Folks who consider people-watching to be a joyous part of the restaurant experience need to hie themselves to a window table at Ranoush in the University City Loop, especially on a weekend. The passing parade is almost like the one in New York's East Village, full of the young and not-so-young in various combinations, walking and dancing and talking – to other people, too, and not just on their mobile phones.
That was a bonus at Ranoush, which occupies the Delmar-and-Westgate corner where Saleem's once held forth. And while the recent arrival considers itself Syrian, the menu and preparation are close enough to Saleem's that someone who wandered in, not noticing the name change, could eat happily. And Ranoush, too, is family-friendly as well as being comfortable for diners who arrive in twos and fours; we saw quite a few young children at an early dinner, and a number of high chairs. And the kids were having a good time.
There are, unsurprisingly, hummus, baba ghannouj, falafel and other familiar dishes on the appetizer list. But we try hard to investigate things that are new to us, so we went in another direction. The stuffed eggplant involved a handful of small ones, full of sweet red pepper and nuts, all pickled, chewy, tangy and crunchy. Just about every culture has some variation of the turnover, and here they're called fatayer. They're baked, always preferable to dishes that come out of a deep fryer, and have either a meat or a cheese filling. An order involves three, and we asked for it "mixed" to try both fillings. The meat, almost certainly beef, was moist and not greasy, seasoned with a little mint that brought a slight tartness. It beat the cheese, whose crumbly interior was barely warm.
While much of the menu involves vegetarian dishes, there's a lot of focus on grilled skewers of meat, and we began with a mixed grill that showcased beef, shrimp and chicken. Two of the three are devilishly easy to overcook, but not here; the shrimp were succulent, the white meat of chicken nicely seasoned and moist, and the beef, while it wasn't pink inside, also remained tender and flavorful. Paired up with a few leaves of salad with a mint-laced dressing and sitting on a pita so thin it was almost like a flour tortilla, it felt light and healthy, even dipped occasionally in the tahina dressing that came in a small cup alongside. The salad, pita and tahina also came with the lamb skewers, which were properly cooked although the meat was not as well trimmed as the beef, leaving it a little chewy. Still, for ovinophiles, the complicated way to describe a lamb-lover, they were quite good.
A limited wine list includes a Lebanese red from Chateau Musar. Not exceptional, but pleasant.
Yes, the dessert list includes baklava, but for a first visit, be sure to try the knafeh, a pastry that's filled with a sweet cheese filling and topped with those thin, thread-like noodles that faintly resemble shredded wheat. There's a light syrup poured over it all, but it maintains much of the crunchy texture that mixes well with the creaminess of the filling. And coffee lovers should investigate the special coffees as well. It arrives from the stove in one of the small individual pots sometimes called briks, strong and hot. When ordering, the server offered us coffee, coffee with cinnamon, and coffee with cardamom. The latter version is what we both have had in the Middle East, and we ordered it with alacrity, along with another, unseasoned one. No sugar or artificial sweeteners were offered, but the cardamom coffee, because of its marvelous aroma, almost seemed sweet. There were practically no grounds in the bottom of the pots, again somewhat different from what is often found at Eastern Mediterranean restaurants around the U.S., but all in all, a fine finish to the dinner, especially paired with the knafeh.
Good service, even on a busy night. No belly dancers on our visit, but others swear they appear.
6501 Delmar Blvd., University City
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Difficult
Smoking: After the kitchen closes, hookahs are available.