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Valley Life | Restaurant Review

Joseph's Middle Eastern Dishes Are Akin to Christmas Gifts

November 27, 1998|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Here we are on a steep slope of Foothill Boulevard, at Joseph's Cuisine, a small, basic cafe illuminated by strings of Christmas lights.

The light reflected off the glass-surfaced tables made me feel I was dining in a Christmas tree. That's probably why much of the food seemed like a gift.

Joseph's surprisingly large menu is a veritable anthology of Lebanese and Armenian dishes. Since its roots are set so firmly in the Middle East, you won't be surprised when you're automatically brought a basket of pita bread and a dish of briny radish and celery pickles.

Several of the mezzeh, or appetizers, are remarkable. Ful mudammas, often eaten for breakfast in the Arab world, is an ethereally light puree of fava beans flavored with garlic, lemon juice and olive oil. In marked contrast is the Turkish walnut and red pepper dip called muhammara. Joseph's makes the thickest, reddest version of this dip I have ever seen. It's a rich, mortar-like paste with a powerful pepper kick in the finish.

That's just for starters. The stuffed grape leaves (sarma) have a moist rice filling fragrant with parsley, onions and tomatoes. For $3.99, you get a whopping half dozen. Ma-anee are finger-sized pork sausages redolent of cloves and coriander. Another delicious appetizer is lobio, or kidney bean salad. The beans are mixed with a finely chopped melange of parsley, onion and mushroom and doused with lemon juice and olive oil.

It's tempting to make a meal of mezzeh alone, but not necessarily the best strategy. Don't miss the oven-crisp quail dusted with oregano and cilantro, an unusually exotic treat. I'm also a fan of kibbeh bi-laban, meatballs (made of meat and bulgur wheat puree) aromatically stuffed with fried meat and pine nuts, blanketed with a garlicky yogurt sauce.

There are a couple of rough spots. My baked chicken was overcooked to the point of dryness, although I should mention that chicken in the Middle East is invariably well done when brought to the table. And my khash khash kebab--ground meat kebab served under a mound of spicy grilled tomatoes--was overwhelmed by all the allspice, cinnamon and cloves.

Most of the main courses come with plain rice or scented bulgur pilaf. You also have the option of having the house salad (a traditional Armenian cabbage salad mixed with tomato, mint, lemon juice and olive oil) or an American-style garden salad. Go with the house salad, a savory complement to Joseph's good cooking.

I'd also advise ending the meal with a piece of the chef's nutty homemade baklava and a muddy cup of Armenian coffee. Joseph will come out of the kitchen personally to ask you how sweet or strong you like your coffee, and you will assuredly get your wish. Joseph will probably get his wish, too. Practically all his customers come back for more.

*

BE THERE

Joseph's Cuisine, 3839 Foothill Blvd., La Crescenta. Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. No alcohol. Street parking. Call (818) 248-7108.

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