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COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

A Sense of Hummus

November 10, 1994|JONATHAN GOLD

Marouch is probably the best-known Middle Eastern restaurant in Los Angeles, an East Hollywood mini-mall storefront with a clean '80s look, TV sets blaring belly-dance videos and large photographs of cedars plastered in niches. Mercedes Benzes and stretch Rolls-Royces mingle with primer-colored B-210s in the parking lot out front--the prices are what the kind of people who have too much money (but not the rest of us) call "practically free." If you go to parties in Silver Lake a lot, you've probably eaten Marouch's rice-stuffed grape leaves and baba gannouj (eggplant dip) a few more times than you realize.

For a long time, I suppose, I stopped by Marouch at least twice a week: mid-mornings for a piece of baklava and a thimbleful of Turkish coffee, late afternoons for a bowl of dense lentil soup, Tuesday nights for the special stuffed eggplant, Thursdays for baked kibbeh . When I didn't feel like cooking, sometimes I'd take home a whole roasted chicken, wrapped like a giant burrito in a soft, oil-stained sheet of the Armenian bread lavash and accompanied by a white, blindingly powerful garlic sauce that had the consistency of mashed potatoes. If you sat down for just a Lebanese beer, the waiter brought out a plate of carrot sticks and soaked almonds to nibble with your tiny bottle of Almaza.

Despite the whirling towers of beef on the shawarma spits, the crisp-skinned quail on the charcoal grill and the platters of pounded raw veal, Marouch's salad-heavy menu is vegan-friendly, making the restaurant one of the best places in Los Angeles to go for lunch with somebody who doesn't eat meat.

In the last few years there started to appear plush places with a dozen kinds of hummus and Casey Kasem as a steady customer--Middle Eastern grills more specifically Moroccan or Russian-Armenian than Marouch's familiar Lebanese-Armenian blend--and it has been a long time since anybody I know has been a regular. But maybe the problem was overfamiliarity: Marouch is as good as ever.

Order the meza , essentially a combination dinner consisting of everything on the left side of the menu, and out comes smooth, cool hummus , dressed with a splash of olive oil and garnished with a pine nut or two; the tart Lebanese thickened-yogurt "cheese" labneh garnished with sprigs of mint; the pounded paste of veal and bulgar wheat kibbeh served both raw, as kind of a Lebanese steak tartare, and formed into vaguely Sputnik-shaped capsules and deep-fried around a ground-beef forcemeat. The bitter, herbal bite of tabbouleh , chopped parsley tossed with soft kernels of bulgur, is sharp contrast to the richness of baba gannouj , essentially hummus with roasted eggplant in place of the garbanzo puree, or the earthy power of the fava stew fool . Fattoush , the best version in town, is a salad of sweet peppers, onions and tomatoes, spiked with crunchy chips of toasted pita bread, sprinkled with tart ground sumac berries and tossed with a lemony vinaigrette.

Sujuk are pretty good here--sliced, fried Armenian sausages flavored with cumin and hot pepper--but I'd been to Marouch maybe a hundred times before I discovered the wonder known as makanek : fat little beef links half the size of your thumb, sweetly seasoned with cinnamon and cloves, crisped in a frying pan and served in a ceramic bowl of lemon and oil, pretty much everything you hope for when you order an unfamiliar sausage.

On the meza there are turnovers stuffed with tart spinach puree and fried pastry rectangles; borek stuffed with cheese; hot-pink pickled turnips and chile-red slices of the cured beef basturma . It can be overwhelming facing down a dozen plates of food and realizing that grilled quail, kebabs, stuffed lamb shank may be yet to come.

The best dessert at Marouch is a tricky, soft pastry available only at Easter, but there is rice pudding that tastes like a rosewater-sweetened version of panna cotta , and knafeh , what a waiter describes as "cheesecake" . . . a square of syrup-soaked pound cake sitting on a lake of salty melted cheese. Even at a restaurant as familiar as Marouch, it is possible to be surprised.

* Marouch

4905 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 662-9325. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted. Beer and wine. Takeout. Lot parking. Dinner for two, food only, $14-$22.

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