Los Angeles Gets Lebanese with Open Sesame
The popular Open Sesame of Long Beach in the Belmont Shore neighborhood (two restaurants) has expanded! Their first location opened in 1999 and still remains as their newest moves deeper into Los Angeles, opening in November 2013 near The Grove and Farmers Market. It has taken over the space formerly known as Hatfield's and celebrates the cuisine of Lebanese food through from-scratch dishes that are authentic to the fare. Not only do they highlight some of the most popular food items of the cuisine but they also have multiple options including choices for vegans and vegetarians. Since we had not had specifically Lebanese food before, we were intrigued. Founded by Ali Kobeissi who emigrated from Lebanon in the 1980s, Open Sesame dedicates itself to paying the right respect to the cuisine and with great ingredients. We were invited in one afternoon to take a look and were happy that our first exposure to Lebanese food went well.
The restaurant itself takes advantage of the southern California atmosphere by presenting guests with both inside and outside seating options. I was amused to see that the different sections had different looks with the outside taking on an organic, traditional-looking vibe with dark woods and reds while the inside had a more polished, modern white and green feel. The full bar was a point of interest for many who walked inside but most of the actual table seating was preferred by others to be outside. To enter the restaurant viewable street-side, you come up a few stair steps and walk into the house-like inside or wrap around the building down a "alley" of tables. We opted for the outside seating for more exposure to the lighting though it was well-windowed inside too.
We spoke with Nagy, manager, about what sets Lebanese food apart as it was our first exposure to the cuisine. After all, there are plenty of Mediterranean places that combine all of the countries' styles into one mash of flavors but when a restaurant declares its own focus, we must know what it means. His explanation?
"Like with all Mediterranean, the styles are the same with our own versions of grilled, kabob, and salads along with use of herbs and citrus. The difference between one region and another are the spices and how much is used of each. For Lebanese, lemon is in everything; everyone uses parsley too but you'll see more cilantro in Lebanese food. We also use allspice which other countries do not."With this clarity in mind, we moved forward to picking what delights caught our eyes on the menu.
There was actually a fairly expansive drinks section once you included the wine and cocktail offerings. However, we ultimately ended up choosing the Jalab ($4 - rosewater and grape syrup infused with incense topped with pine nuts and almonds) and Tamarita ($13 - Corzo Silver Tequila, tamarind syrup, grapefruit liqueur, organic blue agave, and fresh lime juice) with a Moroccan Green Iced Tea ($3 - infused with fresh mint and orange blossom) to follow toward the end of the meal since it was so hot. The jalab was completely refreshing, especially because of the rosewater. I really enjoyed the grape syrup that gave the drink a sweetness that stayed in the throat for a little bit. The pine nuts were confusing at first because we weren't sure how to consume them all with the drink but they turned out to be good pieces of texture to an otherwise slightly thick drink. As for the cocktail, that was admirably served with one large cube of ice which gave the even distribution of watering down. The tamarind played well with the grapefruit, combining sweet and sour in a balanced manner. We liked how even the drink was without one profile overpowering the other. They were solid drink choices.
To start, we went for their most popular appetizer: the Fried Potatoes ($6 - sauteed with cilantro, garlic, roasted chili, and lemon juice; add garlic sauce $2). There was no doubt that we would add on the garlic sauce once we heard what it was. As the waitstaff and Nagy pointed out, it is practically "crack" for how addictive it was. The potatoes struck me as being a little too sweet for my taste but perhaps that is the style, seeing as he had mentioned the abundant use of lemon in Lebanese cuisine. Other than that, they were done well and had a nice crisp on the outside. I did like them better once dipped into the garlic sauce which seemed like a creamy puree of pure garlic.
We also opted for their Saturday special dish, the Kibbi Nayyeh ($12 - Lebanese-style beef tartare mixed with fine bulgur, onion, mint, Lebanese herbs and spices drizzled with extra virgin olive oil served with fresh mint, radish, Serrano chiles, and pita bread) which was finished up cleanly. The sheer size of this made it practically a meal in itself, and in hindsight, we should not have finished it all prior to our entrees arriving. The tartare had a nice layer of olive oil over it and was not cold as other styles of tartare were; rather, it was a little warm but that in addition to the texture made this seem more like a smooth and soft meatloaf than a tartare which I perceive to be chunkier. It went very well when eaten atop a thick slice of radish and wrapped in pita (though the pita was much thinner and a little drier than I'm accustomed to). The fresh mint gave much brightness to the meat whose spices lent savoriness to the meal but didn't pop as much as the fresh vegetables. If you go on a Saturday, get this and share with many.
