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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Kebabs and More : Syrian-Lebanese fare by the Kaloustian family helps Akhtamar stand out from other eateries offering Armenian food.

October 30, 1992|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Akhtamar gets its name from an Armenian legend of love beyond the grave, in which Tamar's dead lover cries out, "Akh . . . Tamar," from the spirit life. It seems fitting. Without this restaurant, which has been here all of 13 years, the corner of Parthenia and Balboa would be as dead as Patrick Swayze in the second reel of "Ghost."

It's probably relevant to say that most of the Armenians around here hail from Lebanon, Iran or the former Soviet Union. The most recent group came over from what was Soviet Armenia and installed itself in Hollywood, so should you happen by an Armenian restaurant there, you will experience Russian Armenian food, the shish kebab and rice repertoire punctuated by pork shashlik , baseball-sized dumplings from Georgia and the ubiquitous (in Russia, anyway) eggplant caviar.

Akhtamar, however, is run by the Kaloustian family, who come from Lebanon, and their cuisine is a bit different. The heart and soul of the menu is still kebabs and rice, but in this case the Russian dishes are, of course, missing, and the proceedings are enriched by the presence of Syrian-Lebanese dishes. It all adds up to a highly satisfying experience.

You might not realize you are in for a treat when you first arrive. The restaurant is exceptionally drab, a long, deep place with dimly lit brown vinyl booths sporting the dull sheen of a '50s Packard. Paper place mats protect white linen tablecloths and a few flea-market-type objets d'art hang high up on the walls. Bizarre tango music filters through speakers somewhere in the background.

On two separate occasions, a few friends and I dined here about 8 p.m.--just half an hour before closing time--and had the restaurant to ourselves.

The front of the menu tells you that this restaurant specializes in "homemade Armenian authentic foods." This turns out to be true in every respect. Mrs. Kaloustian's husband is the chef, but she does many of the really important tasks, pinching together dough to make the exquisite bite-size Armenian dumplings called manti (superb, topped with sour cream in a peppery oil), cooking the restaurant's exceptionally fluffy and fragrant rice and making the baklava for dessert.

You'll get a basket of hot pita bread to start, served eccentrically hot in a plastic bag. Hummus, the famous Lebanese sesame and garbanzo dip, is perfect for this bread. Of course there's tabbouleh salad of finely chopped parsley and bulgur wheat, flavored with mint. You can scoop it up with the pita, too.

If you really want to make like an Armenian, though, there is an appetizer plate consisting of string cheese, basturma and soujouk . The latter two are strongly flavored preserved meats. Basturma is Armenian spiced beef, heavy on the garlic. Think of soujouk as Armenian pepperoni, and don't plan a late date if you eat this one, either.

Most of the kebabs are excellently made. Lamb chops are trim and tender, served on skewers with nicely charred chunks of tomato, onion and bell pepper. Lula kebab is made from ground meat, and this one is wonderfully fatty and juicy, bursting with flavor. I'm also a fan of the chicken kebab, chunks of tender white meat marinated in Armenian spices and charred virtually to blackness.

As for the cooked dishes, the best by far would be what the menu calls baked eggplant. It's almost a stew, the eggplant literally floating in a rich tomato sauce alongside a sort of driftwood composed of light minced meat mixed with pine nuts, onion, tomato and an abundance of parsley.

The lahmajune and kibbeh are not quite up to snuff. Lahmajune is the Armenian pizza, a light round of baked dough spread with a savory meat topping. This one is soggy, though, and the flavors don't grab you as they should.

Meanwhile, the kibbeh , a Lebanese dish which at its best is one of the most ethereal foods on earth, falls flat because of a similar problem. Kibbeh is a smooth paste of meat and bulgur wheat, in this case stuffed with a spicy meat and pine nut filling and deep-fried. But the crust is disappointingly oily and flaccid, a kibbeh no-no.

End a meal here with Mrs. Kaloustian's buttery baklava, a creamy chocolate eclair made by one of her friends or a cup of the chef's soorj --that's Armenian coffee. Akh . . . Tamar. When will I see you again?

Where and When

Location: Akhtamar Armenian Restaurant, 16912 Parthenia St., North Hills.

Suggested dishes: hummus , $4.95; manti (when available), $7.95; chicken kebab, $10.95; lula kebab, $10.95; baked eggplant, $8.95; baklava, $2.

Hours: Lunch Monday 12-3 p.m.; lunch and dinner Tuesday-Thursday 11 a.m.-8:30 p.m., Friday 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Closed Sunday.

Price: Dinner for two, $25-$40. Beer and wine only. Parking lot. MasterCard and Visa.

Call: (818) 894-5656.

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