Mantee Cafe Los Angeles
On my most recent visit to Los Angeles, I had the pleasure of spending some quality time with Lilit Caradanian. It wasn't too long into our second meeting that we discovered just how closely connected our backgrounds are. Aside from the obvious things like our age and both of us being bloggers, we've both traded in our university degrees in pursuit of living the creative dream. With Lilit being of Armenian descent, as well as my Lebanese background, you could probably guess that the comfort factor started to set in once our conversations started to become more about food. Considering the fact that Armenia and Lebanon have so many cultural ties, we found ourselves drawing on similarities that somehow made us feel like we could possibly be related. No joke.
One of the things we worked out was that I had never actually tried Armenian food, and I think that's because I very ignorantly thought it was basically the same thing as Lebanese food. So Lilit decided that I needed to visit Mantee Cafe for lunch. Located right by Universal Studios in Studio City, Mantee is about a 25 minute drive away from Downtown. It makes the perfect dinner spot for anyone who plans to visit Universal Studios while passing through LA. Otherwise, it's totally worth going out of your way and making lunch or dinner plans.
Everything about the interior and exterior of this restaurant looked like I could be at an Aunt's house. But not a Lebanese Aunt - more like a 4th generation half Lebanese Aunt living in Florida. The furnishings were mismatched and everything had an eclectic country feel. It was completely different to the Middle Eastern interiors that I have come to expect from Sydney's Lebanese restaurants. We sat in a semi outdoor area which was perfect for staying out of LA's blazing sun, but still in a position to enjoy the afternoon breeze.
Soon enough, we started talking about what to order. Usually, this would be so easy for me, because I'm a mezza addict. But with a few foreign sounding dishes on the menu, I was swiftly reminded that I was no longer in Marrickville, and that I needed to take Lilit's lead on this occasion. Some dishes sounded very familiar, while others were completely new. The menu seemed to be a perfect hybrid of Lebanon and Armenia, with touches of Greece and Turkey. We ordered our mezza, and within 10 minutes our table was sprinkled with all the things that make my soul happy: thick labne, stuffed vine leaves, refreshing fattoush salad and golden toasted Lebanese bread with a little zaatar for dipping. Lilit also suggested the Sue Berag; a delicious flaky pastry stuffed with cheese and baked to buttery perfection.
Then came the main event, the namesake of the establishment, Mantee. Lilit was quite surprised to hear that I had never tried the dish, and I must say when I read the description, I thought I knew exactly what it was. But oh, I was wrong. So, so wrong.
What I thought would be a familiar Lebanese pie ended up being totally different; tiny morsels of boat shaped pastry, filled with spiced angus beef, baked and topped with garlic yogurt sprinkled with sumac. The dish came fresh out of the oven and was served piping hot. Each pastry was the same in size, about the size of a teaspoon, crispy and small enough to mop up some tangy sumac yogurt with each spoonful. One bite of mantee and I was suddenly right back at my mum's house, dipping home made meat pies into thick tangy yoghurt. I was overcome with a sense of familiarity that left me feeling so nostalgic. This was such a strange experience, especially because I had never seen nor tried this dish before.
Then there was dessert. Once again, I left this one to Lilit because I was too full to even think about another bite! Lilit insisted on ordering two house specials. First came the Qadayif; a lightly sweetened dessert cheese sandwiched between two disks of crispy katayfi pastry, topped with dreamy Persian fairy floss, crushed pistachio and rosewater syrup. This was a real show stopper - not only did it look amazing, but the textures worked together like a dream. Crispy, creamy and nutty. Then came the Aish Al Saraya; a floral syrup soaked sweet bread layered with a delicate sweet cheese, topped with toasted pistachio. Some of the most photogenic and well presented Arabic desserts I've ever eaten, these two delights made for the ultimate finish to one of the best meals I've ever had in the USA, to date.
That may seem like a big call, but there's nothing quite like the taste of home when you feel like you're a million miles away.