Belly Full: Ranoush brings Syrian cuisine (and belly dancers) to the Loop


6501 Delmar Boulevard, University City; 314-726-6874.
Hours: Open daily 11 a.m.-10 p.m. (Bar open till midnight Sun.-Thu., 1:30 a.m. Fri.-Sat.)

Go into the kitchen at Ranoush.

Foul moudames...$4.50
Shish taouk...$14.50
Lamb shish kebab...$16.50

The Delmar Loop has no shortage of colorful characters busking, begging, dressing up as clowns to hand out balloons and the Word of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, administering stress tests, shouting nonsense at no one specific, giving MetroLink a bad name, getting arrested or just plain hanging out, but if you happen by on a weekend evening, you might see something different: a belly dancer twirling and shaking among the patio tables outside the Syrian restaurant Ranoush.

Inside Ranoush, the belly dancer's performance is even more involved: She drapes a gossamer scarf around one lucky patron, claps a pair of hand cymbals in time with the music and — briefly — balances a sword on her head, wiggling all the while. If she isn't the most essential element of this two-month-old restaurant, she is the most visible sign of a place that's bringing a spark of life to a corner of the Loop that, for all the energy buzzing around it, has been rather drab in recent years.

Ranoush takes over the space long occupied by the Lebanese restaurant Saleem's, where garlic was king but, over its final years, the $1 PBR night seemed more popular. New owner Aboud Alhamid, a Damascus native, has given the interior a much needed sprucing up, thanks mostly to a brighter color palette, including the mural of a bazaar scene that covers a large swath of one wall. In the back corner of the L-shaped dining room, there's even a tent inside of which groups may dine while sitting on cushions on the floor.

The menu provides an overview of Syrian cuisine, with an emphasis on appetizers — known here as meze — and grilled meats. The meze are divided into hot and cold categories and are available individually or as combination platters. They range from dishes that will be familiar to those with only a passing knowledge of Middle Eastern cuisine — hummus, of course, and baba gannoujh — to more intriguing fare, such as foul moudames.

By intriguing, I don't mean "exotic." In fact, foul (or ful) is a simple dish — "peasant food," if you will, though I hate that term — whole brown fava beans tossed with olive oil, lemon juice, onion, garlic and parsley and scooped onto freshly baked flatbread. I loved the interplay of the light, sharp seasoning and the beans' almost meaty savor. Another straightforward meze is batata harra, pan-fried potatoes spiked with chile, coriander and other seasonings. These were tasty, if not as spicy or as crisp as I might have liked.

Fatayer are very small savory pies: three bites each, three to an order. They have the half-moon shape of an empanada but are baked, not fried, so the crust retains the delicate crispness and very slight chew of a pastry shell. Ranoush serves two kinds of fatayer: stuffed with feta cheese and spinach or with ground beef, pine nuts and mint. I opted for the latter variety. To my surprise, mint, not meat, was the dominant flavor — though, again to my surprise, the mint didn't have a bracing quality, but rather a slightly sour note, like dill.

Among the more familiar meze, Ranoush's hummus is a standout. The mixture of chickpeas and tahini is sprinkled with sumac, a spice so deeply red — purple, in some lights — that you would expect it to provide searing heat. Instead it gives the hummus a citric edge. Olive oil, poured into a small indentation in the middle of the purée, nudges the texture from creamy toward unctuous. I wasn't as impressed with Ranoush's take on falafel. The fried balls of mashed chickpeas were on the dry side and underseasoned.

You don't select an entrée at Ranoush so much as you decide which meat you want grilled or, in the case of shawarma, spit-roasted. (There is a grilled eggplant and red pepper dish for the vegetarian diner, and the menu notes vegetarian dishes with a V.)

As with the meze, the straightforward dishes are the best ones. Lamb shish kebab is a carnivore's dream, the heavy fragrance and slight crunch of charred meat yielding to lamb's singular funky essence. The meat is on the chewy side, though not tough — lamb aficionados will appreciate the "lesser," but flavorful cut. Shish taouk is essentially a chicken shish kebab, though here I was much more aware of the meat's seasonings — especially the tart punch of lemon — than with the lamb. Chicken is also available as kafta, a patty formed out of minced chicken, its texture much like meatloaf.

Both chicken and beef shawarma are available. I preferred the beef: The seasoning had a loud clove note, which overwhelmed the chicken. You can actually see this before you taste it, as the chicken appears dredged in the spice blend. The clove flavor was still prominent in the beef, but not so as to entirely obliterate the flavor of the meat.

All of the above entrées are served over freshly baked pita bread, with a small cup of tahini and a simple salad on the side. Considered individually, the arrangement makes sense: Shawarma, essentially, is a convenience food, slathered with seasonings and tucked inside pita. But viewed as a whole, over repeat visits, the entrée selection is limited. By my final visit, I was more inclined to build a meal out of several different meze than to try one more variation of grilled meat.

Everyone — other diners, servers, this reviewer — will tell you to order knafeh for dessert. A colleague described it as baklava meets cheesecake, which is as strong a selling point as I can imagine. A limited selection of beer and wine is available, but you might prefer the lovely tea, served hot or iced and kissed with mint. Ranoush offers hookahs, but diners worried about smoke should know that you can't use the water pipes inside until after the kitchen closes.

Service is attentive, though on a packed Friday evening it tended toward brusque: We barely had time to consider which appetizers we wanted before our server — the owner, in fact — asked us what our entrée choices were. The courses arrived very quickly, with the entrées appearing well before we had finished our meze. Still, the overall vibe is jovial, and once the music is turned up and the belly dancer appears, it's hard not to be won over by Ranoush's festive atmosphere.

The belly dancer does present an etiquette dilemma: To tip or not to tip? I remain stumped. Whatever you decide, remember: She has a sword, and she knows how to use it.

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