by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer
nancy@vcreporter.com

The Lebanese Oven   
152 N. Ashwood
Ventura
535-4140
$2-$10

The Lebanese Oven seemed primed to be the area’s best-kept secret. It’s tucked away in the College Square strip mall, set back far enough in a corner that it’s easy to miss, too small to offer more than a few tables or the kind of ambience diners look for when they’re “going out.” But the buzz surrounding this niche eatery, which at the time of this writing had just opened less than two weeks earlier, has more than made up for its modest presentation and off-the-beaten-track location. The word is out: Some of the best and most authentic Lebanese cuisine is being served right here.

Credit that to chef Mike Kazini (who also co-owns the restaurant with John Attieh), born and raised in Lebanon before moving to Detroit at age 17. He eventually made his way to California and the sunny shores of Ventura, picking up a knowledge of Mediterranean cuisine along the way. “Italian, French, Greek — I’ve cooked them all,” he told me the night I dined there with my family. “But Lebanese is better than any of them.” Returning to his roots has inspired the chef in a big way … and Kazini will be happy to tell you all about it as he whips up your order while you wait. I learned that a spicy sausage called soduq (sometimes spelled sujuk or sucuk) isn’t easy to find in these parts (Kazini ended up phoning “a little old lady in Lebanon who blessed me with her very traditional recipe”), that he imports his za’atar (a mix of thyme, sumac and sesame) and other spices from Lebanon, that he won’t serve his lahm b’adeen (more frequently spelled lahm bi ajeen; a mix of ground meat marinated with garlic, parsley, pine nuts and other herbs and spices) before its time, and that his toum, or garlic sauce, is the best you’ll ever have. Authenticity is Kazini’s passion.food2

Aiming for a sampling of unfamiliar dishes, we ordered a variety of manouche, appetizer-sized portions of flatbread topped with various meats, vegetables and cheeses and served open-faced — imagine a small pizza without the sauce. We had one with chicken shawarma, which was super flavorful, charred to perfection but still tender and juicy. The cheese that served as a base is Lebanese Oven’s own proprietary blend, which includes goat and sheep’s milk cheese, mozzarella and a few other things I don’t remember. It melted beautifully on the manouche and had just the right amount of salt and chew to it yum!

Even better, though, was that aforementioned soduq: spicy but not too, gleaming with just a hint of oil and full of flavors I couldn’t quite place, but loved. That little old lady in Lebanon did Kazini and his diners right! As much as I appreciated it on the flatbread, I was hungry for more. Next time, I’ll just order a whole plate and be in Lebanese sausage heaven.

Yelp reviewers rave about the spinach pies, so we grabbed one up. It was OK. The vegetables were chunkier than I expected and not heavily seasoned, and the dough was a little tough. Admittedly, the flavor explosion of the shawarma and sausage was a hard act to follow. Another customer who popped in that night told us those pies were her favorite things on the menu, so perhaps it’s best to let your own palate be your guide. We rounded out our meal with some tabbouleh and hummus. As generous as those portions were, they disappeared surprisingly quickly.

Friends had insisted we save room for the crêpe dessert, and we obliged. The tender pancake was stuffed with berries, kiwi and banana and slathered in “the best syrup frome m.e. [sic]” At first I was skeptical about the lack of dairy but Kazini was right: That sweet glaze pulled it all together, and forks were dueling for the last bite.

Lebanese Oven is a world apart from the typical falafel and hummus joint. Most items (and spelling, with a mix of Arabic and Latin letters) will be unfamiliar to the uninitiated. The affable Kazini, however, will be more than happy to be your guide. Put yourself in his capable hands, and you’ll be off on a culinary adventure that will take you from the street carts of Beirut to the cozy kitchens of Lebanese grandmothers. “Welcome to Lebanon,” the menu board proudly proclaims. For the duration of your meal, that’s exactly where you’ll be.