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Sunday, July 1, 2007

From Beirut with Love: Care for a Kefta?

I've never had Lebanese food until as luck would have it, I ended up living very close to a Lebanese restaurant -- and a good one at that. Sunnin Cafe is a great neighborhood haunt -- it's affordable, has reasonably healthy and good-tasting food and is a family-run hole in the wall.

Walk in to Sunnin on a Saturday morning and you'll see delectably plumb eggplants crowded onto the grill, getting prepared to let out all their great smoky flavors.

My favorite appetizers are rekakat, which are rolls made out of filo dough stuffed with feta cheese, onions and parsley; spicy potatoes flavored with cilantro, garlic and spices; and babaganouj, the always-popular grilled eggplant dip.

The falafels aren't bad but what I really like is the refreshing "Lebanese salad" that comes with most entrees. The salad, consisting of chopped romaine lettuce, cucumber and tomatoes, is dressed with a super light combination of oil, lemon and parsley. There may well be some other secret ingredient that I don't know about, but these are the ingredients I can taste.

The salad almost makes the other deep-fried appetizers guilt-free. Bite into a rekakat and the crispy filo dough comes crumbling down, only to find a burst of creamy feta goodness inside. Because it is rather strong, I wouldn't want to have more than one rekakat. One is enough to awaken your appetite and have you look forward to the main dish.

I am partial to the spicy kefta, which is grilled skewers of ground beef with chopped onions, parsley and spices, baked in a spicy tomato sauce. Despite its moniker, it's not overly spicy and the fluffy rice mixed with short strands of brown noodle-like garnishes is the perfect accompaniment. If you fancy some balance to the tomato-y sauce, top it off with some yogurt salad, which is a mix of yogurt and cucumber slices seasoned with garlic and mint.

If I'm feeling like something a tad healthier, I get the chicken kebab, a plate of grilled chicken skewers that comes with the Lebanese salad and the same rice. I generally avoid chicken skewers for fear of being disappointed by dry blobs of chicken breast, but Sunnin's are moist and juicy with just the right hint of the burnt grilled flavor on the edges of the chicken cubes.

I consider the spicy potatoes to be a side more than an appetizer, as I like to have the cilantro-tinged potatoes -- that have been deep-fried and smothered in garlic and other spices -- in between bites of the spicy kefta, rather than before. The potatoes could be a little less oily, but the chopped fresh cilantro adds a slightly citrus-like flavor that make the potatoes taste less heavy.

As for the babaganouj, what's not to like? I will say, however, that I prefer the mutabbal, the Armenian equivalent, at Zankou from my previous posting.

My companion is a fan of sfiha, baked dumplings stuffed with ground beef, tomatoes, onions and pine nuts, but I find the dough of the dumplings, well, too doughy. If you must try one of these, I recommend fatayer, which is a vegetarian one with spinach, onions and pine nuts that is a bit less doughy. The tabouleh salad, burgul with tomatoes, onions, parsley and lemon juice, is another favorite of my usual dinner companion because of its refreshing qualities. I can live without it.

I didn't care for the various sausage varieties touted by the friendly owner, the mousakaa despite my love of eggplant, or that Mediterranean favorite, grape leaves stuffed with rice and vegetables, which are called warak enab.

For on-the-go lunch-seekers, most of the entrees can be had in a pita as a sandwich with the notable exception of the spicy kefta.

There is also a Long Beach branch.

Sunnin Cafe
1779 Westwood Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90024
(310) 477-2358


persimmongirl said...

lebanese is definitely one of my all-time favorite cuisines. ed & i had many amazing levantine meals in lebanon - and the eggplant dishes were my hands-down favorite. thanks for bringing it all back to life, via LA!

omurice said...

spicy kefta - yummy!