Open Sesame bills itself as a Mediterranean grill. For that matter, so does another purely Lebanese restaurant out in Las Vegas, the posh new Neyla at the MGM Grand Hotel.
Why such coyness about being Lebanese? In both places, people told me they were afraid that few Americans had even heard of Lebanese cuisine.
For a food writer, them's fighting words. Lebanese food has it all: flavor, simplicity, a healthy lightness--in fact, all the best qualities that we associate with, er, good Mediterranean cooking.
I'd go so far as to say that Open Sesame, which recently replaced a popular Chinese takeout in Long Beach, is one of the best new restaurants in Belmont Shore. Even if a few confused people still wander in looking for vegetable fried rice and pot stickers.
This isn't a grand place, just a nicely refurbished cafe with a stone floor and a mural of a Lebanese village scene. Seating is limited to a five-stool counter, a corner banquette with gaudily embroidered cushions and two or three tables spilling out onto the busy sidewalk.
It's so small that there's only room for one shawarma brazier. Like the Greek gyro, shawarma is made by trimming bits of browned meat off a rotating vertical spit. Open Sesame serves the best shawarma for miles, a chicken version smeared with garlic sauce.
But when the restaurant opened, it offered beef shawarma one day, chicken the next. This continued until the public evidently voted for chicken. (Personally, I thought the beef was just as good.)
Nearly every dish on the core menu of Lebanese favorites happens to be delicious. My favorites are all snack dishes, such as vegetarian grape leaves with a moist, almost creamy rice filling. Arayes is basically a sandwich of two pitas grilled crisp with a filling of minced beef and hot pepper. It's really spicy--once it actually brought tears to my eyes.
And then there is kibbeh, torpedo-shaped, deep-fried meatballs made from a paste of ground beef, minced onions and bulgur wheat, with a filling of fried beef and pine nuts. Since the restaurant opened, Beirut-born owner Ali Kobeissi has changed the recipe, reducing the proportion of bulgur in the crust and pine nuts in the filling, and his current kibbeh is almost entirely meat. It's tasty, but somewhat less authentic and definitely more filling.
His appetizers and salads are all wonderful. They include a thick, flavorful version of hummus and a terrifically smoky baba ghanouj, that eggplant puree with the same sesame-garlic-lemon flavoring as hummus.
The impeccable fattoush, a simple village salad of chopped lettuce, cucumber, tomatoes, green onions and parsley, is topped with a minty olive oil and lemon juice dressing and sprinkle of tart ground sumac berries.
Kobeissi's tabbouleh is a refreshing salad of parsley, bulgur wheat, onions, tomatoes and mint. I'd actually like it better with a little more bulgur wheat mixed in to give it heft. This restaurant has a tendency to go easy on the bulgur--maybe it's a Beirut thing.
Those dishes are the heart of this menu, though you can also get excellent chicken, lamb and ground beef (kefta) kebabs from the charcoal grill, and a fine, fluffy rice pilaf to enjoy with them.
If you get to be a regular, you might get the chef to make you a complimentary pita zaatar--grilled bread liberally sprinkled with a mixture of thyme and sumac that Kobeissi brought from Lebanon himself.
And you might also discover imported Lebanese baklava and maamoul (a filled butter cookie) kept behind the front counter, which the restaurant keeps around for hard-core Lebanese foodies. The tiny, slightly dry pastries (the Lebanese look down on putting a lot of syrup on pastry), which sell for $2 a pop, are filled with pistachios, walnuts or (in the case of the maamoul) dates. They're great with Turkish coffee, which Open Sesame flavors with cardamom in the traditional way.
So maybe you never have heard of Lebanese cuisine. Well, go ahead and think of Open Sesame as Mediterranean--the part of the Mediterranean that gave us hummus, tabbouleh and all that good stuff.
Open Sesame, 5215 E. 2nd St., Long Beach. (562) 621-1698. Open 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 12-9 p.m. Sunday. Street parking. No alcohol. American Express, MasterCard, Visa. Takeout. Lunch for two, $9-15.
What to get: arayes, baba ghanouj, fattoush, chicken shawarma, grape leaves.