Monday, June 2, 2008

Mediterranean courtyard

The cultures that flourished along the Mediterranean knew how to live in beauty. Unlike the chill climates of northern Europe, the temparate Mediterranean climate encouraged basking in comfort. Mediterranean architecture, influenced by the Moorish rulers who conquered Spain in the 12th and 13th Century, used courtyards, gardens, and arcades to connect indoors to outdoors. This style, called Mudéjar, incorporated intricate tilework, lace-like applied decoration, and domed ceilings. Fountains and reflecting pools cooled the air and helped nurture the fragrant flowers and fruit that grew in courtyard gardens. Stunning examples of this are found in Spain, at the medieval palaces of Alcazar in Seville, and the Alhambra in Grenada.

Photo: Library of Congress Print and Photo collection

Here in Southern California, Spanish architecture was already here, brought by the missions. Because our climate was so similar to that of the Mediterranean, it flourished.

By the time Americans started making buildings look like places from story books, it was only natural to mix the exotica of Mudéjar with the mission styles - and it worked particularly well for buildings that fed our imaginations - like theatres, the places we hold our rituals, or the places where fantasy helps us spend our money.

There's a place my family likes to go in the San Fernando Valley where the aesthetics of Mudéjar combines with the relaxed and abundant culture of Mediterranean peoples AND the commercial endeavors of modern Southern California.

The Alcazar is a Lebanese restaurant in an Encino strip mall called the Plaza de Oro. Mosaic domes grace this tawny stucco building, where stores and restaurants surround an inner courtyard. We parked in front of a cosmetic surgery clinic, and entered the complex through the western gate. As Washington Irving writes in "The Alhambra" (1851), ".....we crossed the threshold, and were at once transported, as if by magic wand, into other times and an oriental realm, and were treading the scenes of Arabian story."

"...on one side is heard the refreshing sound of waters from the fountain of the lions, and on the other side the soft plash from the basin in the garden of Lindaraxa Ver-i-Zon. "

Anyway - the restaurant itself extends out into the courtyard. Ceiling fans lazily rotate under the green canvas awning, and heaters are installed up there as well, for year-round use. The courtyard tables are large, to accommodate families. And every time I've come to Alcazar there have been families there - three generations sitting on a Sunday afternoon, enjoying plate after plate of mezze and smoking tobacco from bubbling hookahs with flavored water.

On Friday nights they have entertainment, including belly-dancing. We've never been here for those - we prefer the lazy Sunday afternoons. But I'd love to hear a report from someone who's been.

First, as we order something cool to drink, a basket of warm flatbread is delivered, along with a dish of green cracked olives and a dish of those bright fuchsia pickled turnips.

Instead of ordering entrees, we enjoy an assortment of mezze - the small plates and appetizers of the Mediterranean. Here's fatoosh - a lemony salad with herbs, cucumbers, tomatoes and radishes and crunchy bits of toasted flatbread - and muhammarah, an intensely flavored paste of ground walnuts, roasted red peppers, pomegranate juice and sumac, garnished with pine-nuts.
Here, too, are some little pastries filled with savory, spicy ground beef:

Other dishes arrive over the course of the afternoon. Smooth, rich hummus garnished with crispy cooked bits of roast lamb. Garlic-infused slices of sausage, sauteed with onions and bell peppers. Rich, unctuous chicken livers, sauteed in a dark rich sauce flavored with pomegranate molasses.

The sun is warm. The splashing fountain soothes. Brilliant morning glories glow in the shaded courtyard. The sound of Lebanese pop music drifts on the air.

As Irving wrote, "Every thing invites to that indolent repose, the bliss of southern climes; and while the half-shut eye looks out from shaded balconies upon the glittering landscape, the ear is lulled by the rustling of groves, and the murmur of running streams."

Ah, but don't forget, we need to stop at Ralph's on the way home and pick up some dog food and toilet paper.


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