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Lovingly Lebanese

With Zena's Varied and Delicious Menu, It'll Be Tough Getting Past the Appetizers

February 08, 2001|DANA GLAD FARRAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There's something endearing about a place that worries about running out of home-cured olives because it wouldn't want to serve anything less to its guests. That's just one of the reasons to like Zena's, a homey but elegant new Lebanese restaurant in Orange.

This 7-month-old establishment is run by the Masri family. The mother, Issaas, provides the recipes; the father, Shouki, a restaurateur when he lived in Lebanon, does most of the cooking; and their infectiously enthusiastic son, Faisal, waits tables.

Yet the atmosphere is anything but mom-and-pop. Soft Lebanese music is the only hint that this narrow mauve room with abstract prints on the walls and fresh carnations on the cloth-covered tables is an ethnic restaurant.

The best way to start is the mezze, a vegetarian's paradise of cold appetizers and salads on beautifully garnished plates. It includes a number of items familiar from Greek cuisine, because of the countries' shared history in the Ottoman Empire, but in general the Lebanese use less dairy and hardly any cheese. An exception is lebneh, the tangy "yogurt cheese" made by straining some of the whey from homemade yogurt. It's like a lighter sour cream with some bite to it, and wonderful on pita bread.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday February 10, 2001 Orange County Edition Metro Part B Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Restaurant review--The address of Zena's Authentic Lebanese Cuisine was listed incorrectly and Issaaf Masri's name was misspelled in a Calendar Weekend story. The correct address is 2094 N. Tustin Ave., Unit C-2, Orange.

Also good for scooping is the garlicky hummus, here a super-smooth and nutty version of the dip in which the papery garbanzo bean skins are imperceptible. The cracked green olives have a lemony pungency, a silky texture and a delicate hint of sweetness.

Roasted eggplant is the star of the mezze, for instance in a satisfying baba ghannouj, the eggplant puree bejeweled with pomegranate seeds on top. It also appears diced and mixed with tomatoes for the best appetizer of all: mutabbal, which really shows off the smokiness the eggplant takes on during its laborious charring.

Other salads include a pristine tabbouleh of chopped parsley, bulgur wheat and a bit of mint in a lemon dressing. The refreshing traditional way to eat it is to wrap it in romaine leaves. Fettoush, a close cousin to the Western-style salad, is composed of coarsely chopped lettuce, onions and peppers set off with "croutons" of crunchy baked pita and doused with a minty lemon dressing.

In the cucumber salad, the diced cucumbers are neither mushy nor watery in their yogurt-and-dried-mint dressing. On the spicier side is a rich tomato relish that's like garlicky Middle Eastern salsa. Rounding out the selections is an unusual mixture of cut-up balls of falafel tossed with rich tahineh sauce and diced tomatoes.

*

The stuffed grape leaves (waraq 'arish, here spelled warah a'ressh), filled with rice and lentils, are light on the olive oil and could use more seasoning. But like almost anything else in this restaurant, you can perk them up by dipping them in lebneh or hummus.

Washed down with some surprisingly smooth red wine from the Ksara winery in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, the mezze alone could almost fill up four adults. If you have the fortitude to move on to the entrees, though, there are many pleasing choices.

It's hard to resist the eggplant stuffed with beef, onions and pine nuts and covered with a plainish tomato sauce. A generous portion of two plump Japanese eggplants comes alongside a mound of basmati rice. The cinnamon-infused meat and the soft and tender flesh of the slightly bitter vegetable are made for each other.

Better still is the bamyeh b'lahme, a tomato stew of baby okra imported from Egypt. Because the vegetables are picked so young, they lack that unattractive sliminess that tends to develop in okra as they age. With their subtle flavor enhanced by garlic and sumac (a tart Middle Eastern spice of ground dried sumac berries) they could convert even the staunchest okra hater.

Red meat rules in the kebab department. The lean lamb kebab and the spicier kefta, which features ground beef mixed with onions, are lovely, though the chicken breast kebabs tend to dry out when grilled.

An even more interesting meat choice is kibbeh, made from a traditional paste of lamb and bulgur wheat. In other restaurants, it's usually made into big fried meatballs, but the Masris bake it as a low-rise meatloaf (made of beef instead of lamb) with a filling studded with pine nuts. The lower layer of kibbeh catches all the flavorful juices.

Lunch choices include a hearty lentil soup with chunks of onion and celery that is lightened by the slight tang of lemon juice. Tarts called fatayer bi-spanakh are minimalist versions of Greek spanakopita with chopped spinach, oil, lemon and sumac pinched inside a soft, but not flaky, pocket of dough.

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Sandwiches are filled with shawarma (like the Greek gyro), lebneh, sausage or fried cauliflower. The eggplant is straight off the griddle, soaked with oil and seasoned with some of the spicy tomato relish before being wrapped in a crisp pita. A good side dish is the fool mudammas, a fava bean stew of Egyptian origin finished with a heavy dose of olive oil and herbs.

Filo dough shows up on the menu in the form of walnut-filled baklava, which, of course, the Masris bake.

Their delicious and loving take on Lebanese food is authentic enough to be full of exotic surprises yet familiar enough to be easily accepted by American palates. Hurry over before they run out of those green olives.

Zena's is inexpensive. Mezze of 10 dishes is $25, entrees are $7.50 to $12.95, side dishes and salads are $3.95 to $5.95, sandwiches are $3.50 to $4.75 and desserts are $2.95 to $3.95.

* Zena's Authentic Lebanese Cuisine, 294 N. Tustin Ave., Orange. (714) 279-9511. Open Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m.

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