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COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

Arab Class

July 25, 1996|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Sphinx used to be the Arab presence in the Persian Gulch, that Iranian stretch of Westwood Boulevard north of Santa Monica Boulevard. It wasn't the most distinguished of Arab lunch counters, either. Still, the new occupants haven't taken down its sign yet (or the figurines of Nefertiti and Ramses II on the grill hood, for that matter). It's only by studying the window that you can tell this spot is now Sunnin Lebanese Cafe.

That's probably not a grabber of a name for most people, though Mt. Sannin happens to overlook the famous Lebanese restaurant town Zahleh, where people come from all over the Middle East to eat roast chicken with garlic sauce while sitting on platforms romantically suspended from the walls of a gorge. The grabber for anybody who's paid attention to high-class Lebanese cuisine in Los Angeles is this note on Sunnin's menu: "Owned and Operated by Famous Chef Much Loved Em-Toni."

Em-Toni used to work at the famed Al Amir, across the street from the L.A. County Museum of Art, where she made the most delicate kibbeh maqli I've ever eaten--better than any I had in the year I spent in a Lebanese village. Em-Toni makes this little storefront a very distinguished Arab lunch counter indeed.

Here, at four tables and a counter (where a flock of gregarious young Lebanese Americans often hang out), Em-Toni serves much the same menu as Al Amir, though some of the fancy dishes, such as poached calf's brains, are available only on special order. There are no waiters in tuxedos here and no wine list but, like Al Amir, Sunnin is an education for a city that has largely gotten its idea of Lebanese food from non-Lebanese--even, alas, from health foodies besotted with the idea of getting as much bulgur into themselves as possible.

Lesson No. 1: Tabbouleh is not a mass of bulgur wheat mixed with a little parsley; it's a parsley salad bulked up with a little bulgur. Sunnin's version has the very least bulgur I've ever encountered, just enough to crunch between your teeth two or three times a mouthful.

Lesson No. 2: Falafel should be fried quite brown to make it good and crunchy.

Lesson No. 3: Pita should always be toasted just before serving or it tastes slightly raw. The menu lists about 50 more such lessons.

A lot of familiar Lebanese dishes are here, such as creamy hummus, garnished with paprika and olive oil, and its elegant eggplant-based cousin, a quite smoky-tasting baba ghannouj. And of course Em-Toni's famous kibbeh, both the torpedo-shaped appetizer kibbeh maqli, with its meat-and-bulgur crust fried nicely crisp, and the flat entree form, kibbeh bi-siniyya, baked dark brown. Both have a meat and pine nut filling that is both dense and remarkably delicate.

For advanced study, there are savory pastries, like the appetizing fatayer (shaped like a three-cornered hat, filled with spinach and tart ground sumac berries), safiha (like miniature lahmajouns), sanbousek (a cousin of the Indian samosa, filled with beef and pine nuts) and reqaqat (feta-stuffed cigars of filo). You also can get them in a pastry combo plate or the vegetarian appetizer plate of fatayer, reqaqat, falafel and stuffed grape leaves.

The sausage appetizers are equally unfamiliar. Ma'anek (which also is spelled maqaniq) are plump little link sausages flavored with allspice. They look like cocktail franks, but they're densely textured and appetizingly glazed with lemon juice. Soujouk is more like a peppery dry salami, sliced and sauteed with tomatoes and onions.

Apart from tabbouleh, there are the usual Eastern Mediterranean tomato and cucumber salads, including fattoush, enlivened with crisp pita chips. There's always a plain, homey soup of the day.

The entrees are mostly kebabs--beef, chicken, ground beef (kefta), lamb chop. The kefta, which have the authentic, slightly gamy Middle Eastern flavor, are also available sauteed in an arrestingly peppery tomato sauce.

There's also shawarma, basically the same as the Greek gyro, and naturally there's a rotisserie full of roasting chickens, which are served with a fluffy, garlicky mayonnaise. Em-Toni makes her own rather simple version of the famous Moroccan filo chicken pie bestila. It's OK, but I'd order something else.

In fact, I might just order a lot of mezzeh (appetizers) in place of the entrees. The greatest attraction of Lebanese food is the wide variety of appetizers--and I'd include some of the pickles, such as the powerfully garlicky makdous eggplant, with its walnut and red pepper stuffing. Needless to say, I'd finish off with some baklava-type pastries or the dome-shaped stuffed cookie maamoul.

Of course, it would be nice to be eating this sort of thing sitting on a platform in a shady gorge in Lebanon--or in a classy restaurant like Al Amir, for that matter--rather than in the plainest of lunch counters. But whenever I'm not in either of those places, I guess this is where I'll come for Lebanese food.

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WHERE TO GO

Sunnin Lebanese Cafe, 1779 Westwood Blvd., West Los Angeles; (310) 477-2358. Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Takeout. No alcohol. No credit cards. Dinner for two, food only, $16-$36.

WHAT TO GET

Kibbeh maqli, fatayer, ma'anek, fattoush, tabbouleh, combo grill.

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