I Am Arak
Photos by Anne FishbeinAlcazar, a shaded terrace of music, grilled mullet and waiters who transfer bright coals of tobacco to brass hookahs with specially designed tongs, could be coastal Lebanon, really it could. Enormous kebab plates are rushed to tables, and bowls are filled with the restaurant’s smooth, unusually sesame-intensive hummus; thick, homemade yogurt; and the rough, spicy paste of pomegranate molasses and crushed walnuts called muhammara. On weekends, ultra-thin sajj bread is baked on the patio on a vast heated pan, wrapped around grilled meat or made into the thin, crisp, thyme-scented Arab quesadillas called k’llej. Lebanon is famous for strong wine (or for no alcohol at all), but Alcazar, in the gentle levant of Encino, probably serves even more arak, the anise-scented Lebanese liquor that turns milky when you stir it with ice and cool water, a beverage that tames the cumin-fierce Arab flavors that sizzle underneath your tongue. My friend Anya once referred to the place as Zahle-in-the-Valley. The waiter laughed, and admitted that Zahle was his own favorite village by the sea.Although Alcazar may be the least Armenian of the major Middle Eastern restaurants in Los Angeles, and perhaps the closest to what you might find in the Arab sections of Dearborn or even Lebanon, it is owned by a man who calls himself Vatch, a Beirut-raised Armenian crooner known for his cross-cultural sensibilities and flashy, Las Vegas–style arrangements. The cooks are reportedly Egyptian and Lebanese, veterans of the kitchen at the late, revered Lebanese showplace Al-Amir, but Vatch, who sings at his restaurant on weekends, is apparently not above insisting on putting chile-red Armenian versions of hummus and the raw-beef dish kibbe nayeh on his menus, although the waiters tend to recommend the classic versions — the raw kibbe here is especially delicious, pounded with bulgur wheat to an almost mousse-like consistency, a kibbe as unctuous and appealing as a set from Vatch. If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen and eat the kabobs. Here are fried sea bass with fried pita and tahini, stuffed grape leaves, and shanklish salad made with sharp Lebanese cheese. Nuggets of sautéed chicken liver are glazed with a shiny, deeply reduced tincture of pomegranate juice and garlic, sprinkled with parsley and garnished with a few fresh pomegranate seeds for crunch, a dish that could make you forget that you don’t necessarily like chicken livers. There are sautéed lambs’ tongues tossed with lemon juice and garlic, and fried manteh, tiny dumplings that I associate more with Central Asia than with Arabic food, sauced with yogurt and toasted pine nuts. You can get not only aryes, thin patties of ground beef grilled inside pita, but aryes with beef and halloumi cheese, like an ultra-crisp Lebanese cheeseburger no thicker than three stacked 45s.If you frequent Marouch or Caroussel, you will find all your favorites: the intensely garlicked tabbouleh salad, the signature pairing of hummus with the fava-bean dip fool, the creamy tahini-enriched eggplant puree baba ganoush suavely tinged with smoke. The falafel, deep-fried chickpea puree served five spheres to an order, are about the best in Los Angeles at the moment, crisp-crusted and chewy, tinted green with herbs. There is crusty, fried Armenian-style sujok sausage, stingingly flavored with cumin, and the tiny, gently spiced links called makanek — pronounced like the guy who works on your Saab — awash in oil and lemon. And the shish tawok, extravagantly marinated chicken breast grilled as a kebab, is really, really good. Twenty years ago, this mall was a very different place, home to a patio restaurant that specialized in grilled chicken and Napa Chardonnay, a scattering of boutiques selling the sparkly, shoulder-padded clothing of the era, and the fanciest California-style restaurant in the San Fernando Valley, where I was once served tournedos of buffalo with foie gras. These days, surmounted by gilded domes, the block has a distinct Central Asian cast, with a Russian supermarket and a big Russian café, a spa featuring exotic exercise equipment found in no Hollywood gym, and a Beirut-style pastry shop awash in pistachios and honey. The boutiques still sell sparkly clothes. In some ways, Encino will never change. Alcazar, 17239 Ventura Blvd., Encino; (818) 789-0991. Lunch Tues.-Sun., 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., Sunday until midnight. AE, MC, V. Full bar. Hookah and cigar lounge. Valet parking weekends; lot parking in rear. Takeout. Dinner for two, food only, $20-$40. Recommended dishes: kibbe nayeh, fried fish with tahini, shish tawook.
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