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Lebanese cooking just waiting to be explored

Meejana in Orange goes a little deeper with a Mediterranean menu that's richly accomplished.

June 13, 2007|Susan LaTempa | Times Staff Writer

FRIENDS and family often tell a particularly good cook that she or he should open a restaurant, but even with such support, few have the necessary experience or ability.

But when friends encouraged Mona Abi-majn to go professional with her versions of such Lebanese specialties as yakhni bamya (okra stew), fatayir bi-sbanakh (spinach pies) and rkakat bil-jibn (cheese rolls), she was ready.

Abi-majn, who trained at culinary school in her native Lebanon, got her entrepreneurial feet wet after coming to the U.S. by opening a small sandwich shop and deli in Huntington Beach. A year ago, with her son Johnny as manager (and her husband, Tony, and another son, Roy, assisting as well), Abi-majn opened Meejana in Orange. The menu is Mediterranean, mostly Lebanese dishes with occasional Armenian or Cypriot ingredients, especially cheeses.

Although Meejana is on a busy main drag in a strip-mall storefront, it's no run-of-the-mill falafel cafe, but rather a family-run restaurant serving beautifully realized dishes. It offers the opportunity, rare in this part of Orange County, to explore good-quality Lebanese cuisine.

And because it's a cuisine that fits in so perfectly in Southern California, it's a pleasure to be guided by Abi-majn's nightly changing specials to dishes that are seen less often on restaurant menus here.


Homestyle stars

OKRA stew may not sound like much, but on a weary Wednesday night it's incredibly satisfying, with its almost off-handedly virtuosic combination of homey elements: okra and sliced beef in a garlic-lemon-seasoned tomato sauce served with a mildly fragrant rice pilaf. Other weeknight specials include potatoes with kefta (minced beef and lamb mixed with parsley and onion), and cabbage rolls. (There are no specials on weekends.)

Discipline is essential when ordering at Meejana, because portions are generous and it's easy to overlap or duplicate when four or more are at the table. So decide whether you'll build a meal on appetizers or simply order one for the table with entrees to follow.

Among the cold starters, the rich, delicious house labneh is a stand-out, a swirl of fresh Lebanese cream cheese mixed with walnuts, garlic and mint to make a spreadable dip that balances creaminess, toasty nut flavors and a breath of herbal piquancy. Likewise the mutabbal, a roasted eggplant dip, smoky and unctuous with an undercurrent of bright sesame. Grape leaves are a revelation: the leaves less briny and more toothsome than usually found in Southern California restaurants, the rice filling bright with lemon.

The range of appetizer choices is wide (two types of labneh, two eggplant appetizers, two kinds of sausages on the hot appetizer list) with less-often-seen dishes including muhammara (walnut-pomegranate dip) and arayes (a version of kefta).

Benchmark Middle Eastern dishes are offered in individualistic, well-considered versions. The hummus here is on the lemony as opposed to garlicky side -- a gorgeous, refined puree. The parsley-centric tabbouleh is bright and tangy.

The falafel is dense and piping hot, made with a combination of favas and garbanzos that give the patties a meaty flavor.


Kefta moment

IF you can resist devouring appetizers and instead opt for an entree, you'll first receive a simple but lovely green salad, marvelously dressed with a herby vinaigrette (other salads, such as sliced cucumbers in yogurt with garlic, are excellent too) and there will be accompaniments such as fries, vegetables and rice.

Kefta, the Middle Eastern meatball-meets-sausage dish that can show up in a variety of shapes and sizes, is excellent as an entree here, spicy and rich. The cigar-shaped portions are broiled, with a rustic texture and a little char, accompanied by fine fries or fluffy rice-vermicelli pilaf. Chicken shawarma, marinated and roasted, then sliced and presented with a garlicky sauce, is tender, moist and lemony.

Finish with Turkish coffee. It arrives in a long-handled pot to be poured into a demitasse cup. It's mellow, strong and sludgy, and stands up to that diamond of rosewater-scented baklava strewn with pistachio crumbs.





Location: 1840 N. Tustin Ave., Orange, (714) 974-6991,

Price: Cold appetizers, $4 to $10; hot appetizers, $3 to $7; salads, $4 to $5; sandwiches, $8 to $10; entrees, $9 to $16.

Best dishes: Labneh Meejana, mutabbal, okra stew, kefta, falafel.

Details: Open 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Lot parking. Beer and wine. Major credit cards.

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