The Syrian restaurant Sham comes alive on Sundays at noon, still early enough to catch crunchy, spice-crusted disks of warm za’atar bread from the Arab brunch menu, but late enough to make a lunch of shish kebabs and lamby lake kebabs a possibility; relaxed enough for a glass of ice-blended lemonade but still with the edge of the Turkish coffee’s industrial-strength caffeine. Sunday mornings are the only time of the week you will find fateh, a gooey mess of yogurt, mint, chickpeas, pine nuts and shards of toasted flatbread that serves the same function in a Middle Eastern breakfast as a massive Denver omelet might in an American one.
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Skewer and deliver: Sham's mixed-kebab plate.
In the evenings, Sham resembles almost any Westside café, a destination for couples, urban adventurers and anyone else for whom a good shwarma plate is sustenance enough, but on weekends, the restaurant’s Islamic identity is more or less revealed: large families plowing through massive kebab plates; groups of young Muslims — women in head scarves, dudes in tight muscle shirts — whose tables sag with the weight of practically everything on the large menu.
Sham is another one of those restaurants that are easy to overlook, a dingy-looking storefront on a block of discount podiatrists, its faded sign easy to speed by on the way to the flashier pleasures of the Santa Monica Promenade. But inside, the restaurant is almost palatial, sweet-smelling and sparkling clean, all high ceilings and intricate tile work, vaulted Arabic arches and grand photographs of Muslim sites.
I had mentioned in a column a few weeks ago that I didn’t know of any Los Angeles restaurants that bake pita to order, and I got more than a few e-mails directing me to this place, which is famous for its bread. Pita is baked in a stone oven here, and sent out throughout the meal. It’s nice getting fresh pita — broad, warm rounds of the stuff, delicately flavored with smoke and heat, soft and pliable, and staling within seconds if you don’t eat it fast enough, perfect for scooping up the hommos, the thick yogurt called lebneh, or the baba ganouj, which here comes out more like a Turkish eggplant salad than like the sesame-scented goo you may be used to. Dips seem to have a higher concentration of nuts and chopped scallions here than they do at Lebanese restaurants — it could be the Syrian thing — and the mouhammara is especially good, a smoky red-pepper paste flavored with cumin and pomegranate molasses to an almost-meaty intensity. The kishkeh, not the stuffed intestines familiar from Jewish delicatessens but yet another concoction of yogurt cheese, walnuts and mint, is superb, possibly Sham’s defining salad.
Are there better Middle Eastern restaurants in Los Angeles? Lots of them. Hollywood Armenian restaurants like Carousel and Marouch have better meze, the Westwood Persian restaurants have better bread, the Glendale party palaces have better kebabs, and even the Arab breakfasts tend to be better at Wahib’s Middle East in Alhambra. The stab at a Moroccan-style chicken tagine is bland. The fresh-baked pita is great, but it pales next to the hot sajj bread at Alcazar in Encino. The garlic sauce served with the roast chicken is but a shadow of what you’ll find at Zankou. The lead-dense falafel flavored with cumin and herbs could use a tutorial from Arax. The baklava, mostly imported from Damascus, is fragile and delicious, but even that you can surpass at the bakeries in northeast Pasadena. The house version of the yogurt drink tahn, on the other hand, the beverage of choice, may well be the best in town, as thick and irresistible as an In-N-Out milk shake but with the sweet tang of just-made yogurt.
But Sham is a solid restaurant, a pleasant place to hang, with great kebabs and decent grilled quail, lots for vegetarians to eat, tapes of the latest Middle Eastern dance music, and daily specials that include Wednesday’s roast lamb served with a double handful of pistachios and Friday’s take on molokhia, the famously viscous Egyptian dish of lamb and the eponymous leaves cooked into a thick, mephitic gumbo. And if that sort of thing is important to you, Sham is one of the few places in this part of town whose food conforms to the standards of Islam — no alcohol, no pig, stickers boasting of halal-killed meat.
Sham, 716 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 393-2913 or www.sham.la/. Tues.-Thurs. 10:30 a.m.–10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 10:30 a. m.–11 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m.–9 p.m. No alcohol. Takeout and catering. Street parking. MC, V. Dinner for two, food only, $23-$28. Recommended dishes: kishkeh; mouhammara; lamb lake kebab; Sunday Arab breakfasts.