Harem Share 'Em 

Appetizers and belly dancers explain Tannour's appeal.

Tannour can be a feast for the eyes too. - WALTER  NOVAK
With a tinkling of bells worthy of a sultan's caravan, Cassandra the belly dancer took the floor at Tannour in Pepper Pike. And while her performance was brief -- there was, after all, only a handful of diners in attendance on this Thursday night to dig her sultry moves -- what it lacked in duration, it made up for in sheer, milky-fleshed intensity.

In fact, memories of the dancer's astonishing undulations were what popped into a companion's head when we mentioned the Lebanese restaurant a few days later. "Do you suppose she's available for carryout?" he leered hungrily, as his wife prepared to poke him sharply in the midsection.

We're thinking no. But fortunately, there are plenty of other tasty diversions here that won't earn an enthralled observer a smack.

We might direct him to the makaneck, for instance, a passel of lean lamb sausages. Bite-sized, fragrant with cinnamon, and bathed in a tantalizing sauce of lemon juice and olive oil, they are capable of some elegant gyrations of their own. Or try the superlative baba ghanoush: dense, smoky, but without the slightest trace of bitterness, making it one of the better versions of the classic tahini, garlic, and roasted eggplant dip we've found.

Like almost everything else on owner Mario Ghosn's big, rambling menu, the baba is freshly made and full of home-style goodness. So it's no surprise to learn that the kitchen is ruled over by Ghosn's talented wife and mother-in-law, who prepare every dish as though they were cooking for family.

Along with standards like the baba, hummus, and tabouli, this also results in a few out-of-the-ordinary offerings, including a quartet of ample, non-alcoholic fruit "cocktails" like the Mango-Rita. Light, frothy, and not too sweet, the partially blended combo of mango, banana, milk, honey, raisins, and avocado is neatly layered in a parfait glass and served with both straw and spoon. Relentlessly fresh-tasting, it makes a wholesome addition to the menu's retinue of salads and freshly squeezed juices -- or could easily stand in as a virtuous dessert. "My wife makes it for me," declares the gracious Ghosn, a veteran of the locally owned Aladdin's juggernaut, who opened Tannour in September. "So I asked her to make it for our guests too."

The menu's other surprise is French-style crêpes, both savory and sweet, which Ghosn says are hugely popular in Lebanon. The sweet Lili, with butter, bananas, and powdered sugar, was outstanding: moist, eggy, and substantial, yet almost delicate as mist. Next time, we'll try one of the savory versions -- maybe the Natasha, filled with chicken, cheese, mushrooms, and béchamel.

While the space (the former Lion & Lamb in Landerwood Plaza) isn't flashy, it is comfortable and cozy, with booths, tables, and a semicircular bar. Upscale appointments like cloth napkins, slender-handled flatware, and slim porcelain plates suit the location, and a soundtrack of Middle Eastern music and smoky French pop tunes adds a fillip of tasty foreign flavor.

We just wish Ghosn would put a little more effort into training his young servers: While friendly enough, both an evening waitress and a lunchtime waiter seemed unpolished and mainly inattentive.

But they didn't dampen our enthusiasm for sampling an almost embarrassingly wide assortment of mezze, those little appetizer-like dishes meant for mixing, matching, and sharing around the table. On one visit, we zeroed in on the combo platter: a generous lineup of well-prepared vegetarian standards including tabouli (brightly seasoned, but less lemony than most), sleek hummus, warm dawali (rice-stuffed grape leaves), topnotch baba, labne b toum (a thick yogurt spread, not unlike cream cheese), and falafel patties, which were slightly overdone, but salvaged by their emollient taratour sauce, a blend of tahini, low-fat yogurt, and fresh lemon juice.

Throw in an order of soujok (small lamb-and-beef sausages with spicy red centers), a generous loubie platter (flat, Italian-style green beans, sautéed with olive oil, tomato, and garlic cloves), and a kabis plate (tangy pickled veggies, olives, and hot peppers), and we were wallowing in mezze heaven.

As it turned out, though, the starters were about as close to paradise as we were destined to come. Like the freshly baked pita bread that turned cracker-crisp within minutes of leaving the oven, the entrées we ordered proved something of a letdown. The best of the lot were probably the meaty, marinated lamb chops: smartly grilled, served on a king-sized bed of rice pilaf, and garnished with four pale slices of hothouse tomato. In second place, we'd put the tender baked eggplant (sheikh-el-mehshi), with a dusting of pine nuts and crumbs of seasoned ground sirloin, in an undistinguished tomato sauce. And tied for last place: a toasted pita sandwich, with a scant filling of lettuce, tomato, and strips of chewy lamb; and the riz-a-djej, a pale combo of stewed chicken, toasted nuts, and rice pilaf that lacked flavor and eye appeal.

In fact, we might go so far as to suggest the best thing about the entrées is the tossed salad that comes with. Not that there's anything extraordinary about the finely chopped greenery. But the sharp, citrusy salad dressing -- vibrating with overtones of garlic, olive oil, and a host of "secret" spices -- is a marvel; and for fans of gone-but-not-forgotten Boukair's (a Lebanese-owned restaurant and ice cream parlor once located on Playhouse Square), it's certain to bring back happy memories.

Otherwise, though, adventurous eaters will probably echo my companion. "From now on, I'm sticking to the appetizers."

Whether that includes the belly dancer, he and his wife still have to work out.


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