Did anyone else notice that this year’s James Beard Awards for both “Best New Restaurant” and “Best International Cookbook” went to two chefs/restaurateurs who focus on Israeli food? Meanwhile, Jerusalem-born Yotam Ottolenghi, one of the most celebrated chefs and cookbook authors in the United Kingdom, opens doors to the multiculturalism of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine with each and every one of his restaurants and books.
The fuzzy culinary boundaries of Middle Eastern cuisine enables a vibrant culinary tapestry encompassing Persian, Arab and North African gastronomic traditions and ingredients.
Previously lesser-known dishes—both traditional and modernized—like shakshuka (essentially eggs poached in red sauce) are showing up on menus with more frequency today. Chef Alon Shaya of New Orleans’ Domenica and Shaya (James Beard award-winner for 2016’s best new restaurant), menus a version of shakshuka, bathing his eggs and Jerusalem artichokes in a Moroccan chermoula sauce of spicy chiles, tomato and herbs. Meanwhile, Ana Sortun chef/owner of Oleana, Sarma and Sofra in the Boston area, flavors her shakshuka sauce with Yemenite Hawaj (a blend that includes turmeric, cumin and coriander), then tops it with brilliant green s’chug, a spicy condiment made with hot peppers and sherry vinegar. She finishes the dish with crunchy pita crumbs.
For restaurateurs, Middle Eastern dishes are good business. This vegetable-, legume- and grain-rich cuisine means lower food costs. Recipes that are Mediterranean-diet-oriented, kosher and seasonal cater to diners from Millennials to Boomers who care about food sourcing, wellness and nutrition, while still offering big flavors in contemporary formats.
The newfound embrace of the world’s oldest cultural cuisine has been long in the coming, but is finally flourishing. Not only are Middle Eastern menus immensely flavorful, inherently fresh, wholesome, healthy and hearty, they also embody a number of American dining trends.
A Food Culture of Sharing
Meze, a cousin to Spanish tapas, is the heart and soul of Middle Eastern cuisine, featuring a selection of small, shareable plates. Among the nation’s best Middle Eastern restaurants, few have more than a handful of traditional entrées or large plates. Instead, they run with more shareable and authentic meze, plates and platters. Disruptive Restaurant Group and chef Danny Elmaleh’s contemporary Mediterranean concept Cleo, in Los Angeles, serves meze, raw bar, flatbreads and meat dishes in small-plate form. Cleo exploits the trend of eating this way with its weekday “Dips and Sips” happy hour, offering handcrafted specialty cocktails and meze for half price.
Dipped & Spread
Dips are the mainstay of meze. Creamy chickpea hummus is a staple, of course, serving as a bed for classic toppings like whole chickpeas, za’atar, parsley, lemon, pomegranate, olive oil, or sometimes roasted meat, sautéed or fried vegetables or pickles. Other classic dips include hummus-like fava bean dip, roasted vegetable spreads like eggplant baba ghanouj and red pepper muhammara, sesame tahini, labneh yogurt cheese or cucumber tzatziki.
- Eggplant, yogurt-dill, piquillo-almond tahini, flatbread—Aziza, San Francisco
- Dip duo: Carrots, vadouvan, cashews, feta, Fresno chile, za’atar—Cleo, Miami
Balled & Bundled
Balls, spheres, bundles and croquettes reign supreme on the meze table, as well as on the street-food scene. Abundant and hearty chickpea falafel are shared outside the sandwiches we are used to, while in one form or another, kofta (or kafta)—spicy meat spheres made of lamb, beef, goat or other meats—are universal to Middle Eastern meze. Filled and non-filled croquettes or fritters like meat and wheat kibbeh make for a satisfying snack or starter.
