I was about eight minutes late meeting my friends at Carnival in Sherman Oaks — I had to find a parking place — and when I walked in, they were already chomping down spinach pie and scooping up juicy, lemony foul modammas (fava beans) with warm pita bread. “Low blood sugar,” one friend said guiltily as the waiter set down a plate of plump vegetarian stuffed grape leaves. But I knew the real reason they couldn’t wait — it’s torture to sit passively in Carnival while large plates of fragrant food sail past. Most people lack the strength of will to delay such obvious, available gratification.
Carnival has always been a relentlessly popular Lebanese restaurant, despite the fact that it’s tucked back in a small strip mall on Woodman by the Chimneysweep bar and Dales Jr. Market. Recently, it has been remodeled and enlarged in a most cheerful and heartening manner. A series of stylized, shallow arches lines orange and yellow walls. A couple of (too) short stretches of comfortable upholstered banquettes alternate with a few (too few) choice booths, and the freestanding tables have new cute wooden chairs. Glimpses behind the glass display counter and register reveal a large, gleaming kitchen. Carnival is bigger and brighter — and as crowded as ever. It probably could’ve been built to twice again its size and still be operating at top capacity.
During the dinner rush, the clientele itself is, well, a kind of carnival, diverse and curious: families with children; old gents with severely coiffed matrons; tattooed and pierced young adults on dates; smooth-looking, cologne-scented salesmen; plus Birkenstockers and other yuppies, industry types, ladies out for a tête-à-tête. You might even see a well-known chef or two on his or her night off. Carnival’s appeal is not difficult to understand: large portions of good food at very reasonable prices.
The menu is familiar to any fan of Middle Eastern cooking. The usual appetizers — hummus, baba ghanoush, tabbouleh and Greek salads — are distinguished by freshness and a bright, enlivening, liberal spritzing of lemon juice. The hummus is especially good, a perfect balance of garlic and lemon with a strong tahini presence. Only the spinach pie, or “pastry” as it’s called on the menu, is bland and a bit heavy.
The must-have dish is listed under “entrées,” a somewhat confusing appellation as, unlike other main dishes, it cannot be made into a dinner by adding the buck-seventy-five soup or salad and rice or fries. A plate-size nest of that great hummus filled with chopped, deeply seasoned lamb and pine nuts, the “hummus meat” is served ahead of other entrées. My friends with the low-blood-sugar problem were delighted: They simply viewed my dinner as another appetizer and helpfully scooped it up with warm pita bread. I, in turn, helped myself to their excellent lentil soup (not too thick, not too thin) and dinner salads.
Carnival’s shwarma, slivers of slowly rotisseried, well-marinated beef and lamb redolent of garlic and cinnamon, is another must-have. Kebabs can, at times, be on the dry side. The kafta kebab, seasoned and barbecued ground lamb, has a great flavor but on numerous occasions has been cooked too long. Chicken kebabs are the same.
Beirut-style chicken takes at least 30 minutes. The marinated half-chickens are charbroiled to order, and they are delicious, well-seasoned birds, although perhaps not spectacular enough to delay dinner for the whole table — or even yourself.
The regular menu is supplemented by a list of daily specials: huge braised lamb shanks one day, an okra-lamb stew or the excellent (if a bit dry) kafta kebabs on others.
I only wish the staff had been enlarged along with the restaurant’s seating area. On all of my visits, the waiters or waitresses have been vastly overburdened, harassed and grouchy. Getting a table can seem like an achievement, but getting waited on and then getting the check are equally time-consuming. And not only is the wait staff overworked, but they get so much exercise and stay so warm that the air conditioning is kept on full blast — the place is freezing. Freezing! Everywhere, customers are swaddled in sweaters and trying to make lap blankets out of their napkins.
Yet people stand in line for a table at Carnival. And I’m one of them.
4356 Woodman Ave., Sherman Oaks; (818) 784-3469 or 784-3036. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Entrées, $8.25–$12.95. Beer and wine. AE, MC, V. Recommended dishes: foul modammas, tabbouleh, hummus meat, shwarma, kafta kebab.