This, after all, being Hollywood, if SBE's Sam Nazarian is going to name a restaurant for the queen of Egypt, it's obligatory to vamp it up a little. Set in the crimson Redbury Hotel, a stone's throw from Hollywood and Vine, Cleo references the alluring Egyptian with a giant, black-and-white photo of the silent film actress Theda Bara as a fierce, dark-eyed Cleopatra from 1917. More queens of the cinema grace the walls of the high-ceilinged room, but their Cleos look decidedly tame compared with Bara.
I used to dread checking out trendy new restaurants in Hollywood. The look was everything, and while some were entertaining, mostly the food was forgettable, if not downright bad. But Hollywood has been busy upgrading its image with sleek condos, hotels — and restaurants. Cleo is something different, a contemporary Middle Eastern restaurant with exciting and accessible food and prices that for the most part won't set you back a month's rent for one meal.
On a weekend night, the restaurant draws a dressed-up crowd on the hunt for some Hollywood glamour and fun. The bar can be mobbed — and it can be crazy loud. After checking in with the hostess one night, we're caught at the back of a crowd surging toward the entrance to the dining room, angling to get a glimpse of what's going on in there. "Opa!" the diners inside roar to the sound of crockery shattering and excited claps.
"Oh, that's just someone breaking a plate," we're told. "It's a Greek tradition." One wonders what's to prevent everybody getting into the act, flinging their empty plates on the floor. But guests are all so well-behaved only the designated plate-slinger, usually someone celebrating a birthday or anniversary, has a go at it.
We're torn. Should we order a drink? Maybe not, if it's really just a five-minute wait for our table. I check the small blackboard propped on a corner of the bar: a bottle of 1993 Dom Perignon "Oenotheque" for $1,300. Next up, 1996 Dom Rosé for $980. And at the very bottom, a bottle of Chateau Montelena Zin for $90 (which you can find online for $26). No, definitely not. Is anybody that dumb and/or rich to go for one of these bottles?
Fortunately, that clueless, high-handed attitude ends at the bar. In the past, SBE has banked on luxe and trendy spots, such as Katsuya, XIV and the Bazaar by José Andrés. And the latter is the only one with real food cred. Cleo, however, is perhaps closer to SBE corporate executive chef Daniel Elmaleh's heart. He grew up partly in Israel, and his food here is vibrant and respectful of tradition.
The sprawling menu with dozens and dozens of dishes can be confusing to someone unfamiliar with Middle Eastern cuisine. Waiters, fortunately, are adept at guiding guests through the myriad choices. They'll help decide what and how many dishes to order, and hopefully pace them so they don't come out all at the same time.
Start with a few dips — thick, garlicky labneh (yogurt) with nuggets of feta, a dreamy muhammara (red pepper purée lighted up with pomegranate syrup and walnuts) and a smoky baba ghanouj with a pillowy pita fresh from the oven.
Other not-so-small nibbles include briouats stuffed with spicy shrimp, a classic spanakopita or golden cheese puffs called börek.
Vegetarians can find lots to eat from the wood-burning oven. I loved the roasted artichoke leaves with Nicoise olives, earthy Brussels sprouts perked up with capers and almonds, and especially the cauliflower florets accented with vadouvan (French curry powder) and cashews. There's also ravioli stuffed with fresh farmer's cheese and tossed in brown butter with a soft egg.
Garnished flatbreads are delicious too, the crust crisp and cut into long, jagged shards. Tops on my list: the one with artichoke, crushed potato, mozzarella and a flurry of arugula leaves.
Nothing here costs more than $20, and most larger dishes are less than $15. Those dips are $6 each, kebabs and sausages the same. Kebabs — beef, lamb or chicken — come to the table sizzling, each very flavorful. But my favorite has to be the beautifully tender morsels of sweetbread.
Some dishes look to North Africa for inspiration, and that includes a couple of fine seafood offerings — a tagine of mussels cooked with tomato, chickpeas and spinach, and another that stars daurade with mussels, tomatoes, picholine olives and a crimson house-made harissa.
If you order couscous, the waiter spoons some from the tagine into a bowl and ladles broth over the top. The couscous is studded with vegetables, and if you want something more substantial, order some chicken or lamb kebabs to accompany it. Or, even better, a saucy meatball tagine with a soft egg in the center.
Eating at Cleo feels festive and fun. This is not the place for anybody who wants to enjoy their own plate in peace. The whole idea is to share as plates whiz around the table. Taste this and this and this.