From Persian jewelled rice to charred eggplant tahini: inspiring Middle Eastern flavours

It’s a growing trend in restaurants and retail in the UK, but how are the fashionable foodies in LA consuming their lamb and labneh?

21 May 2018
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image credit: Nicole Franzen

Middle Eastern food is having a huge moment in Los Angeles.

After about a year of gaining momentum, the trend hit a new level a couple of weeks ago, when Ori Menashe and Genevieve Gergis (of Bestia, one of the toughest reservations in LA) opened Bavel. Probably the city’s most anticipated restaurant this year, it’s a beautiful airy space – a space that was immediately packed.

Like Bestia, the menu takes traditional dishes and flavours in new directions. At Bestia, it was Italian; at Bavel, the menu springs from Menashe’s native Israel, Egypt, Morocco, and Turkey.

The UK is entering its own golden era of Middle Eastern eats, with the growth of Israeli food, the opening of not one but two Lebanese joints, and the imminent arrival of Kyseri, a Turkish pasta place from the people behind Shoreditch fave Oklava.

To provide a dash of inspiration (and also just to offer a bit of comparison), we take a look at some of the most popular new places serving Angelenos labneh, za’atar and dukkah.

Bavel

The story: Chef Ori Menashe exploded into culinary stardom in Los Angeles following the opening of his debut restaurant, Bestia. Created with his wife Genevieve Gergis, a pastry chef, the pair recently opened follow-up Bavel after nearly six years.

The dish: Slow-roasted lamb neck shawarma, the favourite of Chef Menashe, served on laffa bread with creme fraiche tahini, pickled turnips and fermented cabbage – there’s a lot of fermentation happening on the menu. The duck 'nduja hummus with garbanzo beans, Jerusalem mixed spices and herbs (pictured above) has also been making a splash on Instagram, while we recently highlighted Gergis’ take on the doughnut here

Kismet

The story: Sara Kramer and Sara Hymanson left the Glasserie in Brooklyn to open Kismet last year. The Mideast spot was a finalist for Best New Restaurant in this year’s James Beard Awards (described by some as the Oscars of the food world), while the pair were named Chefs of the Year at the end of 2017 by eating-out website Eater LA. Kramer and Hymanson previously opened falafel joint Madcapra together.

The dish: Jewelled crispy rice with a crunchy, golden-brown top, inspired by Persian tahdig. Made with pumpkin seeds and raisins, the grains conceal a runny egg yolk, which oozes out its richness when diners break through the surface. The pricy $80 rabbit for two – a whole rabbit served with flaky bread, labneh (soft cheese made from yoghurt), tahini (a sesame-based condiment) and pickles – is popular with big spenders, while the daytime Turkish-ish breakfast riffs off the classic Turkish morning meal with an array of little dishes that include pickles, boiled eggs, cheese, bread and other goodies.

Jaffa

The story: Named for the Ancient port, this modern Israeli bistro comes from Chef Anne Conness, fresh off the success of Mexican grilling and slow-roasting spot Sausal. While touting organic Chinook salmon and Niman Ranch lamb couscous (provenance is important and heavily highlighted here), the restaurant’s veggie-friendly dishes are the ones most buzzed about.

The dish: tahini with charred aubergine. Two Middle Eastern favourites combine in one pomegranate-garnished dish, augmented with a nut and spice blend called dukkah. This seasoning mix is also used in the North African chickpea stew, made with spicy chillis and yellow wax beans. And to wash it all down, Jaffa has an absurdly creamy house shake made from tahini, almond milk, dates, blueberries and chocolate.

Mh Zh

The story: Another Israeli bistro, the kerbside seating at this immensely popular spot is highly prized. At the helm is self-taught Conor Shemtov, who combines North African, Syrian, Iraqi and Lebanese cuisines with the occasional splash of influence from Spain, Italy and France. We know you’re wondering about the weird name – it’s pronounced ‘mah zeh’ and means ‘what is it?’ It’s all very cool and laid-back, which is why the menu is scribbled on brown paper bags and some of the food arrives on cardboard instead of plates.

The dish: grilled beets with hazelnut and labneh – stroll down the street beside Mh Zh and everybody is eating it or Instagramming it. It’s also arguably one of the more complex dishes on display, as most of the popular bites owe their flavour to Shemtov’s use of a charcoal oven, including the potatoes and the branzino fish, which are simply cooked with lemon, olive oil and a dash of salt.

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