From Amman to Beirut

"A Palestinian friend of mine in San Francisco told me, 'Try it, you'll like it!' " said my partner, after his first bite of Rannoush's extraordinary falafel. "Guess what? I hated it -- and kept on hating it, though I tried and tried to acquire the taste. It always turns out to be dry and gritty and hits my stomach like a bunch of little cannon balls. But here, I actually love it! If everybody made falafel like this, I'd eat it all the time."

This oration came as we were having dinner at Rannoush -- a petite, pretty place with a tented ceiling, tassels hanging from light fixtures, and walls covered with ballooning cloth in bright colors -- with the Lynnester and her mom, Mary Ellen, a superb and sophisticated cook herself. They were restaurant-hopping around San Diego and, happily, hopped into our plans. "I live 40 miles northwest of Ann Arbor," Mary Ellen told us, "but it's too far from Detroit to go for dinner, so I've never had the chance to try the Middle Eastern food there." Faced with an eager "newbie," we chose the combination dinner called the Rannoush Ultimate -- a huge sampler ($50) for at least four people that covers a good part of the menu, from mezze through mains.

The menu claims "Lebanese-Mediterranean Cuisine," but the owner and two of the chefs (Ali and Bassam) are actually from Jordan; the head chef, Fouad, is the lone Lebanese. "It's all one cuisine -- Lebanon, Jordan, Syria," said Bassam, the only chef who speaks English. "We all share the same dishes, with changes from one kitchen to another and small regional variations, just like any cuisine. But Lebanese food is the best known in America, so that's what we call it."

What makes Rannoush stand out from the field is that all the cooking is "from scratch." How this affects their falafel: Instead of starting with canned beans or "instant falafel mix" (the secret to all the bad falafel out there), they use whole dried beans -- a combination of garbanzos and favas, each cooked separately. It takes three days to soak, simmer, and process the beans into falafel or hummus -- and the difference is instantly evident. The falafel comes in two forms -- regular little balls, or larger balls stuffed with sautéed onions and rice to provide a delicious, moist center. Either way, they're lighter than normal and intriguingly seasoned with cinnamon that hits right up front on your palate, plus onions, parsley, cilantro, and other spices. They had me at cinnamon.

Dinners begin with a saucerful of magenta-colored rectangles of pickled turnips mixed with strong green olives -- bracing, sour flavors that awaken your appetite. Then the dishes start coming (and coming, and coming).

Continuing with our favorites, another feat of kitchen legerdemain is the Lebanese national dish, kebbeh, small crisp-surfaced shells of bulgur wheat, shaped into palm-sized footballs. Rannoush's standard version is lighter than the typical rendition, filled with well-seasoned ground beef. Even better is their unique vegetarian kebbeh, meltingly filled with potatoes, parsley, onions, and pine nuts, a superb contrast to the crackly shells. The combination dinner comes with sauces of thinned, subtly seasoned tahini (sesame-seed paste) and thick yogurt for dipping, plus pita triangles on the side if you want to make mini-sandwiches.

"What are these wonderful little sausages?" Mary Ellen asked. Soujok, house-made from lamb and beef, are shaped like small cigars. Seriously spicy meat conceals a buried treasure of pine nuts. Similarly shaped are the stuffed grape leaves called warak enab. "My next-door neighbor in Dana Point was Lebanese," my partner recollected. "Her grape-leaf dolmas were unforgettable. These taste just like them." Their virtue lies in the succulent, gooey rice mixed with tomatoes, lemon juice, and fresh parsley.

The basterma (available as a sandwich, aside from its presence on taster plates) is also a treat. It's a Middle Eastern version of Italian bresaola (air-dried beef), which is often compared to pastrami. Moist, satiny, and faintly sweet, with seasonings so complex I can't even guess at them, the small slices were nothing like pastrami. "Hey, throw this meat in the oven at 450 for half an hour, you'd have great beef jerky," said Lynne.

Fattoush is a salad of toasted triangles of pita bread, torn-up lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, and parsley. "I'm afraid this isn't really the best season for fattoush," I told Mary Ellen. "I love making it in summer with home-grown beefsteaks and heirloom tomatoes ripe to bursting. I put it together a few hours ahead using stale pita, so that the bread soaks up the tomato juice and softens." After a taste, Mary Ellen said, "Compared to Michigan, these are good tomatoes for March." And they were.

