Successful restaurants so often spring from passion, not concepts brainstormed around a conference table, but ideas born from a deep, personal connection to a country, a culture or a cuisine. So it is with Wassef and Racha Haroun’s Mamnoon, new to the Melrose triangle of Capitol Hill.
Mamnoon means “thankful.” It’s a fitting name for a place that nods to the vibrant culinary heritage of the couple’s Syrian and Lebanese homelands, and adheres to the Arabic custom of gracious hospitality.
The Harouns are novice restaurateurs but visible hosts. Hiring Garrett Melkonian, a former executive pastry chef for Tom Douglas Restaurants, to head their kitchen was smart.
Mamnoon respects tradition but feels completely contemporary. Exposed kitchens in the front and back bracket a dining room whose austere elegance is relieved by eye-catching design elements: mosaic patterns painted on a communal table, votive candles twinkling high on a shelf running the length of one wall, glowing chandeliers that look like clusters of rainbow-colored lollipops.
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A service bar flanks a seductive lounge. Featured cocktails, under the apt heading “Alchemy,” are numbered rather than named. Our waitress recommended “Number 5,” a food-friendly, on-the-rocks reviver made with Johnny Drum bourbon, fig paste, walnut liqueur and bitters. I heartily endorse her recommendation.
She rose to the occasion again when it came to suggesting wine. The shortlist hews closely to the Mediterranean rim. Her command of the menu was even better (something not true of every server here). Her fervor while describing flavors and ingredients increased our enjoyment of the meal.
Dinner began with bread and za’atar, a blend of wild thyme, sumac, lemon zest and toasted sesame seeds. Saturated with olive oil, it perfumed the table and made a potent dip to be scooped up with the Arabic flatbread and soft, focaccia-like barbari that is baked fresh to order.
Za’atar is also one of the fillings for ma’noushe, flatbread topped like pizza, oven-baked, then folded into a sandwich. Mamnoon’s lunch menu is built around several mana’eesh (in the plural), along with griddled flatbread wraps called kulage. Both come in meat, cheese or vegetarian iterations on white or whole-wheat bread; some can also be made with gluten-free bread.
Finely minced lamb, fresh parsley and herbs were tucked into one ma’noushe that pitted the heat of Aleppo pepper against the sweet tang of pomegranate molasses to great effect. The kulage I sampled held crisp nuggets of falafel along with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles and fresh mint, all bathed in tarator sauce.
That feisty white sauce, a blend of lemon, garlic and tahini, complements assorted mezze. Drizzling it over sliced cauliflower, deep-fried to a delectable crunch, doesn’t constitute gilding the lily at all. It’s an equally good embellishment for kibbeh, walnut-sized orbs of beef studded with pine nuts and fragrant with cinnamon and allspice encased in a bulgur crust.
Mezze include several spreads and dips. Muhammara (ground walnuts, pepper and pomegranate molasses spiked with cumin), shamandar bi tahini (grated beets bound with yogurt and tahini) and baba ghanoush (lightly smoked eggplant mash lifted with lemon) all provide an excellent excuse to delve frequently into the bread basket.
Soups and salads round out the starters. Cumin and coriander murmured through a satisfying red lentil soup topped with pita crisps. Tabbouleh, made with quinoa, had an intriguing touch of allspice.
A selection of mezze is intended as prelude to something more substantial. At dinner, I chose an item from the grill — lamb kefta — and one from the oven — whole roasted loup de mer.
Pistachio and onion punctuated charred and juicy slabs of minced lamb imbued with the pungent, peppery spice blend baharat. Cabbage and mint slaw cushioned the filleted fish, a type of Mediterranean sea bass (what Italians call branzino). The skin might have been crisper, but the flesh was deliciously sweet, even laved with pepper paste hotter than its pale pink color suggested.
End your meal as it began, with flatbread, warm from the griddle, enfolding a melty milk chocolate and mashed-banana filling. The walnut tart with a dash of orange blossom water is equally good. Chase either one with cardamom-spiced Turkish coffee, then run the gauntlet of smiles and nods of farewell all the way to the door.
Providence Cicero, Seattle Times restaurant critic, co-hosts “Let’s Eat” with Terry Jaymes at 4 p.m. Saturdays on KIRO Radio 97.3 FM. Reach Cicero at email@example.com.