The latest foodie craze? L.A.'s top chefs bring the cuisine of one desert to another.
View from the top: Ever-cool Soho House West Hollywood’s Nava restaurant drives its eastern Mediterranean cuisine—such as octopus roasted in a wood-fired oven and finished with butter beans, celery, and red chili—with SoCal’s Middle East-mirroring produce.
Thanks to a spate of buzzy chefs—some with traditional family recipes in their apron pockets—the exquisite flavors indigenous to Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, and Morocco are LA’s hottest food trend. Already anticipated for this year: Bestia chef Ori Menashe’s as-yet-unnamed DTLA tribute to Israel, where he was raised, and the Alex Chang-helmed Exchange, inside the Freehand hotel, which will showcase the flavors of urban LA through an Israeli lens. Last year, Soho House’s Nava became the brand’s first Middle Eastern concept, blending the tastes of Jerusalem and Beirut (fattoush, tabbouleh, lamb kofta) via locally sourced produce.
And Lebanese chef Yousef Ghalaini was quick to recognize LA’s eagerness to sample flavors from his youth when he revamped the Fairmont Santa Monica’s FIG, which offers mainstays like lamb shank with pomegranate molasses and a za’atar-dusted bread “balloon” with dips, plus seasonal highlights—for spring, manouche flatbreads are baked in the wood-burning oven before being finished with spring peas and tendrils, cured Meyer lemon, halloumi, and za’atar. “I think what drives the conversation is that all this ethnic food fits into [SoCal] health trends,” says Ghalaini. “Gluten-free vegetarian, seasonal.”
Another boon is that produce at the heart of Middle Eastern cuisines grows readily in LA: In the city’s farmers’ markets, eggplant—a staple of Persian, Lebanese, Egyptian, and Iraqi dishes—is on the rise in varying heirloom shades and shapes, and previously obscure purslane now holds pride of place alongside arugula and spinach. The latest additions to the scene are courtesy of familiar names like Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo (Animal, Trois Mec), operational partners in brand-new Los Feliz restaurant Kismet. The 45-seat concept, by chefs Sara Kramer and Sarah Hymanson of Grand Central Market falafel joint Madcapra, takes major inspiration from the region’s cooking in terms of flavor and vibrancy. The breakfast, lunch, and dinner plates are meant to be shared and eaten with the hands.
And in January, LA restaurateur George Abou-Daoud—who owns Silver Lake’s modern Middle Eastern eatery Bowery Bungalow—debuted Farida, named for his grandmother. At the new Sunset Boulevard restaurant, he’s elevating Middle Eastern ingredients with unconventional spins on tradition, such as pairing spicy, Puerto Rican tostones with green harissa and labneh, and Palestinian chicken musakhan with sumac-caramelized onions, pine nuts, and flatbread. Says Abou-Daoud, “I want to better people’s perception of what Middle Eastern cuisine really is. Food expresses culture, and it’s the best way we all connect.” Amen and amin to that.