Al Amir, 5750 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 931-8740. Open for lunch Sunday through Friday, for dinner daily. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted. Full bar. Valet parking. Dinner for two, food only, $34 to $60.
A meatball, a homely torpedo-shaped meatball, that’s the do-or-die test for a Lebanese cook.
Actually, kebey makley might better be described as a meatball within a meatball, an inner core of lamb and pine nuts enclosed in a paste of lamb and bulgur wheat pounded together until they’ve become as smooth as peanut butter. When the meatball is deep-fried, this outer layer turns a little crunchy and adds a wholesome, toasty wheat aroma.
The problem is making that crust thin enough to be crunchy without having the whole thing fall apart in frying. In Lebanon, a cook’s reputation is made or broken on kebey makley , and it’s not surprising that Lebanese restaurants in Los Angeles (what few there are of them) usually stick to simpler things.
Al Amir, though, is not the usual Lebanese restaurant, neither a mom-and-pop place with travel posters on the wall nor a belly-dancing emporium. It’s a splendid, dignified establishment near the County Museum of Art, with etched glass room dividers, elaborate eight- and ten-sided ceiling lamps and waiters in tuxedos who whisk up table crumbs into a decorous little dustpan between courses. It’s the first top-drawer restaurant in this area showcasing Lebanese cuisine, and it makes championship-class kebey makley .
And it is really and truly Lebanese. For one thing, there are perhaps 15 entrees on this menu but at least 50 appetizers, which is about the right proportion (see “The Original Grazing Food”). For another, Al Amir gets the real Lebanese flavor better than any other restaurant around. It should be enlightening to all who think they know from Lebanese.
Take those cliches tabbouleh , falafel and hummus . At Al Amir the tabbouleh , which most of us probably know as a porridgey mass of bulgur wheat barely flecked with herbs, is a light, refreshing salad, tasting of lemon and olive oil and parsley, with just a sprinkling of bulgur. The falafel is neither sludgy nor dry, but moist inside a crisp and rather thick crust. The hummus is richly flavored with sesame paste and perfectly smooth, and it never comes on a plate unescorted. In the genuine Near Eastern manner, it’s always garnished with something: roast meat, or fried pine nuts, or at the very least some olive oil and a sprinkling of paprika.
You probably haven’t seen a lot of the items from this appetizer list on a Lebanese menu, or maybe any menu--e.g., lamb testicles in lemon and garlic sauce (they have a delicate flavor rather like sweetbreads). Mostly, there are moderate exoticisms such as bazenjan makdous , oil-pickled Japanese eggplants stuffed with a slug of ground walnuts dosed with garlic and red pepper. Or manakish bilzaatar , a sort of pita bread baked with olive oil, wild thyme and the sour spice sumac on top. Or arayess , little lamb pizzas seasoned with tarator , that sharp mixture of sesame paste, garlic and lemon that flavors hummus .
There are daily special entrees, often homey dishes from the vast Near Eastern repertoire of eggplant stews. The regular entrees, though, are nearly all grilled. There’s lahem meshwey (for once lamb shish kebab that’s not too dry), chicken kebab, and shawarma (the Lebanese equivalent of the Greek gyro: vinegar-marinated beef roasted on a vertical spit and shaved off as it browns).
A number of them are complicated Turkish-style dishes based on mixing grilled meat with other things. For kafta khashkhash , the cook takes a couple of skewers of kafta and lays it on a bed of tomatoes stewed with garlic, mixes this all up with raw onions, mint and parsley and tops it with some toasted pita bread powdered with red pepper. It’s enjoyable, but one gets the tiniest feeling of much ado about nothing.
Some entrees, such as grilled baby chicken, come with either garlicky tarator or a hot sauce that’s much the same plus hot paprika. There’s a very unusual, very good dish called kafta tarator , more or less a paper-thin pancake of the lamb-onions-parsley mixture that’s usually grilled on a skewer, topped with tarator and pine nuts. A couple of fish dishes have a vaguely European sound, but trout comes in a challengingly tart sauce that seems to be tarator mixed with yogurt.
The desserts are the real thing, for good or ill. The rather tightly rolled baklava are very fresh, with a sauceboat of rose-scented syrup on the side. Knafey , a “shredded wheat pastry” known as kadaifi to the Greeks, and ataif , which are little pancakes, usually stuffed with a bland cheese, may not quite be to the taste of somebody expecting the usual Near Eastern nut fillings. It’s not much to my taste, but it’s certainly authentic.
In fact, just about everything here is exceptionally good-- kabis , a sort of pickled turnip dyed a disconcerting candy-pink color (they stick a piece of beet in the pickling jar), is even better than you usually find in the Near East, crisp and fresh-tasting. The only exceptions are the little meat-filled pies called sanbusik and the spinach-filled ones called fatayer , where the crust is mysteriously stodgy when it isn’t overdone.
In short, Al Amir passes the test.
Suggested dishes: kebey makley, $5.50; arayess Al Amir, $5.50; kabis, $3.25; shawarma, $10; lahem meshwey, $10; ataif, $3.50.