Sandwiched between a small sushi bar and a Chinese restaurant in Valley Village is Al Amir, a Lebanese café that opened early this year. This part of the San Fernando Valley has always had a pretty good community of Middle Eastern restaurants, with bustling big-city places like Cedar House and Alcazar dominating much of the scene. There were also the fragrant skewers of shish tawook served with lighter-than-air garlic sauce at Hayat's Kitchen, and the earthy, cumin-laced kafta kabobs popular at nearby Skaf's.
If you're familiar with Lebanese cooking, you'll probably be familiar with much of what's served at Al Amir. In fact, the chef is a close relative of the family that runs Sunnin in Westwood, so it's no surprise that the two menus share more than a passing resemblance. The mezze here, essentially Middle Eastern tapas, are worth the visit alone: ultra-creamy baba ghanoush zapped with an intense smokey flavor; the pungent cheese and olive oil mixture known as shanklish ; or kibbeh nayeh, a rich beef tartare mixed with cracked bulgur, diced onions and mint.
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Every table seems to have at least one mezze sampler, stocked with things like falafel; the little cheese-stuffed spring rolls called rekakat; football-shaped kibbeh stuffed with meat and pine nuts; spinach- and sour sumac-stuffed pies called fatayer; and a bracingly fresh tabbouleh salad. The cooking at Al Amir tastes a bit sharper than at Sunnin -- the meats a bit juicier and smokier -- and the beef shawarma pita might be one of the finest examples you'll find outside of Dearborn, Mich.
The most exciting aspect of Al Amir, though, is probably the special board just above the cash register. One day it featured a fascinating Lebanese stew called mloukhieh, made from okra leaves and served with a bowl of onions soaked in red wine vinegar; another time it featured moudardara, a stir-fry of lentils and caramelized onions served over a bed of aromatic rice. The pièce de résistance was a special desert called halawet al jeben, made from pieces of pale cheese dough stuffed with sweet cream and drizzled orange-blossom syrup and candied rose petals -- it's the perfect sidekick to a strong cup of cardamom-laced coffee.
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