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STYLE / RESTAURANTS : Another Side of Mediterranean

October 01, 1995

When I asked the doyenne of a Lebanese American family, a woman who is a wonderful cook, where she liked to go for Lebanese cooking, she urged me to try Al Amir. "It's very authentic," she said. "And very good. It would take me days to cook all the dishes for the mezzeh. " I have always loved the idea of the mezzeh , or appetizer course, which, in the Middle East, becomes a leisurely feast unto itself. Delicate meatballs, slender stuffed grape leaves, heavenly eggplant puree and other intricately spiced delicacies come out several at a time until the entire table is a mosaic of colorful little dishes.

Al Amir, which means The Prince, is a glittery, formal restaurant at the end of a palm-lined drive between two marble office buildings. Etched-glass table dividers, leaded-glass lamps and tall upholstered chairs give it an oddly dated look. If the decor were less stiff, the location less discreet, the place would be mobbed. Because the food is some of the best Mediterranean-- eastern Mediterranean--in Los Angeles.

For those unfamiliar with Lebanese cooking, the menu can seem dauntingly long. But co-owner Natalie Sabga, or Elizabeth, the hostess, will graciously guide you through the choices. You can start with small glasses of arrack, a clear spirit distilled from grapes and flavored with anise. Like French Pernod, this traditional accompaniment to mezzeh is poured into a tumbler with ice, then mixed with water to turn it cloudy. Or, you can try the excellent Cha^teau Musar, a Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet and Cinsault grown in the Bekaa Valley east of Beirut.

The mezzeh begins with waraq inab , stuffed grape leaves filled with finely chopped vegetables and rice. Slicked with olive oil and a squirt of lemon, the taste of piquant, delicately pickled grape leaves predominates. Then there are dips for bread: baba ghannouj and hummus, cooked with such finesse that they're almost unrecognizable. Baba ghannouj , a smooth taupe-colored eggplant puree without a trace of bitterness, is fragrant with lemon. Hummus, a creamy chickpea puree perfumed with sesame and garlic, is decorated with a thread of green-gold olive oil and paprika. "Try the hummus qawurma ," our tuxedoed waiter urges. It's hummus with sizzling, spiced minced lamb and pine nuts folded on top--and incredibly good.

When the manager mentions that the restaurant makes its own cheese for the Lebanese salad called shanklish , we order that, too. The pungent cheese, akin to feta, is crumbled into diced ripe tomatoes and onions, bracing with its kick of hot pepper. Tabbouleh is mostly emerald green parsley, with only a few scattered grains of burghul and like so many dishes here, wonderfully lemony.

Then there are small, round flatbreads with cubes of hard, salty halum cheese sprinkled with thyme or a mixture of gently spiced lamb and pine nuts. My favorite is thickly carpeted with dried thyme, sesame seeds and sumac, a crimson spice that imparts a tart, almost citrusy flavor. The topping is all crunch, completely strange yet delightful. I also loved the triangular pastries called fatayir with their lemon-doused filling of cooked spinach.

Kibbeh maqli is one of the trickiest dishes in the Lebanese cook's repertoire. Luckily, Al Amir's chef is a master of this difficult form--teardrop-shaped meatballs of cooked lamb, pine nuts and spices in a thin shell of ground lamb kneaded with burghul . Deep-fried, they are irresistibly crusty.

From the category "delicacies," a Middle Eastern equivalent of the "oddities" listed on Joachim Splichal's French menu at Patina, you can order a plate of custardy sauteed lamb's brains or poached lamb's tongue, served chilled and sliced in a garlic lemon dressing. Both are delicious enough to win over the dubious at our table.

Then comes one of the glories of Lebanese cuisine: kibbeh nayyeh , an exquisite lamb tartare. "It takes some time to prepare," the waiter explains, setting the plate down. The leanest cut from a leg of lamb is carefully trimmed and ground several times to achieve the requisite smooth texture. Then it's kneaded with a little onion, formed into elongated ovals and moistened with a trickle of olive oil. At Al Amir, kibbeh nayyeh is served with sliced onions and bell peppers sprinkled with sumac.

Just when we're sated, a waiter sails out with a platter of little browned birds. Seeing the collection of plates on our table, he turns back, unsure. Yes, yes, we motion, the quails are for us. We muster enough appetite--how could we not?--to polish off the crisp grilled birds. But we insist on stopping here. No kebobs tonight. (Too bad because they're quite good, especially the mixed grill.)

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