Photos by Joy BastIn the white-bread Long Beach section of Belmont Shores, four Middle Eastern men toke on a hookah outside a restaurant by a Rite-Aid and a Häagen-Dazs. Open Sesame, the Lebanese grill behind them, is an eye opener in other ways as well. You won't see trendy Sunset Strip white décor, but rather bright, bold, proud displays of the motherland's palate. Palatial silken booths are fluffed with toss pillows in turquoise, wine and burnt orange. The air is scented with Turkish coffee, cardamom, roasted eggplant, garlic sauces, turmeric, fennel, mint and toasted sesame seeds. Some artist spent many an afternoon creating romantic wall murals of the Lebanese countryside; ornately carved tables and chairs suggest Aladdin, or maybe Alice in Wonderland.
But the dining room is practically nonexistent: just two outside tables (seemingly reserved for the hookah crowd) and 10 inside, most of which seat only two people. When Open Sesame made its first appearance, sitting wasn't a big deal. More recently, though, the little place has been busier than the Huntington Beach Police Department on the Fourth of July.
But here's what's most interesting about Open Sesame: atop each of the inside tables, you'll find a colored, animal-shaped, blown-glass bottle filled with rose water. In Lebanon, rose water is as common as salt; indeed, it's used as salt but is a hell of a lot healthier. Salt, of course, is a dietary disaster, producing—let's see . . . bloating and hypertension, which can lead to heart attacks, kidney disease, strokes, osteoporosis and gastric cancer. Rose water is a freaking aphrodisiac. In the Middle East, it's apparently used in cases of anxiety, depression, nervous tension and as an anti-inflammatory.
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I've heard much about rose water and tried it exactly never; so, like a sodium virgin, I doused my fettoush salad with it. It was like eating the perfume section at Victoria's Secret. I've been known to lick off my mango-flavored lip balm, but I'm not sure I'd order it for dinner.
It just wouldn't be a Lebanese experience without the hummus, a staple of Mediterranean cuisine. Puréed chickpeas are mixed with fresh garlic, lemon juice, tahini (roasted sesame seeds) and extra-virgin olive oil (appetizer $4, and comes as a side dish with most entrées). Hummus is either a hit or a miss; at Open Sesame, it's all hit. Same for the babaganoush, which, as experienced Mideast gourmands will tell you, is often best when it arrives looking worst, like an Army-issue ladle of cold oatmeal. But unlike oatmeal, babaganoush takes command of your senses, overwhelming them with the deep, smoky flavor of eggplant marinated in pungent olive oil and garlic. It may be too much for many. Served as an appetizer ($4), it also comes as a side dish with most entrées—grape leaves, falafel, peasant salad and grilled kebabs. For chicken tawook, the chef charbroils chunks of breast meat marinated in tomato sauce and a spicy blend he would identify only as "special pepper." (I detected cinnamon, cardamom, garlic, paprika, lemon juice, maybe nutmeg and definitely pepper.) The chicken shawarma is more straightforward, slow-cooked upright on a spit and accompanied by something like a garlic soufflé—not devilishly garlicky, but light, fluffy, fabulous.
There's no booze here. It's strictly bring your own; they'll supply the glasses. And no tobacco—bring your own; they'll supply the hookah. It's a small place (perhaps 600 square feet). It's a bit over the top. But Open Sesame is also a kind of gustatory incantation, its dishes awakening—and sometimes startling into consciousness—taste buds asleep since birth.
Open Sesame, located at 5215 E. Second St., Long Beach, is open Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. (562) 621-1698. No bar, but bring your own hooch. Dinner for two, $25, food only. All major credit cards accepted.