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The Beach Gourmet: Sham: 1001 Arabian Flavors:

Authentic Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food is something of a needle in a haystack in this part of the world, given that most restaurants have a tendency to “Americanize” this style of cooking, and oftentimes lose the culinary integrity in the process. So when I recently visited Sham restaurant, it was with a little apprehension, to say the least.

Upon entering, the décor immediately screamed “authentic,” with beautiful tiles, keyhole arches and quite the most alluring and colossal imported chandelier that one could imagine. The owners have definitely caressed the walls of this establishment with their own cultural character.

My friend and I decided to feast a little from the many dishes, as this is often the custom, and the appetizers just sounded so good that I did not want to leave thinking, “I wonder what the falafels were like.”

Of course the hummus (mashed garbanzo beans with tahineh and other spices, $4.50) was obligatory, and their homemade sample was traditional and smooth.

We also tasted the Moutabbal (baked eggplant with tahineh and garlic, $5.95) that although superb, did not surpass a most precious paste served to me called Mouhummarra (red chile pepper, bread crumbs, onion, olive oil and walnuts $5.95).

This spread was absolutely delicious, with the ingredients perfectly balanced, creating a taste that had me dipping the super fresh and hot pita breads in that particular bowl of joy throughout the whole of this mid-day munch fest.

Warak Enab (grape leaves stuffed with rice, vegetables and spices, $5.50) is pretty much available from any market nowadays, and oftentimes I will drop a pack into my basket to remind myself of the many Mediterranean trips that I took many years ago, so I simply could not leave without enjoying a couple of those delicacies, and boy, was there a difference!

The Warak Enab at Sham are moist but firm with a generous stuffing, and with a wonderful flavor that had me confused as to what spice was giving them that uniquely tantalizing taste.

When our friendly and efficient server, Karrie, returned with another dish, I had to ask her what the mysterious ingredient was, and I was amazed when she told me that they add a touch of Turkish coffee. It’s those small details that can make such a big difference, and when I later learned that the staff in the kitchen had all received considerable training from a top Syrian chef it all fell into place.

From the “Family” section of the menu we were blessed with a number of samplings that included Shish Taouk (skewer of chicken marinated in garlic sauce and grilled on an open fire, $5.00), and a stunningly delicious Fish Kabob (skewer of Mahi Mahi served with onions and tomatoes and grilled on an open fire, $5.00).

The chicken was all white meat, tender, aromatic and simply darn good, and the fish, although not a traditional dish from the purist point of view, was magnificent. Barely seared, moist and clearly – like all the dishes here – fresher than fresh. It also went well with a vegetable dish called Mouskaah (eggplant with tomatoes, onions and bell peppers cooked in olive oil, $6.50)

My friend also ordered one of their specialties, and probably one of most well- known of Mediterranean dishes, the Shish Kabob (skewer of ground beef and lamb mixed with parsley, onions and spices and grilled on an open fire, $4.50) that had the effect of having the lively conversation subside for just enough time for a look of culinary contentment to drift across her face.

We rounded off the proceedings with a lively and pungent Turkish coffee. Oh, and by the way, the falafels were as good as any that I’ve had!

Sham is an authentic restaurant with an authentic ambience, serving authentic dishes at authentically moderate prices.

In regard to this style of cooking, I could almost hear Simon Cowell from American Idol commenting: “Out of all the performers we’ve got here, you are the best.”

Sham, 716 Santa Monica Blvd., 310.393.2913, closed Mondays

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