It's always a good time for a Lebanese feast.
Lately much of our feasting has taken place at Jasmin in Lakemba. Fresh. Cheap. Plentiful. When Veruca finds a good thing, she likes to stick to it. Persistently.
Me, on the other hand? I'm the eternal stickybeak. I'm the one who compulsively flicks through the other channels during the commercial breaks. Who has to check every pre-set radio station in the car before settling on the best song playing. Who often orders the most obscure dish on the menu. Just because I can. And because I think I might be missing out on something.
So on my second attempt to relocate our usual Lebanese feasting destination, Veruca finally relented. We went 100 metres up the road instead.
Perhaps because it is only a block-and- a-half up the road, El-Manara has as many fiercely loyal patrons as Jasmin does. "The prices at El-Manara are a little bit higher for their mixed plate," a Lebanese colleague once confided, "but oh my good their meat is so freshly cooked it's worth it."
The interior here is a marked contrast to Jasmin. Where Jasmin is a long and narrow restaurant, all rendered walls, stucco paintings, marble columns and somewhat dim were it not for the spotlights above, El-Manara is a short but wide premises with laquered wood panelling, huge glass windows, bare walls and plenty of natural light.
Toum garlic sauce
El-Manara is quiet today although we notice plenty of couples picking up takeaway orders, telephoned in advance. We order an enormous feast and within minutes our complimentary side dishes arrive. The garlic toum is thick, fluffy and so intensely garlicky it almost sets your throat on fire. We love it so much we need a refill.
This is generously mopped up with wedges of Lebanese bread from our little side basket. The bread is unfortunately a little dry from pre-cutting and exposure, and we can't help but compare this to the soft fresh loaves consistently served at Jasmin.
The tahina sauce is a mild palate cleanser, a mixture of yoghurt and crushed sesame seed paste dusted with a sunset of burnt orange paprika.
The salad plate is a riot of colour as always. Batons of hot pink pickled radishes splay over the edges of the plate, looking like the legs of can-can dancers, whirling with luscious tomatoes, green olives, jalapeno peppers, raw onion slices and the coolness of fresh mint leaves.
Sausages: mild and chill (soujok) $8.00
Mince meat, pine nuts and spices
We'd been unable to decide between the mild or the chillli sausages (some of our party are yet to get in touch with their chilli side) so we are thoughtfully provided with a mixed plate of both. To my surprise these are completely different sausages: the mild are more meaty and plumper, their skin blistered to a golden brown; the chilli ones aren't really hot but slightly spicy, a dried preserved sausage that is almost crumbly in texture.
Chicken kabab $9.00
Marinated chicken and spices cooked on a rotating skewer
The chicken. Oh the chicken. This is beautifully tender, piping hot and deliciously succulent with a generous coating of spices.
Chick peas, garlic, cumin and spices
Falafel are delightful crunchy golf balls, and again we find ourselves comparing them to Jasmin. Theirs win. By a mouthful. Their filling is moister and somehow more flavoursome.
Chopped parsley, mint, tomatoes, lettuce,
crushed wheat, lemon juice and olive oil
The tabbouleh is a colourful mound of refreshing greenery: chopped parsley, bits of tomato, a few specks of burghul with a drizzle of lemon juice and olive oil. It's light and crunchy, but not quite as lemony as Jasmin's.
Mouhallabieh (rice pudding) $2.00
Dessert isn't offered at Jasmin, but it is at El-Manara. In the refrigerated cabinet beneath the counter is a shelf packed full with rice puddings, and for $2.00 I add it to our stash of takeaway treasures. I have it later that night and revel in its thickened spoon-hugging starchiness. It's perfect comfort food and reminds me a little of Turkish salep, like the one had at Mado.
I suspect the mouhallabieh has been thickend with cornflour though, the sprinkle of pistachio nuts adds a delicious crunch and flavour, whilst the faint aroma of rosewater is calming.
Final damage: $27 (plus drinks and dessert) for four females with a takeaway box of leftovers.
El-Manara or Jasmin? It's too close to call. I might have to head back. To each, just to make sure.
El-Manara Lebanese Restaurant
143 Haldon St, Lakemba, Sydney
Tel: +61 (02) 9740 6762
Related GrabYourFork posts:
Lebanese: Emma's on Liberty, Enmore
Lebanese: Jasmin, Lakemba
Lebanese: Rowda Ya Habibi, Newtown
Turkish: Mado Cafe, Auburn
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1/10/2007 09:38:00 pm