The foods of the Middle East are fragrant, aromatic and wonderfully varied, a mix of vegetarian side dishes ideal for hot September days and spit-roasted meats even better suited to chilly ones. Last week I visited two local restaurants that represent this region, one Persian, the other Lebanese. They couldn't have been more different.
Cosmopolitan Lebanon is the cultural crossroads of the Middle East. Sultan, a modest little cafe located in the Food Court on the corner of 17th Street and Newport Boulevard (also home to the remarkable Petite France, profiled last spring in the Neighborhood Eatery column), does honor to a great many of dishes.
But don't come here if you are in a hurry, and better make it for lunch. The kitchen cooks almost everything to order and can be quite slow. And since the restaurant has only one table, you are basically forced to eat on the outdoor patio, at New Orleans-style wrought-iron tables and chairs. These chairs can get mighty cold after the sun goes down.
Sultan's condiments alone are enough for a light lunch, and in fact that is not such a bad idea. Intensely pickled baby eggplant makes a good companion for the yogurt sauce flavored with mint and parsley, as do the tiny green olives that Lebanese favor. You can heat it all up with a soupcon of fiery red pepper paste, then pile it up inside steaming hot slices of pita bread.
My favorite dish here isn't Lebanese at all but Egyptian, foul mudammas. The dish consists of stewed fava beans mixed with plenty of olive oil, lemon juice and parsley, and Sultan serves it up in plastic bowls. Egyptians eat it for breakfast. (Well, I told you those Lebanese were cosmopolitan.)
Great roast chicken, turning constantly on a rotisserie, seems to be the biggest seller here, as well as being one of the few hot dishes that is ready in minutes. The delicate grape leaves, stuffed with seasoned rice, onion and parsley, don't take so long either.
Such side dishes as baba ghannouj and hummus are perfect for vegetarians. Hummus is the well-known dip of garbanzo beans flavored with sesame tahini, garlic and lemon (and here, drizzled with olive oil, Beirut-fashion). Baba ghannouj is much the same, only made with smoky eggplant puree. Smear either one of these on that pita bread and you will be eating well.
There is no shortage of sandwiches at Sultan, and a few of them make a definite impression. A woman eating next to me complained about her chicken pita, topped with Sultan sauce, a sandwich I rather liked. Sultan sauce turns out to be something like the Greek dip skordialia, potatoes mashed with enough garlic to ward off the entire Addams family and definitely not recommended for those who have to go back to the office. Kafta kebab, called "Lebanese hamburger" here, is tamer. It's a log-shaped portion of nicely charbroiled ground meat sauced with tahini.
Two dishes I generally look for whenever I am in a Lebanese restaurant are ones I don't recommend ordering here: fried kubbeh (better known as kibbeh) and shawarma. The former are little balls of cracked wheat filled with meat, pine nuts and fried onions, marvelous when done right but here simply balls of grease. Shawarma, the Lebanese equivalent of the Greek gyro, is prominently featured on this menu, but you can forget about it for now. The restaurant is still waiting for the requisite vertical rotisserie to arrive.
Sultan is inexpensive. Sandwiches are $2.50 to $4.75. Sides are $0.99 to $4.75. Entrees are $3.75 to $6.75.
Things are a little faster and more comfortable at Hatam, named for an ancient poet whose name, in the Middle East, stands for lavish hospitality.
But one might be tempted to call this dining room more lurid than lavish, a salon decked with cut glass and scarlet ribbons, replete with scarlet chairs and scarlet wallpaper beneath a shimmering sequined ceiling. It's the perfect setting for the sultry belly dancer who performs on Friday and Saturday evenings. I first dined there one Friday but decided to return on a quieter evening, when I could better concentrate on, ahem, the food.
You always know you're in a Persian restaurant the second the onion arrives: half a raw onion, invariably accompanied by neatly wrapped pats of butter and leathery squares of what has to be the world's most unappetizing bread, cut and stacked like a deck of playing cards. Not to worry, though. There are good cold appetizers such as panir sabzi-- feta cheese with walnuts, mint and parsley--which, when added to the bread, onions and butter, make a real snack. Hot appetizers like borani, an eggplant dip rich with yogurt and seasonings, are an even more filling beginning.
But you won't really need extra fillers here. Persian restaurants specialize in huge portions of marinated kebabs served on mountains of saffron-infused rice, and Hatam has several good choices. Best of the lot would have to be the bone-in lamb kebab, a lean, gamy cut that is going to come up medium well unless you beg the kitchen to serve it medium. (Unlike those cowboy steak joints, these restaurants are not responsible for meats cooked less than medium well.)
I'm also a fan of chicken barg, a long skewer of boneless chicken breast cut into bite-sized pieces. This one tastes great with somagh, the ruddy, sourish spice without which a Persian table would be positively naked.
Don't let them talk you into the stews here. Persian stews are best eaten at a Persian home; in restaurants they tend to be oily and slapdash. I tried the veal stewed with yellow split peas (gheimeh), and discovered this principle applies very strongly at Hatam. You're better off experimenting with the various polo, or rice dishes. Try albaloo polo, made with sour cherries, or adas, a sweet dish made with raisins and lentils.
And watch out for that belly dancer.
Hatam is inexpensive to moderate. Appetizers are $1.50 to $3.95. Entrees are $6.50 to $10.95, except Friday and Saturday evenings, when they are $12.95 to $15.95.
* 1112 N. Brookhurst St., Anaheim.
* (714) 991-6262.
* Open 11 a.m. through 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, till 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday.
* MasterCard and Visa accepted.
* 1835 Newport Blvd., Costa Mesa.
* (714) 631-1311.
* Open daily for lunch and dinner, 11 a.m. through 10 p.m.
* Cash only.