Eighteen years ago, a remote corner of Hermosa Beach boasted the only Albanian restaurant in a couple of time zones. The food was tasty but resolutely plain--which put it way out of step with California cuisine, just entering its baroque phase at the time.
The most complex dish, as I recall, was steamed lamb flavored with red pepper. There wasn't much on the walls, either, apart from photos of chef-owner Din Ajeti sitting in a sports car and palling around with Sly Stallone.
A couple of years later, the place changed hands and, for a short while, it was possibly the only gay-oriented Albanian restaurant in the Western Hemisphere. Ajeti dropped out of sight. A lot of people remember his old place, though. It was one of the most distinctive restaurants the Southland has ever seen; you just don't forget such determined minimalism.
Now Ajeti is back, this time in a sleek Beverly Hills mini-mall. Like the rest of the mall shops, Ajeti's Cafe is bright with glass and chrome. No Sly pix on these white walls, just a shot of Ajeti with some friends and a collection of framed reviews from the old days.
The menu should be familiar to anybody who ever made the pilgrimage to Hermosa for an Albanian dining experience back then. There are no soups, no appetizers, no side dishes and no desserts, just dinners (which include salad, rice and pita bread) and, at lunch, pita sandwich versions of the entrees. (I assume they are, anyway; the menu claims of the lamb sandwich, "Try it! You will emerge anew!"). Everything is said to meet the standards of the American Heart Assn., and that's easy to believe. The choices fall into two categories: lamb (and some chicken) or vegetarian.
Albanian food is famously plain. I once looked up all the Albanian recipes in a Balkan cookbook and none called for more than six ingredients--including water, salt and garlic. Ajeti knows how to make a virtue of this necessity, because the best dish here is about the simplest, Albanian Desire. It's a pair of lamb shanks stewed with garlic, onions, carrots and cabbage. A bit of the vegetable mix is spooned onto rice pilaf.
Simple; but the purplish-red meat is very tender, with a rich, gamy lamb flavor and a faint note of garlic. To please the AHA, you can easily scrape away nearly all the native fat of the lamb shank. Like all the entrees, it comes with a simple, undressed salad of shredded cabbage and a fresh cheese, like cottage cheese.
Shkodra (one of several entrees named after Albanian cities) is much the same--plain meat with rice and cabbage salad--using leg of lamb instead of lamb shank; a little richer, a smidgen less flavorful. If you want something more complex, you can have lamb with cabbage (Durres Delicacy) or white beans (Antigonia).
The extreme of complexity is Elbasan Calabash, for which the lamb is stewed with onions, eggplants and a crafty proportion of red pepper. Or you could throw caution to the winds and order a combination plate where more than six ingredients might mingle.
There are two chicken dishes, one for which chicken (or lamb, for that matter) is sauteed with vegetables and potatoes. The dish named AAAH (described on the menu as "bite-size pieces of chicken cooked in herbs and spices and ever so slowly simmered until Ajeti says: 'just right' ") is cabbage, onions, carrots and zucchini stir-fried with dryish strips of chicken with a flavor curiously like salami. Probably it's the garlic.
Apart from the intriguing chicken, it's a plain, wholesome dish of the sort that talented but unbending vegetarian cooks often make. And that's the story of the rest of the menu: In a close parallel to the meat side of the menu, it's stir-fried vegetables with . . . beans, or cabbage or (in place of eggplant) potatoes.
So here it is: the fanciest, most minimalist heart-healthy Albanian restaurant in Beverly Hills. And if you feel too healthy for your own good afterward--you can just go pig out at the candy store a couple of doors away.
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WHERE TO GO:
Ajeti's Cafe, 9123 W. Olympic Blvd., Beverly Hills; (310) 273-2717. Open for lunch an dinner Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-9 p.m. No alcohol. Parking lot. No credit cards. Takeout. Dinner for two, food only, $14-$20.
WHAT TO GET:
Albanian Desire, Elbasan Calabash, AAAH.