So why was I at Mediterranean Garden Grill? Simple: It's the only Lebanese-style restaurant a Thai American chef has ever tipped me to.
It's also the only Middle Eastern beer garden I've ever been to, or even heard of. It does indeed serve beer, but though there's a low hedge of plants around the dining area, what really makes this a beer garden is the absence of walls -- you're sitting in an old roofed patio.
That means it's technically outdoors, so there's no restriction on smoking. Some diners bring water pipes and smoke aromatic Turkish tobacco while chowing down on, say, frog legs, with Almaza, a malty Lebanese brew (I'd go so far as to say it's a great frog legs beer).
For some, the absence of walls may be welcome for a different reason, because this is one of the more garlicky restaurants around. Everybody knows the Zankou roast chicken chain and its powerful garlic sauce. You get pretty much the same garlic puree here as soon as you sit down, along with swatches of pita, and they keep refilling the garlic bowl as long as you keep asking.
Most of the menu is kebabs, but there are other entrees, in the saute category, with big chunks of garlic floating around in them.
Because of the informal, semi-outdoor setting, the place has the feel of a patio party. Or rather, of a couple of parties coexisting on one largish patio: families joining up a couple of tables so all the grandparents and grandchildren can sit down, Lebanese homeboys blowing rings of perfumed smoke, college kids out exploring and local Monrovian restaurant-goers who have evidently added the place to their list.
All the usual Middle Eastern starters show up on the appetizer list.
Hummus comes dressed with olive oil (you can also get it topped with sauteed beef), the refreshing tabbouleh is mostly parsley with a little mint and just a bit of bulgur, the grape leaves have a suave rice and tomato filling, and the baba ghannouj is notable for a particularly rich, smoky flavor. It's so smoky I wouldn't be surprised to learn they'd thrown in some hickory smoke flavoring. (Come to think of it, I wouldn't be offended, either. Baba ghannouj can never be too smoky for this cowpoke.)
All these items appear on a combo appetizer plate along with feta, tomatoes and appetizingly sharp pickled cabbage.
The meatless mousakaah
One of the less familiar appetizers is the luscious musaqqa'a (spelled mousakaah here), which bears scarcely any resemblance to a Greek moussaka. For one thing, there's no meat in it. It's an Asian eggplant baked very soft, split in half and topped with a rich, sweetish sauce of tomato paste and fried onions.
Soujouk is like a cumin-scented salami stewed with tomatoes; the other sausage, makanek, is short, plump links with a rather shocking dose of ground cloves, served in a very sharp sauce that's mostly lemon juice. The restaurant's version of the walnut and red pepper dip muhammara uses sweet peppers and little, if any, of the usual pomegranate juice, making it sweet and easy to like. There's a lentil and Swiss chard soup enlivened with lots of lemon juice and cilantro.
The main entrees are kebabs served on big plates of rice along with some grilled tomatoes and zucchini. The chicken kebab is tender and juicy; the beef kebab is surprisingly flavored with soy sauce, like a Middle Eastern teriyaki (for the record, that part of the world did have a type of soy sauce centuries ago, but in cooking it was typically combined with lemon juice for a ponzu sauce effect).
Eggplant kebab is lula (ground beef) with the usual onion and parsley flavoring, along with a grilled eggplant that unfortunately tends to be bitter.
The Delicacies and Special Orders section of the menu is where the garlic comes back.
Whether you order quail, jumbo scampi or frog legs, the dish will be highly aromatic. The quail are reasonably meaty, and the restaurant inclines to give them a hot pepper flavoring, as it does to the somewhat mealy scampi.
Yes, we have frog legs
The Lebanese-style frog legs are the specialty, and they're worth getting. An order serves two; individually, they're scrawny-looking, but they're meaty enough, and there are eight pairs of them, sauteed with lots of cilantro and swimming in lemony juices loaded with sliced garlic.
Like the other dishes in this section, they're subject to availability, so it would be wise to call and reserve an order.
Dessert is not a big deal. Apart from baklava, the only choice is ashta, a plate of thickened cream ringed with banana slices and sprinkled with honey and ground pistachios.
Hey, how do you follow an act like frog legs and beer?
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Mediterranean Garden Grill
Location: 335 W. Foothill Blvd., Monrovia, (626) 358-6811.
Prices: Appetizers, $2.50-$10; entrees, $7.50-$8.50.
Best dishes: Swiss chard lentil soup, baba ghannouj, mousakaah, soujouk with tomatoes, chicken kebab, sauteed quails, sauteed frog legs, ashta.
Details: Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; closed Monday. Beer and wine. Parking lot. All major cards.