Mjadara, a popular fast-day vegetarian supper in its home countries, combines lightly spiced rice with lentils, topped with caramelized onions, and comes with rich whole-milk yogurt. The standard mezze trio of hummus, tabbouleh, and baba ganoush aren't among Rannoush's strong points. The hummus (blended with garlic, lemon juice, and tahini) was silky but on the bland side. If I were ordering it separately, I'd try the lively sounding "Beirouti" variation, topped with fava beans, tomatoes, diced fresh peppers, lemon juice, and garlic. You can also get it topped with pine nuts, veggies, or your choice of grilled meats. (Somewhere along the way, our tabouli got lost, but we did get a saucer of crisp, curly parsley dressed with lemon juice, which we used as a sprinkle.)

It's unfortunate that the restaurant has no wood-fire grill but broils over gas, which leaves a harsh, sour char on any substance cooked upon it. (I wish they'd put pans of wood chips over the gas to smolder and give off aromatic smoke; I know of several non--Middle Eastern restaurants nearby that successfully use this technique to make meats taste more like "barbecue.") The gas-char sorely afflicts the baba ganoush -- a mixture of grilled eggplant and tahini that's mildly seasoned in any case. Worse, the gas flavor negatively affects all the grilled entrées -- the kebabs, shawermas, shish tawooks (chicken brochettes), et al. -- in fact, the majority of the non-veg main courses.

The best survivors of the gas grill are the shrimp kabobs, marinated in garlic, lemon, cumin, paprika, olive oil, and spices. The shrimps are large and naturally sweet. I was also fond of the kofta kabob but was outvoted. A long, thick uncased sausage of house-ground lamb and beef, strongly flavored with raw onion, had the moist chewiness of coarse meatloaf. Of course, it doesn't compare to the little soujok that Mary Ellen loved so much.

The marinades for the beef filet mignon chunks and lamb kabobs are very salty; the chicken breast kebabs are less so but on the dry side. Beef shawerma (sliced from a roast set over the grill) and chicken shawerma are, as always, cooked well done and hence dry. If I were ordering à la carte, I might go with the orfaly kebab, the kofta mixture alternated with pieces of grilled eggplant, tomatoes, and onions, topped with raw onions and summac, a deliciously sour red spice. Or I might try the marinated lamb chops. But overall, to my tastes, Rannoush's best dishes are just about any that haven't touched the grill. The listed "pick hits" rate four or five stars each as outstanding renditions; they're responsible for the restaurant's overall high rating and are the dishes I'd choose here again.

My beer-drinking boyfriend opted for Almaya, a tasty Lebanese brand of Pilsener. The wine list -- about 20 affordable bottlings carefully chosen to suit the food -- includes a Beaujolais that tempted me sorely, but instead I decided to sample glasses of the Lebanese wines from Chateau Kehaja. The Sauvignon Blanc was pleasant, if weightless and nondescript. Better yet was the same chateau's rewarding red, equally light but well balanced and a lovely match to the cuisine -- quite similar to a Beaujolais. There's also a rosé from the same vintner, which I didn't try. "Dries" may want to opt for the house's banana-milk cocktail, or a raspberry iced tea, available along with standard soft drinks and fruit juices.

As we were finishing dinner, a gorgeous young brunette shimmied onto the floor to belly-dance between the tables. (That night's crowd refused to be dragged out of their chairs to dance with her, and my boyfriend was the only man who understood the protocol of tucking a tip into her waistband.) Meanwhile, our table enjoyed sensual pleasures of another sort. Baklava and the similar (but heavier) basmeh are made in-house with filo and pistachios. Both are grainy and tight. If you want more indulgence, the gelatos (from Gelatismo, run by a French guy in Escondido) will wow you. Lynne fell in love with the cardamom flavor, which tasted like Indian kheer but with a lusher texture. The honey-lavender was a bit weird but rich and sexy -- almost too voluptuous to handle.

"Would you come back here again?" I asked Mary Ellen. "Here, yes," she said. "But Detroit? I don't know. I'd have to be sure the food's at least this good before I'd travel 50 miles for it."

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