The magic oven

Posted: August 9th, 2012 | Featured, Food & Drink, Restaurant Reviews | No Comments

5965 El Cajon Blvd. (College Area)
Prices: Salads and appetizers, $4.95 to $10.75; flat breads and chef’s specials, $2.50 to $11.75

By Frank Sabatini Jr. | Restaurant Review

Zaatar “supreme” flatbread (Photo by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

I have a friend to thank for tipping me off to a small Lebanese restaurant in the College Area that falls squarely into the “secret gem” category. So varied and wondrous is the cuisine at Alforon that those who discover it may not want to convey the experience to others for fear of losing out on a table in future visits.

Situated in an inconspicuous strip plaza, the restaurant seats less than 20 people on bare, wood tables amid tasteful décor and old photographs of Beirut and Lebanon’s countryside. The atmosphere is decidedly homey and feels both intimate and communal.

Unmistakable is the host, who greets and serves customers with the embrace of a doting mother who wants nothing more than to make sure everyone is happily fed. Her firecracker personality combined with the kitchen’s old-style Lebanese specialties left us planning a return attack before we could finish off a bowl of herb-dusted baba ghannouj harboring a pond of fruity tasting olive oil from Lebanon. The prized oil, less harsh than California varieties, appears also in spicy and regular hummus, both of which were creamier and far superior than any made by accomplished chefs I know.

Alforon’s recipes are hand-downs from the father and grandmother of the host’s husband, who executes many of the dishes in a fiery, specially built oven – or “alforon” as it’s termed in Lebanese. We’re talking puffed discs of bread lightly pockmarked by high heat and then thinly crowned with a variety of meats, veggies and cheeses. Although before making a rush comparison to the ubiquitous flatbreads of modern day, these creations date back centuries. They are set apart by a riot of herbs and spices incorporated into the toppings, thus hitting your tongue with varied flavors per each individual bite.

A shining example is the “zaatar supreme,” which stuns the palate with an exotic blend of earthy spices that come directly from Lebanon. Wild thyme and fresh mint also enter into the equation, along with pure sumac and piped dollops of soft Kefir cheese.

Just as a quiet couple sitting a few yards away began audibly effusing over their food (hummus, tabouli and Lebanese sausage), we matched in volume our raves over lahm bajeen, a traditional but locally obscure flatbread covered with finely ground beef. The meat is kissed by a hint of cinnamon and also contains teeny bits of tomato and onions plus mildly tangy spices that I couldn’t identify. We ordered it spicy, which meant microscopic hot chilies and cayenne pepper were lurking in the mix.

It was explained to us that lahm bajeen is tricky to make because the meat starts off raw and must fully cook while preventing the paper-thin flatbread from burning. It seems as though Alforon has nailed down the exact science for perfecting the dish, which sits lightly in the stomach.

Beef shawarma dotted another flat bread at our table, joining up with fresh tomatoes, onions and generous drizzles of tahini sauce. Despite judicious applications of the marinated meat, the outcome tasted like a good, hearty roast beef sandwich.

Our plainest choice, though not disappointing, was chicken tawook. The finely chopped breast meat on top is moisturized by plops of terrific, house-made garlic paste, which imparts most of the flavor over whatever spices are used for marinating the poultry. As with most of the flatbreads that comprise the menu, you can order it spicy and add cheese.

As for the kabobs found in most other Lebanese restaurants, Alforon skips the skewers entirely and focuses on such signature dishes stamped with novelty and charming presentations. The low prices across the menu add yet another element of surprise.

My companion wished me luck for trying to describe the flavors in a dessert we ate called “aaysh essaray.” Served in large squares, it involves thin non-egg custard with a carpeting of crushed pistachios on top. We detected traces of rose water, combined possibly with nutmeg or cinnamon and not much sugar. Whatever the ingredients, we were awestruck.

Equally intriguing was a dessert served only on weekends, named “kenefeh.” Here, a semolina crust conceals a layer of melted sweet cheese that demands you dig in when it’s fresh out of the oven. We were told that the dish is served commonly for breakfast throughout Lebanon, although it served as a delicious cap to our impressive feast, much like a small board of artisan cheeses compliments the end of a rustic European-style meal.

For urbanites who don’t often venture east of I-15 for dining, Alforon is well worth the short drive and makes you feel as though you’ve come home to a family dinner.

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