Forget Disneyland. Little Arabia is the best reason to visit Anaheim, and Olive Tree is the neighborhood’s best overall restaurant, featuring pan-Arab dishes from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and several more nations, with a menu expertly curated by Palestinean-American owner Abu Ahmad and Jordan-born chef Um Alaa. A prior meal inspired enough confidence to organize a 20-person feast focusing on a 28.5-pound whole lamb.
I was the first person to arrive at Olive Tree on June 5, and Ahmad promised, “You’re going to see something you’ve never seen before.” That certainly turned out to be the case.
I requested several orders of Fattit Hommus, but Ahmad said the stupendous bowl was designed for breakfast and would interfere with the enjoyment of the lamb. Instead, he suggested straight-forward platters of mutabal, a smoky, garlic-kissed eggplant dip…
…and creamy hommus dusted with paprika and featuring a central pile of garbanzo beans.
The anticipation must have spurred a feeding frenzy, since we tore through the dips and dishes of green olives, pickled cucumbers and crunchy turnips leading up to the arrival of our lamb.
A romaine salad was nearly a yard wide, featuring cuts of cucumber and tomato, a tangy well-spiced dressing and decorative lemon wedges that looked like the hour notches on a clock. Enough greenery. Let’s get to the main event.
Ahmad and a waitress presented the stunning 28.5-pound lamb, which was sourced in Riverside. Even though the butcher withheld the head and organs, the tray still must have weighed 75 pounds since the lamb was stuffed with a heaping pile of well-seasoned, expertly cooked basmati rice folded with filet mignon, cardamom, salt, pepper, shaved almonds and four more mystery spices that Ahmad wouldn’t reveal. Ahmad said the rice was cooked halfway, then loaded into and around the lamb, where the animal was cooked for six more hours in the oven.
He served it with tongs, a steak knife and an oversized fork, which led to the lamb equivalent of a pig-picking. We each lined up and took turns loading plates. Apparently we weren’t getting to the good parts quick enough, so Ahmad snapped on some rubber gloves and started tearing meat from the animal’s ribs, spine and foil-wrapped undercarriage with his hands. The internal swaths of meat were certainly juicier, but the outer pieces also held plenty of appeal, with crisp, lacquered skins.
The lamb didn’t need much help, but Ahmad did provide a nearly two-gallon bowl of cumin-dusted, mint-garnished yogurt that was folded with crunchy chunks of cucumber.
For dessert, Amhad surprised us with a tray of warbat from next door Forn Al Hara bakery: flaky phyllo pockets filled with ashta – house-made cream – and drizzled with simple syrup for sweetness’ sake.
To conclude the gut-busting meal, most people drank Alwazah tea, fresh-brewed Ceylon tea served with mint leaves and sugar, which aided digestion.
Olive Tree delivered a memorable feast. In all, we spent only $32 per person, including tax and a generous tip. Almost everybody packed a container with leftovers, and there was still a large pile of food remaining. We probably could have used another 10 people to lay waste to the entire lamb. Sounds like a plan for next time. So does a belly dancer, which Ahmad offered to procure for a follow-up party.
If you’d like to host a lamb party at Olive Tree, or grab-and-go, the lamb costs $300, including yogurt and salad. Ahmad just requires a few days notice to source the lamb.
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June 7, 2010 at 6:25 PM
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