Middle East Connection, a family-run supper club with an unlikely Burbank mini-mall address, is one of the few Valley spots serving a credible version of the attractive cuisine of Lebanon.
It isn't what I'd call an ornate operation. A mere handful of swords, tapestries and other Middle Eastern trinkets adorns the walls. The tables are arranged in long rows side by side, as in a Las Vegas showroom. Belly dancers, oud players and Lebanese singers perform Wednesday to Saturday, when the atmosphere turns loud and lively.
The most compelling part of Lebanese cuisine is the appetizer known as mezzeh, world-class nosh. Here they're available individually or in huge combos of about 10 items. Most customers order set dinners consisting of the mezzeh spread and a main course.
The first wave is cold dishes. I started by dipping a round of hot pita bread into cool mtabbal, a smoky eggplant puree flavored with garlic and sesame paste (tahineh). It's creamy, almost pa^te-like, with a tiny pool of olive oil floating in the center of the plate. The smoky flavor comes from roasting the eggplants whole on the stove top until the skin is scorched. ("Don't try it yourself," our waitress cautioned.)
Then I tried the hummus, a savory, mouth-filling version of the well-known tahineh-flavored garbanzo dip. Also delicious with the pita bread is tabbouleh, the light, refreshing salad of parsley and bulgur wheat, flavored with mint and a lemony vinaigrette.
These dishes were just teasers. Everyone then got a plate of the powerfully spiced Middle Eastern and Balkan cured beef product basturma. It's not traditional in Lebanon, so it must be on the menu because so many of the restaurant's customers are Armenians.
Then came stuffed grape leaves (waraq 'inab), rolled into long stogies delicately stuffed with rice and exotically spiced with sumac and clove. Another cold mezzeh we all liked was shanklish: garlicky chunks of farmer cheese mixed with chopped tomatoes.
Then the hot mezzeh started arriving. First came fried kibbeh, torpedo-shaped meatballs of a bulgur-and-meat paste with a filling of ground meat, fried onions and pine nuts. (The informing spice, as in most Lebanese dishes, is allspice.) Along with that came cauliflower, browned in a saute pan and drizzled with tahineh sauce.
Next came beef sausages the size of breakfast links, beautifully browned and strongly flavored with garlic and orange zest. But the crowning touch was the best falafel I have ever tasted: four plump disks of deep-fried garbanzo puree. They had a thin, golden crust that melted in the mouth. Even better, we asked for seconds--and got them.
By then everyone was nearly full, but we somehow found room for the main course. Basically, it is a variety of kebabs, brought out on big platters with a rizz bi-sha'riyeh, a traditional pilaf mixed with toasted vermicelli. The lamb shish kebab is trim and tender; the charcoal broiled chicken breast kebab, glistening from a marinade of olive oil, garlic and lemon, is perfectly juicy. Kafta kebab is ground beef formed into long cylinders on the skewers.
Save room for a buttery pistachio baklava, or for the more outre Lebanese dessert ashta, which is rich clotted cream with a yogurt tang, perfumed with rose water and topped with fruit. An even more adventurous option is the beverage jillab, made with a flowery molasses-based syrup. It's authentically Lebanese, but it just tastes soapy to me.
Middle East Connection, 916 W. Burbank Blvd., Burbank. Tuesday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Dinner for two, $18-$49. Full bar. Parking in lot. All major cards. (818) 843-9339. Suggested dishes: grape leaves, $4.95; falafel, $4.75; mtabbal, $4.75; kafta kebab, $4.75 (1 skewer)/$7.25 (2 skewers); complete dinners with mezzeh, $20-$25 a head.