Feasting Upon Lamb at Olive Tree Restaurant

My phone rang a couple of months ago. It was Joshua Lurie of Food GPS, calling to let me know he was preparing a full-scale foodie assault on Anaheim's Little Gaza, and asking whether I wanted to join him.

While I accompanied Lurie to several of Little Gaza's gems, including more manaeesh (Lebanese flatbread “pizzas”) bakeries than any person ought to visit in a single day, I wasn't present when he tackled Olive Tree, a Palestinian-Jordanian gem located in a newly-renovated plaza just north of Orange St.

The food at Olive Tree was so good, Lurie said, that he wanted to get a large group of people together and order an entire stuffed lamb. After suitable pause, the date was fixed for last night

As we walked in, the table was set for twenty and set with meze: creamy hummus with a strong tahini taste and a small pile of whole chickpeas set in the middle; curd-like moutabbal, the slightly smoky roasted eggplant dip also known as babaghannouj; and small dishes of pickles and olives. Bags of flatbread were scattered hither and yon, bottles and pitchers of outstanding olive oil dotted the table, and an enormous bowl of yoghurt, six liters at least, sat to one side, dairy and mint and cumin and chopped Persian cucumbers.

An equally impressive salad on a tray the size of a hotel pan was brought out, and deserves its own recognition for being the highest art of the Middle Eastern salad; lettuce and herbs, tomatoes, onions and cucumbers, all tossed with that excellent olive oil, lemon juice and a healthy dose of ground red sumac. The simplest salad, and the best.

The center of the table was cleared and owner Abu Ahmad brought out the main event to applause, a 28.5 pound lamb that had been roasted for five hours in a huge oven, resting atop a Mount Ararat of kabsa, long-grain rice cooked with seventeen spices (including cardamom), currants and almonds.

The lamb was a thing of wonder; as we dug hungrily further into the dish, the meat got moister and moister. With that added moistness came additional flavor; the kabsa used to stuff and perfume the lamb caught its drippings, making it seem as though there were not one rice dish, but two.

As we packed up boxes and tubs of kabsa, lamb and yoghurt, Abu Ahmad brought out a lagniappe for us, a tray of warbat, crispy phyllo pastry stuffed with thick ashta, a pudding-like custard and drizzled with attar, or sugar syrup, bought at Forn al-Hara, the bakery next door. As I sipped a glass of sweet black tea with mint, I asked Ahmad how often he and chef Um Alaa produce one of these lamb feasts.

“Nearly every day,” he said, “but always to be delivered. Never here at the restaurant.”

If you're interested in a catered or hosted lamb feast of your own–the delicious alternative to “banquet chicken”–the price is $300 for the lamb, rice, yoghurt and salad; our total bill, including tip, was $544. Three days' notice is required in order to source, marinate and cook the lamb.

If lamb for thirty isn't on your radar, go to Olive Tree on weekends, when one of the house specials is kabsa with lamb shank. The weekend portion, which costs $12, easily feeds two, especially if you get a salad or a dip to start.

Olive Tree Restaurant, 512 S. Brookhurst St. #3, Anaheim; (714) 535-2878.

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