A Happy Belly

If you can handle the volume, El Baraka delivers all manner of Middle Eastern delights

Restaurant critics are often faced with a conflict of interest: We stumble on these great, unknown, hole-in-the-wall eateries that we'd like to keep for ourselves and the few loyal customers they've already won. But such finds are too good for anonymity, so we write sterling reviews about them and publicize our discoveries to the communities at large. Next thing we know, we can't get a seat, even if we bring our own chairs. And we get nasty how-dare-you letters from the former regulars, who are justifiably pissed off.

I don't have a problem letting folks in on the current secret that is El Baraka, an incense-laden, Mediterranean restaurant that is Hollywood's answer to South Beach's Tantra. The roomy restaurant can fit a crowd, and the booming North African music, roped-off VIP section, and self-billed comparisons to places like London's ever-popular Buddha Lounge clearly state that the supper club has ambition to be SRO. But I feel a little sorry for the small ethnic community that already frequents the establishment. It's quite possible that once the general public finds out about the terrific fare -- not to mention the incredibly svelte belly dancer -- reservations will go for a premium.

At the moment, El Baraka's charm comes as much from its clientele as it does from its concept. Ages seem to range from 10 to 70, but everyone has one thing in common: They all know how to dance. Perhaps not as seductively as the aforementioned belly dancer, who encourages patrons to get on their feet and join her, but the traditional gracefulness of the Mediterranean culture is clearly in evidence. Even the little girl who was dining with her parents one evening took to the floor with moves that vogued as if she were in training to be a belly dancer, and the three ladies dancing around her playing finger cymbals could have posed as a trio of muses for her. If you can stand the volume of the music -- and even our waitress warned us that it was going to be loud enough to warrant earplugs -- then El Baraka can supply you with a very mesmerizing night. Indeed, as the menu notes, "The entertainment will lull you into submission as the fresh mint-leafed tea falls into your decorative teacup like a fountain falling in a magical forest." Or something like that.

Hadley Hooper

It can also offer you a delicious experience. Often in restaurants where a club scene seems to prevail, the fare suffers. Not here, where the eats are as authentic as the perspiration on the belly dancer's forehead. (Hey, dancing like that is hard work. And yes, I did try it.)

El Baraka's philosophy of cuisine is also printed on the menu, citing the regions -- southern Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa -- it plumbs for inspiration. Appetizers range from sea-bass carpaccio to dolmas, homemade stuffed grape leaves. Hummus and baba ghanoujh, two familiar Middle Eastern dishes, were both expertly made and uplifted by cumin-scented pita bread. But I found the North African influence to be the most compelling, with items like the b'stila leading the spice-driven charge. A savory pastry composed of an onion-skin layer of dough called ouarka, similar to phyllo, and a stuffing of minced pigeon, b'stila is usually presented as a communal ten-inch cake from which diners pull pieces. Here, it was a little smaller and, as I've almost always seen it in the United States, filled with a minced concoction of Cornish hen, toasted almonds, and pinches of cinnamon, turmeric, saffron, and ginger that were as aromatic as if they'd been freshly ground by the Berbers.

Similar in theory if not in shape, the chicken briouat appetizer was just as delicious. These easily manageable cigar-like rolls were vibrant, with centers accented by caramelized onions, spinach, fresh thyme, and a serious punch of orange zest. Another starter, Moroccan baked phyllo rolls, was nearly identical, with the exception that shrimp and scallops replaced the poultry interior. We found these just a bit fishy, however.

Main courses continue displaying North African roots with details imported from across the Mediterranean Sea. In fact, so many cultural touches can combine here that it's often difficult to decipher dishes like the "grilled marinated filet mignon with wild mushrooms potato pavé and 'tchaktchouka' spicy Maghreben roasted tomato-peppers sauce and garlic spinach." Allow me to translate. This entrée turned out to be a wonderful hunk of buttery beef, accompanied by an earthy, forest-hinting mixture of mushrooms and potatoes. The meat itself was dressed with a piquant, concentrated tomato-pepper sauce that delivered complexity in every mouthful.

Other entrées were more straightforward but no less accomplished. I particularly delighted in a fillet of salmon that had been wrapped in grape leaves and grilled. I am not usually a fan of grape leaves when they're served moist and cold as dolmas, but the cooking process had softened the fibers and lessened the tang of the leaves. As a result, they were an interesting contrast to the meatier salmon, which had been intensified by a pleasantly pungent star anise-orange sauce and propped over a barley pilaf scented with fresh mint.

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