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RESTAURANTS : Beyond the Barnyard : Savory Middle Eastern Food (Plus Some Tasty Chicken) at Rosine's

June 29, 1995|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for the Times Orange County Edition.

One of the least popular activities around these parts is driving the 91 East at afternoon rush hour. The canyon clogs up like a drainpipe during a mudslide.

Trying times demand relief, so I have a recommendation. Exit at Weir Canyon Road, head straight over to Anaheim Hills and have a leisurely dinner at Rosine's Mediterranean Cafe.

This modest, engaging storefront cafe is notable for the size of its open kitchen, fully twice as big as the space set aside for tables. But at least as notable is the skill of chef-owner Rosine Najarian.

Above the main stove, you'll spot a shelf with mint, basil, oregano, pomegranate juice and ground sumac berries: the flavors that define this Lebanese-born Armenian's cuisine. Priorities are priorities.

Passersby might figure Rosine's as just one more rotisserie chicken place. They'd be wrong. It's simply Orange County's best small Middle Eastern restaurant.

Yes, the front window is dominated by two floor-to-ceiling stainless-steel chicken roasters with a flock of golden-skinned birds twirling slowly on them. And, indeed, chicken is the featured item at Rosine's. But unlike most of the competition, Rosine's has a large Middle Eastern menu, in case chicken is not your only thing.

Najarian prepares wonderful hot stuffed cheese pies known as beurek , great side dishes such as white beans in a rich garlic reduction, and entrees that include a terrific rendition of lamb kebab with Armenian rice pilaf.

Desserts make a difference here too. I'm still savoring her Armenian spice cookies and a wonderful homemade chocolate cherry torte.

Now, back to the barnyard. Chicken is served here much in the same fashion as it is at the wildly successful Zankou Chicken takeouts in Los Angeles, also owned by Armenian Americans. Order a half-chicken at Rosine's, and you get a basket of pita bread, spears of pink-tinged pickled turnip and a thimble-sized plastic cup of a pasty-white garlic sauce. These are juicy, flavorful birds. Rosine's may even go Zankou one better, because the quality of her chicken is so consistent.

The restaurant uses Foster Farms chickens, meatier (and less fatty) than the price Rosine's charges for them would suggest. And the garlic sauce turns good roast chicken into something near perfection, a treat worth a detour--particularly when you consider the price. A half-chicken with two side dishes comes to less than $6.

At those prices, you could stretch out a little and have an appetizer such as sarma . This is grape leaves delicately stuffed with rice, onion and parsley. At four to an order, these dense cylinders, aromatic with spices, are ideal for stimulating two hearty appetites. Another good appetizer is beurek (here spelled beurag ). Crack open one of these crisp dumplings and watch it drool a light filling of cheese, onion and parsley.

Or try the lahmajune , called "Armenian pizza" on this menu. Most Armenian restaurants buy these thin-crusted pies from a lahmajune supplier and freeze them. Rosine makes her own, topping them with minced lamb and a mild spice mixture.

There are also excellent versions of the dips hummus and baba ghannouj . Rosine's hummus is flavored with the usual sesame, garlic and lemon, though with less olive oil than usual. Baba ghannouj is a smoky eggplant dip with the same flavorings.

One dish I generally look for in a Middle Eastern restaurant is deep-fried kubbeh (also spelled kibbeh ), little torpedo-shaped balls of cracked wheat filled with meat, onions and pine nuts. Najarian serves them cold, but she will pan fry them for you on request.

Another favorite is shawarma , a first cousin to the Greek gyro: spiced beef sliced from a rotating vertical spit. It's delicious either in a sandwich or as an entree with onion salad and a side dish such as white beans or muhamarra , a dense spread made with walnuts, bread crumbs, pomegranate juice and a mild red pepper.

Most of Rosine's kebabs are about as good as kebab gets, and they come with a choice of such homemade sides as a rustic French ratatouille, lumpy garlic mashed potatoes or a fragrant bulgur wheat pilaf with lots of chopped tomato.

The lamb kebab is nicely charred chunks of trim, tender meat, alternating on the skewer with onions and bell peppers. Lula kebab is made from ground meat, fatty and juicy, bursting with flavor.

If you want to embellish a meal further, you can do so with a respectable Greek salad (dressed in a somewhat trendy balsamic vinaigrette) or a freshly made soup. On my last visit, Najarian had just finished making tanabur , literally "yogurt soup" in Armenian--a refreshing blend of rice, dill, yogurt and chicken stock. One bowl should satisfy, but not fill, a healthy stomach.

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