- Raw Kibbeh (Kibbeh Nayeh): Ground prime cut of raw lamb seasoned with fine crushed wheat—Tarboosh Eatery, Parma, Ohio
- Ras El Hanout Duck Meatballs with spicy-sweet tomato sauce—Balaboosta, New York
Salads and vegetables are a central feature of meze, served alongside or mixed into the others. No table is complete without fresh tabbouleh, starring aromatic parsley and mint. There are fried artichokes in season and turnips marinated in yogurt or pickled red with beet juice. Fattoush, the pita version of a panzanella bread salad, is light and nourishing. Simple “salads” of vegetables like giant white beans, roasted red peppers or marinated artichoke hearts are always fully dressed and flavorful.
- Roasted Cauliflower Quinoa Tabbouleh —Cava Grill, multiple locations
- Beets with white grapefruit, Hawaii cashews, tarragon, goat ricotta —Bar Bolonat, New York
Kabobs are the omnipresent hot meze. Meatballs (kofta), sliced meat (shawarma) or chunks of tender, highly spiced lamb, beef or poultry, falafel and/or vegetables are often shared as a small plate and enjoyed alone or dipped, sauced or atop other meze. Modern kabobs now incorporate all manner of meat and non-meat ingredients.
- Duck and Foie Gras Kabob, pistachio s’chug, English peas, rhubarb—Zahav, Philadelphia
- Salmon and Charred Lemon Kabob: True North, Huntington, N.Y.
- Lamb Kabob Baba Ganoush, Israeli salad, fried eggplant, s’chug, ranch labne—Yalla at Krog Street Market, Atlanta
Flat & Floury
Bread is the heart of a meze meal. Homemade, hot, puffy pita and or other flatbreads are always served alongside meze to enjoy the dips. Doughy flatbreads are also commonly topped like pizza with sauces, vegetables, meats and cheeses, or simply grilled with za’atar.
- Lavash Manakish topped with an eggplant tomato sauce, za’atar, feta, mozzarella, cherry tomatoes and a salad of spring greens in a roasted red pepper-mint dressing —Laffa, Tulsa, Okla.
- Lahmacun: Thin bread crust topped with ground beef, lamb and chopped garden vegetables—Cafe Istanbul, Dallas
Street Food Flavors
Street and storefront Middle Eastern food may be the only way we have come to know the few dishes in the wider culinary lexicon, but even white-tablecloth restaurants aim to change that. Flavor combinations that manifest in small packages are intoxicating and craveable.
- Shawafel: Original falafel, chicken shawarma, jalapeño-scallion hummus, chickpea salsa, roasted red peppers, sliced dill pickles, shredded carrots, hot garlic sauce and tahini sauce—Chickpea, New York
- Greek frozen yogurt with beet salt and citrus powder, chai halva crumble or harissa dry spice and pita chip —Spread Mediterranean Kitchen, Los Angeles
While meze serves as a cultural start to a meal or as a light meal in and of itself, sometimes the best way to highlight a new flavor in an old form is with a small bite. Little packages of pungency can ready the palate for more, while offering the guest the opportunity to test a new taste.
- Figs & Foie: Turkish white figs stuffed with foie gras served with aged balsamic vinegar and hazelnuts —Saffron, Minneapolis
- Lamb Frites: Panko-crusted lemon goat cheese, charred eggplant and honey purée, golden beet sauce and dukkah spice—Etch, Nashville
Perhaps the best way to mash up and utilize crossover ingredients is in a one-pot bake, braise or a stew. The classic tagine brings together vegetables, proteins, fruits, spices and herbs to maximize and meld the aromas, tastes and textures of the whole. Tara Kitchen, in Schenectady, N.Y., does this with utmost creativity in its Moroccan tagines, such as: lamb with cauliflower, oranges and black olives; brown lentils with green olives and preserved lemons; fish with spicy date sauce, raisins and almonds; or chickpeas with oranges, apricots, prunes and pistachios.
