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A Real Bright Spot in Mediterranean Fare

Eclectic abundance is the hallmark of Haifa, a tiny diner nestled among delis and bakeries.

June 20, 2002|BARBARA HANSEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Even at night, it's bright and sunny inside Haifa: The blue sky and puffy clouds overhead never fade because they're painted on the ceiling.

A skylight gives an airy feeling, and the ambience is as vibrant as Haifa's Mediterranean cuisine.

People crowd into this tiny shoebox of an Israeli restaurant at dinnertime, and lively conversation echoes off the walls.

Haifa is located across from the Elat and Alef supermarkets in a Los Angeles neighborhood where Jewish delis, bakeries and other businesses are situated. The restaurant is glatt kosher and closes on Friday nights, all day on Saturdays and on Jewish holidays.

The eclectic menu ranges from moussaka and tabbouleh salad to matzo ball soup and cabbage rolls. (Actually, the Israeli-style moussaka has a lot in common with cabbage rolls. The eggplant slices are rolled with a beef filling and baked with tomato sauce, rather than arranged in flat layers with lamb and tomatoes and topped with custard sauce, as is the Greek moussaka.)

Dinners start with a parade of relishes. Green olives, turnip spears tinted fuchsia with beet juice and sweet cabbage slaw are innocent enough, but the Yemenite green sauce z'hug (here spelled schug) delivers a blast of chile heat.

The Turkish salad is spicy too. In fact, it's more like a salsa than a salad, consisting of tomatoes, celery and garlic chopped with hot paprika.

Sometimes the relishes include pickled vegetables or corn salad with dill and sweet peppers.

Don't fill up on the relishes, though, because the main courses are huge. (Order the stuffed baked potato and you get two potatoes, peeled, cut in half, sandwiched with a fine ground beef filling and baked in tomato sauce.)

And main dishes come with a choice of two hearty sides, such as mujaddara (majadra), a rice and lentil hash topped with caramelized onions. Or green beans in tomato sauce, white beans in tomato sauce on rice or homemade French fries.

The lightest sides are mixed vegetables with mushrooms and an Israeli salad of diced tomatoes and cucumbers.

The potatoes are a Wednesday special. Thursday's featured dish is tender baked lamb, served with its natural juices. It's often sold out by dinnertime. (Call early and have an order set aside.)

A Cornish hen stuffed with beef and rice is so tender it falls apart. The chicken schnitzel can be a little dry, but Haifa's grilled meats, basted with garlic, paprika and other seasonings, are very good.

A grill combination includes beef and chicken kebabs, a ground beef kebab and a rather bony, fatty lamb chop. The kebabs also come in pita sandwiches.

Haifa's shawarma is marinated turkey. Try it on hummus or in a pita sandwich. Other homey, well-cooked, satisfying main dishes include stuffed peppers, meatballs, baked chicken legs and rib steak.

An appetizer salad platter on the next table was so handsome I had to have it too. The big platter holds five cold dishes: hummus, tahineh sauce, baba ghannouj, creamy red cabbage and Israeli salad, plus six golden brown falafel balls. The falafel is green inside, because the garbanzo bean mixture is ground with parsley.

Matzo ball and chicken soups are a safe bet, but spicy Yemenite beef soup is a standout. Curiously, it resembles curries I've tasted in south Indian restaurants overseas. At home, I would serve it over rice.

Haifa has two desserts, both pareve (kosher with either meat or dairy meals). Malabi is enchantingly exotic. It's an unsweetened, water-based cornstarch pudding unmolded onto a plate, surrounded with rose syrup and sprinkled with chopped walnuts and fine shreds of coconut.

The delicate mousse cake is a mound of kosher vanilla pudding combined with whipped nondairy cream, set on a slim layer of chocolate. It's covered with chocolate frosting and chocolate syrup, but the main sensation is of airy lightness, almost like a marshmallow.

The only problem at Haifa is the service. The waiters are pleasant and helpful, but there aren't enough of them on busy nights, when tables fill as soon as they empty.

Haifa Restaurant, 8717 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 550-2704. Open 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Fridays. No alcohol. Street parking. Major credit cards. Dinner for two, food only, $20.50 to $36.

What to Get: Appetizer salads with falafel, Yemenite soup, baked lamb, stuffed baked potato, stuffed cabbage, grilled meats, shawarma turkey on hummus, malabi, mousse cake.

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