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Mantee in Studio City: Lebanese-Armenian cuisine with a family pedigree
Like a classic storybook bistro, with smart burgundy awnings, lacy curtains and flower boxes at the windows, Mantee exudes a warm and welcoming aura. So why is the small dining room so empty?
Because most diners at this diminutive Lebanese-Armenian restaurant are eating out back in the impossibly romantic leaf-shaded patio with its lush potted plants massed in every corner under the golden light of Parisian-style iron street lamps. And the guests? They're partying like there's no tomorrow.
Laughter floats through the air. Tables are spread edge to edge with mezes and other small plates: the best hummus you've ever tasted scattered with sautéed pine nuts; stuffed grape leaves with garlicky yogurt sauce; muhammara, the spicy dip of crushed walnuts, pomegranate and Aleppo pepper; and plates of bubbling feta baked in tomato coulis.
It turns out Mantee has a bit of a pedigree. The proprietor's family owns several internationally known eating places in the Near East. The family's Beirut restaurant, Al Mayass (they are proud to tell you) made it onto Food & Wine magazine's prestigious "Go List" of outstanding recommended restaurants worldwide.
This kitchen is headed by young chef Jonathan Darakjian, whose mother's family owns Al Mayass. Before opening Mantee he trained in the kitchens of the Lebanese restaurant. But he's been cooking from the age of 7 or 8, according to his mom, Sylvia Gabrielian. "We would come to breakfast and he had already laid out the table with the dishes he'd prepared himself."
Since then, Darakjian, 30, has honed his kitchen skills. At Mantee, his food is a somewhat lightened version of classic dishes. (His kafta kebab, made with lean, hand-ground Angus beef, may not be greasy enough for some traditionalists.)
But there's nothing "lite" about the house namesake dish, mantee. The tiny agnolotti-like dumplings of Turkish origin (sometimes spelled manti) are about as addictive as buttered popcorn. Inside the al dente pasta, nuggets of lemony vegetarian spinach filling or of subtly seasoned house ground beef make ideal canvases for the creamy sharp yogurt-garlic sauce that blankets them.
Order the pita bread salad, fattoush, and you will instantly understand this chef's philosophy. Pristinely fresh ingredients are tossed to order in a dressing of just-squeezed lemon juice and a few drops of extra-virgin olive oil. Instead of commonly seen lettuce, Darakjian uses purslane, a leafy succulent. Just to be sure every guest's taste is satisfied, the salad may be ordered either with toasted or fried bread.
A meal of mezes
If you can forgo kebabs, a collection of mezes makes a lusty substantial meal with wide-ranging flavors. Basturma, the Armenian answer to bresaola or bundnerfleisch, comes thinly sliced on five baguette rounds, each topped with a sunny-side-up quail egg. Showier still, the Armenian soujouk sausage gets flamed with brandy-like arak at your table. If all this seems pretty fancy, the prices are not. Most shareable mezes average $6. And the ways to amuse your palate are seemingly endless.
For the dolmades, Asian eggplants are hollowed out and stuffed with a rice- tomato-garlic mix. Or go for the bamieh, tiny almond-size okra stewed in an onion-tomato Provençal-style sauce, or the layered cheese pastry, su borek. Meatier mezes include sautéed filet mignon slices atop a mound of hummus or simply napped with a meat reduction.
Lunchtime brings juicy kebab sandwiches -- moist grilled marinated chicken breast with thick garlic paste in pita bread or one of the California-esque panini made with soujouk or Cypriot-style fresh white cheese.
Desserts aren't made in-house, and, while that's understandable, it's a pity. This young (and small) kitchen has its hands full concentrating on the mezes and entrees. Still, though the fancy (and expensive) purchased little cakes such as key lime white chocolate mousse do add a festive ending to any meal, they don't reflect the passion evident in the rest of this wonderful food.