Taking Middle Eastern cuisine way beyond hummus and falafel
by Johnette Rodriguez
92 Waterman Avenue
Open Mon. - Sat., 5 to 10 p.m.
Fri. and Sat., 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.
No credit cards
LaCamelia is one of those small, unglamorous, out-of-the-way spots that
nonetheless enjoys a loyal following -- professors and grad students were
prevalent on the evening we visited. It has survived for 16 years on the
strength of its reputation for carefully prepared dishes and the heartfelt
hospitality of co-owners and chefs George and Guylaine Moukhtarian.
Since the vegetarian movement introduced Americans at-large to hummus (ground
chickpea and tahini dip), tabbouleh (cracked wheat and fresh vegetables) and
falafel (ground chickpeas shaped into balls or patties and deep-fried), many of
us have assumed that that's all there is to Middle Eastern cuisine. The
Moukhtarians offer us many other possibilities, both from their native Armenia
and from the regions surrounding their tiny, beleaguered homeland.
For a sample of appetizers, we chose "vegetarian's favorite delights," a half
portion of any four dishes for $9.75. We loved the Lebanese "fool moudammas," a
thick soup-like dip of small fava beans and chickpeas in a broth redolent of
olive oil, garlic, lemon, and parsley.
The "fool" was served with plenty of warm pita bread, the better to scoop up
the portions of Armenian string cheese (looking like fresh Asian noodles, but
with a feta-like tang) and baba ghanoush, grilled and mashed eggplant with
tahini and the usual suspects of olive oil, lemon juice, parsley and garlic.
Our fourth choice was stuffed grape leaves, which we quickly agreed were the
best we'd ever had. The rice was not hard or dry, nor were the leaves
overcooked or tough, as in so many versions. Each tight green roll was moist
with olive oil and seasoned with onions and parsley -- a mild foil to the
spiciness of the baba and the fool. The non-veggie appetizers included
"basterma," described as Armenian pastrami, and "lahmajune," an oven-baked,
open-faced meat pie.
From the 11 meat and seafood offerings, my dinner partner selected the "spring
lamb shish kabob dinner" ($12.75). The two generous kabobs grilled to medium
had been marinated a la Armenia -- with much garlic and a pinch of hot pepper.
They were served on a bed of homemade rice pilaf (complete with whole-wheat
vermicelli) and accompanied by grilled tomatoes, peppers, and small white
onions. Barely a word escaped from my companion as he savored his meal.
I was leaning toward chicken kabobs, but George's pride in his preparation of
the grilled quail ($12.75) tipped the balance toward the exotic. These small
birds (so memorably hunted, dressed, and roasted by the erstwhile mountain man
sitting across from me when we lived in the golden hills of Salinas) had been
split open and skewered, with many of the tiny bones removed, and then expertly
grilled with a garlicky marinade.
With a flavor stronger than chicken but not nearly as gamey as duck or goose,
the quail was tender and tame. The grilled vegetables and pilaf that
accompanied it were more up my alley, but the adventure's the thing -- even in
a culinary vein!
Hard-core carnivores might find the filet-mignon kabobs ($12.75) or the
Armenian or Lebanese tartar (extra-lean ground beef mixed with spices or
bulghur wheat for $12.75) to their liking. Vegetarians ought to try LaCamelia's special sauce, filled with fresh vegetables and served on a bed of
pilaf or bulghur ($9.75).
We started the meal with a basket of complimentary roasted pistachios, and we
ended it with Guylaine's homemade baklava ($1.50), also filled with pistachios,
as well as walnuts. The baklava was terrific, right down to the last droplet of
honey syrup leaking from the crisp phyllo pastry. And the perfect accompaniment
to this finale was a demitasse of sweet Armenian coffee ($1.50).
LaCamelia has a modest wine list of California whites and French reds. Plan
to linger here -- the pace is unhurried and genteel. Every Saturday night in
October after 9 p.m., the restaurant also will feature music (oud, drums,
keyboard, and harp) and belly dancers, plus an extended menu. On other nights,
tune in to the taped music (international or classical) selected by the