"Arabesque" at the Antiochian Heritage Museum

The area around Ligonier is well-known to many as beautiful countryside dotted with farms and fields nestled among the rolling foothills of the mountains with amazing fall foliage and a history steeped in the conflict of the French and Indian War—an image influenced, of course, by the presence of the quaint, New England-like town of Ligonier and its historic fort. The area is an escape for many who just want to “get away from it all” and see a non-commercialized version of America.

But travel five miles north of Ligonier on Route 711 and you will be whisked even further away—thousands of miles away, to the birthplace of the Orthodox Christian Church—Syria—and a religion so familiar, yet so foreign, to the Protestant churches that predominantly dot the landscape around the Laurel Highlands.

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This is where the Antiochian Heritage Museum lies, located on the grounds of the Antiochian Village & Conference Center. Built in 2004, the Heritage Museum is the educational and cultural wing of the Conference Center, which hosts a wide variety of groups, families, retreats, business conferences, reunions, weddings, and the like. Visitors, whether they are using the onsite facilities to begin with or who are just driving by are welcome to come see the artifacts relating to Syria and Orthodox Christianity on display in the museum for free.

The Antiochian Heritage Museum also offers something really special for those who love exotics tastes. From spring through fall, every Thursday night the museum hosts Arabesque, a dinner featuring authentic Middle Eastern cuisine.

Repeat: THERE’S A MUSEUM SERVING AUTHENTIC MIDDLE EASTERN CUISINE JUST FIVE MILES NORTH OF LIGONIER.

I’m not much of a foodie, but my fiancé Scott happens to LOVE all sorts of food. Also, I’m part Serbian on my mother’s side, and Orthodox Christianity is a part of my heritage—I religiously (no pun intended) celebrate Orthodox Christmas every year, complete with lamb, palachinke (crepes) and česnica (money bread). And, of course I was intrigued by the idea of a museum dedicated to Orthodox Christianity that I had no idea even existed, just miles away from where I grew up.

The dinner is a three-course meal priced at $29.99 per head (not counting drinks) held on Thursdays from 6-8 p.m., RSVPs required in advance. So I called up the museum and placed a reservation for two.

Scott and I arrived at the museum, where we were greeted by the staff and encouraged to look around the museum as the first course was being prepared. The artifacts on display, from religious icons to ornate furniture covered in mother-of-pearl to priestly vestments, was a feast for the eyes alone.

Then came the first course—salads and dips. This included:

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    • Fatoosh (mixed greens with pita croutons, lemon, & olive oil dressing)
    • Tabooli (parsley, mint, tomatoes, scallions, and bulgur wheat with tangy lemon dressing)
    • Hummus (dip made with chickpeas, tahini, garlic, and lemon)
    • Baba ghanouj (dip made with roasted eggpant, lemon, and garlic)
    • Pita bread and Kalamata olives

The “shared plate for two” that was brought out was huge. Scott and I tackled it with enthusiasm, loving each mouthful (especially that baba ghanouj). By the time we had demolished the plate, Scott and I were feeling mostly full, and wondering how the heck we were going to be able to make a dent in the other two courses.

Then came the entrée platter. My mouth still waters at the description:

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    • Kibee (ground beef, lamb, and bulgur wheat stuffed with seasoned lamb)
    • Shisk taouk (marinated chicken breast, onions, peppers, and tomatoes, skewered and grilled)
    • Meat pie (pastry dough filled with ground beef, onion, and spices)
    • Spinach pie (pastry dough filled with spinach and feta cheese)
    • Rice pilaf (orzo pasta browned in butter, with rice, traditionally prepared)
    • Loobyeh (green beans, tomatoes, onions, and garlic with lamb meat, stewed slowly for hours with warm spices)
    • Stuffed grape leaves (tender grape leaves stuffed with beef, lamb, and rice, baked slowly for hours)

I could rave on and on about each of these savory entrées, even the stuffed grapes (of which I am usually not a big fan), but I’ll leave the majority of my praise to the kibee. That thick meat patty was everything a lamb dish should be and more. The kibee is absolutely divine. I was so, so sad when it disappeared from my plate, although there were so many other amazing options still left.

Scott and I couldn’t finish our entrées—we had enough for a large second meal, and we still haven’t gotten to dessert.  So the staff kindly boxed what remained of the main course for use to take home.

Dessert was in smaller portions than I expected,  but were the perfect size after the gargantuan feast we had just had:

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  • Rice custard (milk cream and rice slow cooked in a rose blossom-infused custard)
  • Baklava (layers of buttery phyllo dough, stuffed with walnuts and sugar, drizzled with a lemony syrup)
  • Ghoraibee (tender shortbread-style cookies) 

Rice custard is always a favorite with Scott and I. But the ghoraibee melted in my mouth in a way that I never expected a shortbread cookie was capable of doing. And the baklava…. Normally, baklava is a dessert I avoid because, no matter which American bakery makes it, it always seems to be stale. Not so here—the baklava tasted fresh and savory for the first time in my life.

After dinner we received our checks and were encouraged to walk around the Heritage Museum once more. After that grand repast Scott and I didn’t so much walk as waddle. We toured not only the rest of the main portion of the Heritage Museum, but we also went to the basement floor to look at their exhibit Titanic Connections: Unique and Untold Stories, which explores passenger stories connected to the Antiochian heritage and western Pennsylvania. We also checked out Conference Center’s gift shop (filled with religious books, icons, and accessories) and the library.

Finally we managed to waddle off enough calories to leave. It was dark by then, but the beautiful fountain in front of the museum was alight.

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If you’re interested in Arabesque at the Antiochian Heritage Museum in Bolivar, PA, reserve your seat by calling them at 724.238.3677 x 400. Seats fill up fast each week, so don’t leave it until the last minute—call them today!

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