Totem and Tabbouleh

With the recent closing down of Coral Gables's El Cenador de la Villa -- an upscale Spanish restaurant that, until its last dying breath, vied with the still-open (and even more expensive!) Ramiro's, located a block down Ponce de Leon Boulevard, for the "Most Outrageous and Pretentious Hispanic Food in Miami" award -- it may finally be a propitious moment to discuss the effect of the supernatural on the dining scene. You see, prior to El Cenador's arrival it was the site of Le Manoir, a stratospherically pricey French restaurant offering wide varieties of game and other morsels of haute cuisine. Under both managements the customers (unlike Julius Caesar) came, saw, and vanished. Neither restaurant was that bad, certainly, but the locale, as if under a City Beautiful cloud from the word go, was cursed.

In South Miami, I was prepared to predict the same fate for the newcomer when a fine upper-echelon Austrian restaurant, Harald's, went out of business in 1989 and a Middle Eastern restaurant, El Manara, opened in 1990. Few dining arenas prosper in this suburban neighborhood on the cusp of the Gables -- they come and go like the Bush grandchildren -- but lo and behold, El Manara has managed to confound the oracle. And contrary to the conventional wisdom -- that the few successful restaurants found anywhere near that moribund behemoth, the Bakery Centre, are either fast-food joints or diners, this one serves hummus, baba ghanouj, stuffed grape leaves, lamb kebabs, and kibbeh.

The space is smaller than an ant hill, but the cuisine takes its cue from one of the oldest civilizations in the world. Much of what makes the food of Asia Minor so intriguing in our day is the fact that, with very few exceptions, it remains truer to its unrefrigerated, unprocessed, and thoroughly unmodern roots than any other cuisine of the civilized world -- and I include the oldest, Chinese, in this assessment. Just as we in the West bemoan the Middle East's alleged medievalism in matters of sexual politics, civil rights, and race relations, when it comes to munching and crunching, the historical nod is an unusual, and unexpected, bonanza.

El Manara's dishes reach a pinnacle of elegance while never losing track of its earthy origins. The signature Arabic spread, hummus ($5), may be the creamiest I've yet tasted in Miami. This paste is made with ground sesame seeds (or tahini, one of the oldest preservatives in the world), garbanzo beans, lemon juice, garlic, and water, and finished with a well of dribbled olive oil and paprika. (El Manara omits the olive oil.) Take a fresh, warm slice of pita bread, dip, and savor -- it's the eighth wonder of the world. El Manara sometimes errs in the direction of restraint. For example, the hummus, for all its textural finesse, was ever-so-slightly bland. Some of the requisite bitterness of the sesame was misplaced in its preparation.

You can make a meal of appetizers at any Middle Eastern restaurant, and El Manara is no exception. I was greatly gratified by the marinated stringbeans in tomato sauce and olive oil ($5). Here was a portion of veggies that could scarcely have been altered since the days when Nebuchadnezzar, the upstart Babylonian king, ruled over his region in much the same manner Saddam Hussein attempted prior to the Gulf War. I've always been slightly wary of tabbouleh salad ($5.50), that uniquely aromatic mince of parsley and bulghur wheat, for its resemblance to the type of food we often give to rabbits. El Manara's rendition did not remove the image of Bugs Bunny in Arabic, but was invigorating nonetheless.

The brilliant best of the appetizers was undoubtedly the stuffed grape leaves ($6), available in either meat-stuffed or rice-laden forms. These mounds of rolled and marinated vine leaves have been with us about as long as good and evil, but in this restaurant they receive the care and refinement any classic preparation deserves. (Notice, too, that the popularity of these leaves traversed not only the easternmost points of the Arab world, but were readily available and enjoyable in the Macedonian hills of Alexander the Great's reign from 356-323 B.C.)

Now, about the sturdier main courses: El Manara fares well enough for those who have a clear preference for kebabs and kibbeh. The multifarious ways Arabs prepare leg of lamb are mostly ignored. But, creditably, a minced lamb kafta kebab streamed with yogurt sauce ($13.50) and resting over toasted pita bread was more than any mortal this side of Allah's domain could be expected to ingest in one sitting. I confess I could not, and my dining guest took the entire submarine-shape leviathan home -- surely two, if not three, people could feast on it. Other items on the menu include falafel ($5), rib of lamb ($11.95), baked kibbeh in yogurt ($6), and the eternal shish kebabs ($10.95). Service here can be prejudicial and preferential, but then they take you in, it's for keeps.

Now, finally, a word about restaurants closing prematurely. It isn't always a matter of ghosts and goblins. Take the example of Al Amir, the hottest -- and most elegant and refined -- restaurant in South Beach at the end of 1990. Here was a level of Middle Eastern cuisine hardly ever scaled by Americans, let alone Miamians, in this generation. It was rightly and proudly popular, and the hippest, best-informed people on the Beach ate (and drank!) there. Then the Bush administration announced Operation Desert Storm, and the same noncomformist and allegedly sophisticated folk who frequently dined there collectively deemed such a place out of sorts -- and Al Amir closed soon afterward. That's the riddle of America: just when you think the advent of illumination is near, a sheepish -- and ultimately ethnocentric -- urge to follow the leader takes hold, and the bleating masses rush toward the nearest TV for a glimpse of the evening news.

EL MANARA 5811 Sunset Dr., South Miami; 665-3374. Lunch Monday -- Friday from noon to 2:30 p.m.; dinner Monday -- Thursday from 6:00 to 9:45 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 6:00 to 10:30 p.m. Closed Sunday.

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