[Sidebar] October 2 - 9, 1997
[Food Reviews]
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Taking Middle Eastern cuisine way beyond hummus and falafel

by Johnette Rodriguez

92 Waterman Avenue
East Providence
Open Mon. - Sat., 5 to 10 p.m.
Fri. and Sat., 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.
No credit cards
Handicapped accessible

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 Moukhtarians.

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