other excellent choices made fresh daily, including some vegetarian dishes, Nawal’s is on point for a dining destination.

I got in early for lunch on Tuesday, a little too early as my server, Kiersten, said.

Nawal's, (111 S. Michigan Ave.), is open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday and till 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. She sells gourmet cupcakes, wedding cakes and other pastry items and has her doors open at 11 a.m. to catch those wanting a good cupcake. However, lunch actually begins at 11:30 a.m. because Nawal is still preparing many of her menu items fresh for that day, she said.

Kiersten suggested the lamb gyro for $8 and I chose the side pasta salad. The pasta salad was nothing special: it was a garden pasta salad with tangy herbs in an olive oil and vinegar dressing. However, the gyro with it's warm pita bread was first-rate.

The meat was very tasty and plentiful. Of course the main ingredient needed for an authentic Gyro is lamb, which Nawal prepared perfectly. The meat did not resemble the dull gray that is made up of beef, lamb, cereal (Corn, Wheat and Rye Flours), water and seasonings that I was used to preparing at restaurants throughout my cooking career. The exterior of the meat was crispy, but with each bite the meat is tender, juicy and full of flavor.

The rest of the sandwich also was in good proportion with the onions and not overwhelming as I’ve experienced at some gyro purveyors. The fresh cut lettuce and sliced tomatoes provided color and complemented everything.

Again, I don’t know enough about Greek or Middle Eastern food to tell you if her Tzatziki sauce (a cucumber sauce, for those not familiar) is particularly authentic or not, but it certainly tasted good to me and was much better than other versions I’ve had before.

The pita bread was warm, soft and well constructed to keep the ingredients from migrating too far from the folded pita. Served with rice and a dill sauce, the lunch was more than I could finish, especially if I was going to try Nawal’s popular bread pudding.

Nawal tells me that everyone who has had her bread pudding returns for more. She uses a recipe that has been passed down in her family for generations, she said.

"It was my great-great grandmother's," Nawal said. "Everything on the menu is from a family recipe that I have taken and added my own twist to."

Bread pudding is a minimalist sort of dish, no more than dry bread mixed together with milk and eggs and whatever flavor strikes the cook, and then baked until it is rich and custardy.

You can order the bread pudding in a full or half order. I settled for the half order for $3, since I couldn't finish my lunch.

The flavors were luscious. Cream and sugar with vanilla and cinnamon wrapped around the texture and tang of nuts and fruit punctuated with a smooth hint of what I thought was whiskey. The creaminess was exquisite and gracefully balanced by the firm, but even, texture of the bread. The nuts added interest and the raisins were plump and, well, chewy.

The sauce almost is just as important as the actual bread used. You don’t want to choose a sauce that is going to overpower the actual taste of the bread pudding.

Nawal’s sauce is perfect. She isn’t about to give up any secrets either as I soon learned when I asked about the sauce for her bread pudding.

It was a perfect balance of sweet to offset the topping of homemade caramel and pecans. The sauce was flavorful with two liquors that I swear were a combination of whiskey and bourbon, but Nawal wasn't telling and, of course, I was wrong. I know there was hints of vanilla. After I got my leftover lunch home I dug in again to the pudding to figure it out. Perhaps she used a rum, but I couldn't pinpoint the source of this sweet sauce. All I know, is this was one darn good bread pudding that put my knowledge of the dish to shame.

It appears her recipe will remain her secret for everyone to enjoy.