View more photos in Anne Fishbein's "Far From the Lebanese Crowd at Mantee" photo gallery.
Whatever sort of Lebanese restaurant you may be thinking of at the moment, Mantee is the other kind, a tiny, stuffy café near the eastern end of Ventura Boulevard, not too far from the studios but a million miles from the brash good cheer of places like Carnival and Skaf’s. Mantee isn’t where you come for a falafel plate or roasted chicken; it’s where you go to watch a stunningly beautiful waitress set a plate of sausage aflame.
The restaurant has a claustrophobic, overdecorated look you may associate with tearooms, a dining room spackled with framed orange-crate labels and with windows trimmed with lace; it is furnished with murderous sub-decorator chairs, a plague of houseplants and a wash of appalling music. The desserts are outsourced from a pastry chef who never met a passion-fruit mousse she didn’t like. The first time I walked into the restaurant, I would have bolted if the friends I was meeting weren’t already seated on the patio. Mantee really does feel like a restaurant your great-aunt’s bridge partner might suggest after her second 7 and 7, and the list of house specialties, which include filet mignon with cherries, filet mignon with brown sauce, and canapés of sliced sujuk topped with fried quail eggs, reads like a catering menu.
But that tan, the thick, salted yogurt drink that is standard at Lebanese joints — here it’s rich, barely soured, almost buttery, like fresh mozzarella sipped through a straw. The hummus is complexly nutty, expressing the round, toasty taste of chickpeas instead of concealing it with sesame paste, and it’s even better sprinkled with Lebanese pine nuts fried in olive oil. In the fattouch, the fried shards of pita bread are tossed with fresh mint and slightly astringent leaves of purslane instead of the usual assortment of lettuces, and the simple dressing of oil and lemon juice quivers with the tartness of sumac. The house-made lebne has a creamy depth of flavor you may never have experienced in yogurt.
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Mantee is run by Jonathan Darakjian, whose family owns one of the best-known Armenian restaurants in Beirut, and his menu, down to the lamb chops and the basturma canapés, turns out to be pretty close to that of the Lebanese original. (That odd sautéed fillet is cousin to kafta karaz, a very good ground-meat kebab with a cherry-studded sweet-sour sauce, which is a specialty of both Mantee and the Beirut restaurant Al Mayass.) So while the pomegranate-sweetened walnut-pepper dip muhammara may be stodgy and the stuffed grape leaves are exactly like every other stuffed grape leaf you’ve tasted, the raw, pounded-beef kibbe nayeh has a real, sinewy presence; and a dish of baked feta, which you would expect to be on the dull side, is transformed into something like a pungent Levantine version of a Mexican queso fundido. The spicy sujuk sausage sizzles to a tawny, caramelized shine above its flaming, waitress-tended crock. The su-bourek, a flaky pastry of cheese-stuffed filo, crackles and oozes when you stab it with your fork, which is just what you expect a good bourek to do. And as you’d reasonably expect, Mantee’s namesake dish is pretty spectacular: a white-hot gratin plate bubbling with garlic-infused yogurt and a handful of crunchy little beef dumplings. If you squint, the dumplings look a bit like hats plucked from a platoon of Napoleon dolls.
As at most Lebanese restaurants, the best dishes tend to be the mezze: the salads and dips and bits of sausage that form most of the menu. The kebabs, though professionally prepared, come as an afterthought.
So is the cooking here better than what you find at local places, like Alcazar and Marouch? Not necessarily, but the flavors have an edge quite unlike anything else in town. The comparison is inexact, but you may be reminded of the sensation, after years of eating polished Hunanese dishes in the San Gabriel Valley, of running into the rough, sturdy cooking of a chef freshly arrived from Hunan.
MANTEE: 10962 Ventura Blvd., Studio City. (818) 761-6565, ManteeCafe.com. Open Sun., Tues.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. MC, V. No alcohol. Street parking. Mezze $4.95-$7.95; entrées $12.95-$17.95. Recommended dishes: Hummus with pine nuts, lebneh, mantee “traditional,’’ sujuk flambé.