I've heard raves about CAFE MATINEE in Lake Forest for years, but I could never quite get there. Construction along El Toro Road made driving to the city a nightmare, not to mention the traffic around the Y. And since Anaheim is closer to SanTana than Lake Forest, I'm too spoiled with great Middle Eastern cuisine to feign interest in visiting any Arab dive in Orange County outside Little Arabia. Pride goeth before the fall, Proverbs taught us, so here I am, tripping again.
Cafe Matinee is a treasure, a gorgeous shopping-center tenant next to a tattoo parlor and an Indian market. Not content with being one of the few Middle Eastern eateries south of Irvine, they've decorated their sole dining room with paintings of Lebanese icons (cedars, Byblos, the Jezzine waterfalls) and all-wood tables and chairs. The service is fast and cordial, the hostesses pretty, the food extraordinary. None of the entrées and appetizers available are surprises so much as they are embellished. Hummus, for instance, is properly garlicky and oily, but you can also have it topped with awarma, ground lamb sautéed to a sweet, cardamom-y zenith. All meals come with a salad of lettuce and tomato, but the roughage is simply smeared with an extraordinary peppery dressing—you'll want to buy a bottle. Falafels, shawermas, kafta, kabobs, all are available and expected; foul (the fava-bean dish, not what Kobe always commits but never gets called for), makanek and kibbe are a bit harder to find in Orange County but not unheard of. Regardless, all come in big, perfectly spiced portions.
Really, the only startling Cafe Matinee offerings are three juices: mulberry, date and rose. Orange Countians are long familiar with the sweet earthiness of dates, but probably as a fruit or a shake, not distilled into a chilled liquid. Date juice spreads across your mouth, cools down anything it touches, and is the best drink you've had in months . . . until you try the mulberry. I had never even tasted the fruit until a couple of weeks ago; in drink form, the strange nuttiness of the small berries comes to the fore in a way that'll make you want to taste no other drink again . . . until you run into the rose water. Ruby red, fragrant, spiked with honest-to-goodness rose water, it's a syrupy delight even sweeter than Lebanon's ladies. Chug it now.
Cafe Matinee, 23532 El Toro Rd., Ste. 15, Lake Forest, (949) 588-7511.