The stuffed grape leaves at Jasmine Mediterranean Restaurant in Anaheim deserve your complete attention. First: These are unapologetically lemony, in a way that says, "Hello! I am not in any way trying to calm myself down for middle-of-the-road taste buds."
Keep eating. You'll see that these stuffed grape leaves are gorgeously, densely wonderful. They're full of soft rice and tomato, subtly sweet — warm, savory, tangy and floral, like a glass of spicy Zinfandel somehow magicked into a hot appetizer.
Eat another, but this time pay attention to the texture. The grape leaf wrappers themselves are right on the edge between soft and al dente. The rice filling is soaked in good olive oil, so tender it almost melts into lush, warm rice-cream. The stuffed grape leaves, explains chef and co-owner Radwan Safi, are "a very old family recipe, from a long time ago. We cannot change it."
Jasmine Mediterranean is the latest incarnation of a hundred-year-old family business, which for most of that time existed in Syria, explains Safi. He was born in Syria and educated as a cook in his family business, but he is actually a trained Italian chef and spent much of his life cooking Italian food around Los Angeles. Now he's opened Jasmine to keep the family business going. The menu spans kebab platters, shawarma platters and an array of salads and appetizers. They also cater and will cook an entire lamb for you, if you please.
Co-owner Diaa Kahala will happily point out Safi's version of kibbeh as one of his favorites. Kibbeh is one of Syria's classic dishes —- ground meat and bulgur wheat or rice, molded into various forms. Safi's kibbeh is, he explains, made according to exacting family tradition. An order brings you four fat little fried torpedoes, each the size of a seriously overweight golf ball. The exterior is a crunchy shell of hard-on-the-outside, soft-underneath, pleasingly gritty bulgur wheat; the inside is fragrant and soft and spicy, a moist mixture of ground beef, pine nuts and, as Safi is careful to note, real Aleppo pepper from Syria.
All the kibbeh's details are right. It has a nice heft and density. It's nice to crunch through the shell, nice to smell the steam rising out of the filling once you break it open. It's just carefully attuned finger food perfection.
Jasmine Mediterranean sits in the middle of a vast concrete wasteland in an isolated part of Anaheim. The patio dining area is a chunk of concrete fenced off from a vast sea of empty parking lots. But Safi and Kahala have tried hard to make it pleasant, and Jasmine is a sweet, obviously well-loved, bright place, all nice tables and dangling Christmas lights — a halal oasis carved out from the concrete.
Their baba ghanouj is something more and something gutsier than your everyday baba ghanouj. Eating it after eating most other baba ghanouj is a little like putting on a new pair of glasses or buying a better pair of speakers — everything just pops into clearer, crisper sensation. The eggplant is fresher, lusher and creamier; the lemon juice is fresher; the tahini paste is wilder and more intensely nutty.
Even the garlic paste is livelier than most, with that same intensity of sparkling fresh lemon and the unquieted funk of garlic. The best way to experience it is rolled up in some pita with a chunk of chicken shish kebab. The kebab platters themselves are all loving details too, from the thin pita, to the sumac-dusted onion bits, to the house-made bright pink pickles.
There's also a wide array of Syrian desserts, all made by Safi himself. Some of them are, he boasts, his own inventions. Grab some pistachio harisa for dessert. It's a sweet semolina cake, soaked in rosewater and honey, dotted with pistachios. But most awesome of all is the creamily refreshing halaw al-jebin: thin, tender white sheets made from rosewater and honey-sweetened cheese, rolled around freshly made Syrian clotted cream.
JASMINE MEDITERRANEAN RESTAURANT
LOCATION: 1925 E. Lincoln Ave., Anaheim; (714) 817-0435
PRICES: Appetizers, $1 to $5; sandwiches, $3 to $4; dinner plates, $5 to $11.
DETAILS: Open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Soft drinks, yogurt drinks. Credit cards. Lot parking.