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Restaurant Reviews

A Happy Belly

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.

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.

It's also possible to go completely, traditionally North African without sacrificing any of the skill level associated with some of the more unusual fusion dishes. For instance, Tunisian chicken tagine was a wonderful take on this regional stew, which is named for the domed pot in which it is cooked. A double breast of boneless chicken had been grilled, then doused with a preserved lemon that pleased as much as it puckered. The chicken was garnished with caramelized onions and cracked, pitted green olives, and partnered by potatoes that had been roasted with a mildly spiced harissa (a chili-garlic mixture as necessary to Tunisians as ketchup is to Americans).

The same juicy, grilled chicken is available over some of the fluffiest couscous I've ever had, with each grain separate yet somehow incorporating into a complete whole. The couscous is a perfect foil for the "royal combination," which highlights lamb chops about as big as my pinky finger and homemade sausages so fresh and supple, it was as if they'd been sourced directly from the Kasbah.

Don't let any of this sound too good to you, however. El Baraka doesn't always have every dish that's on the menu available, and you usually won't know what's been axed until you try to order it. For instance, one evening, the kitchen had 86ed the Napoleon of roasted vegetables and goat cheese; the tapenade salad with shaved fennel, radish, celery, pine nuts, and Parmesan cheese; and even the "soup of the moment," which we supposed had only "momentarily" run dry. We were only temporarily disappointed, though, by the lack of availability of chocolate ravioli with sweet saffron sauce. Consolation came in the form of a pomegranate-cheesecake börek, or Turkish phyllo dough pastry, that emphasized the tangy creaminess of the interior. Chase it with some Moroccan mint tea and a hip-shaking turn with the belly dancer around the dance floor and you may just feel like a fountain falling in a magical forest. Or something like that.

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick

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