Their entrees come with a side salad and a dip side each so we were assuming the servings would be on the smaller side. (Un)fortunately we were wrong, and the portions that came out seemed insurmountable! I chose their Grilled Tiger Shrimp ($20 - charbroiled shrimp marinated in garlic, olive oil, cilantro, and roasted red pepper served over basmati rice) with Fattoush (Lebanese peasant salad - Romaine lettuce, tomato, cucumber, green onion, parsley, radish, bell pepper, fresh mint, sumac, and toasted pita croutons tossed with our house dressing) and Hummus ($6 as an a la carte side - chickpeas, garlic, lemon juice, and tahini drizzled with extra virgin olive oil served with pita). Tiger shrimp is one of my preferred shrimps, and Open Sesame did not disappoint with the dish. Some of them were saltier than others which I was not too keen on but otherwise, the dish was done quite deliciously. The rice was slightly buttery (in a good way!) yet light and the salad was lightly dressed to give emphasis to the ingredients themselves. The hummus was a bit too heavy on the tahini though so I skirted my way around that to consume the shrimp that were seasoned well, cooked to just the right doneness, and presented beautifully. Think slightly salty, very plump, and juicy with a strong garlic taste.
Their most popular entree is their Chicken Tawook ($15 - skewered cubes of marinated, charbroiled chicken breast served with garlic salt and wild cucumber pickles; add rice $2) which we had with the Open Sesame Salad (Romaine lettuce, tomato, cucumber, green onion, parsley, radish, bell pepper, fresh mint, and sumac tossed with house dressing and topped with olives and Feta cheese) and Baba Ghannouj ($7 as an a la carte side - fire roasted eggplant, garlic, lemon juice, and tahini drizzled with extra virgin olive oil served with pita). The chicken had an admirable orange tinge to it with some corners slightly charred which only added to the taste by contributing a degree of smokiness. Some pieces were a tad drier than others, likely do to uneven heat distribution, but otherwise, the rest were juicy and satisfying. This also came atop the buttery, light rice that graced the plate of the shrimp entree. The salad was refreshing and tart which helped cut through the potential heaviness of such large chunks of chicken. I did not try much of the baba ghannouj though due to my eggplant sensitivity but Duc really enjoyed it himself.
Though we didn't order it, we got a sampler size of their Lamb Chops (full entree $24 - charbroiled French-cut lamb chops marinated in fresh lemon juice, garlic, and extra virgin olive oil served over kabob salad and basmati rice) which were very tender, seasoned simply but well, and full of rich juices. Because all of the portions were enormous, we could not finish any of the entrees and suspected that a couple could just be content with ordering a starter and an entree (unless they want leftovers...because who wouldn't?). After all, the Lebanese style is family-style!
Despite the overflowing amount of food already served, we decided we had to get a bite or two of Open Sesame's K'Naafeh ($7 - semolina wheat pastry with sweet cheese or ashta cream topped with orange blossom syrup; a la mode $8) as I am a fan of this dessert. We went with both versions - the one with sweet cheese and the other with ashta cream. With some desserts that are topped/drenched in syrup, the result is a cloyingly sweet mess but with these, the appropriate amount was used to touch the dessert with sweetness but not overwhelm it. I liked the ashta cream because it was not as sweet and had a rougher texture on top while Duc liked the sweet cheese version because of his large sweet tooth! Both were shareable sizes as well but we each finished our own because it was that good. The cream/cheese was the bottom layer and the rest was served warm and easily divisible with a spoon. I recommend giving both of them a try to see which version you like best.
Open Sesame is open every day of the week and is located at 7458 Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles. If you are live nearby, you might consider them for catering services as they do offer that for special events.
Photography by Duc Duong. More photos available on Facebook here.