- Duck leg in a fresh turmeric broth, turnips, white beans, apricots and preserved lemon—Saffron, Minneapolis
- Braised short ribs with sautéed okra, oven-dried tomato, spinach, chickpea cake, Yemenite Hawaj spices —Balaboosta, New York
Sweets are often limited to a short list of traditional desserts and treats, like baklava or classic custards, but branching out into less-classic preparations using traditional ingredients such as honey and rose petal, or savory crossovers like turmeric, coriander and saffron, stimulates the creative culinary appetite for new conceptions.
- Date molasses, tahini mousse, rice crispies, spiced milk ice cream and shredded halva—Barbounia, New York
- Grandma’s Harissa: Semolina coconut cake soaked in rosewater syrup and topped with toasted pistachio —Tanoreen, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Beverages are the ideal place to show off Middle Eastern ingredients. While many of these are countries with little to no cocktail culture (or cocktails for that matter), they do know what refreshes—especially in the absence of beer. From infusions of indigenous floral and herbal ingredients to fruit and nut syrups to hot and spicy chile flavors, these can be liquid introductions to the flavors on a restaurant’s menu.
- Cardamom Apple Basil Tea —Cava Grill, multiple locations
- Mediterranean Margarita: Casamigos Blanco Tequila, housemade fig-almond syrup, fresh lime—Cleo Hollywood, Los Angeles
Fast, Casual and Healthy
Increasingly, Middle Eastern restaurants are the wholesome fast-casual or even QSR alternative to more indulgent restaurants serving burgers, pizza, fried foods, or even Mexican fare. The Eastern Mediterranean diet highlights healthy flavors. It is reliant on olive oil, legumes and whole grains, lean proteins, vegetables, herbs and spices. Even the herbs and spices, like parsley, cardamom, mint and sumac, suggest health-giving properties. Middle Eastern food has complicated and sophisticated flavor, and it is built on spices and simple cooking methods, not on fussy preparations. That makes menus completely compatible with fast-casual formats—and they’re finding their way into mainstream foodservice alongside the Shake Shacks and Chipotles.
The mix-and-match meze of Middle Eastern eating is perfect for a build-your-own menu. Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill, with almost 40 locations in six states, is mainstreaming Middle Eastern flavors with its own customizable menu by offering base gyros, plates, salads and pitas with a choice of gyro meat, falafel, portobello, chicken or steak kabob.
Single-focus fast casuals work it within their own particular corner of the Middle Eastern menu. From hummus shops to pita palaces, their focus on one recipe ensures that they become destinations. For instance, one of Manhattan’s best falafels is delivered by Taïm Falafel & Smoothie Bar with its all-vegetarian offerings of falafel, dips and salads plus unique smoothies.
- Mixed Falafel Platter: Green, harissa and roasted red pepper, hummus, Israeli and tabbouleh salads, with an assortment of sauces
- Taïm signature date-lime-banana smoothie
Rice House of Kabob, a burgeoning Florida fast-casual chain, specializes in authentically char-grilled Persian combo plates, with an emphasis on rice, of course.
- Chenjeh Rice: Chunks of tenderloin marinated in special house seasoning and open-flame char-broiled
- Falafel Platter: Homemade falafel served over Greek salad with basmati rice
Nanoosh, with locations in New York, concentrates on power foods and organic ingredients used to cater to a variety of diets: vegan, gluten-free and vegetarian. Meanwhile, multi-unit Maoz Vegetarian, a franchise from the Netherlands with locations in six states, specializes in falafel sandwiches.
- Quinoa Nanoosh Falafel Powerplate: Signature baked falafel with organic quinoa, red and green pepper, onion, organic walnuts, dried cranberries, parsley, organic raisins—Nanoosh, N.Y.
- Maoz Falafel Sandwich: A freshly baked white or whole wheat pita pocket filled with steaming hot falafel balls, topped with your choice of salads and sauces from our famous salad bar —Maoz Vegetarian, Boca Raton, Fla.-based
All signs point to the Middle East. We are on the crest of a full-on embrace of the heady, complex, delicious flavors found in this rich food culture.