This article first appeared in the 1 August issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. To find out more about R&I, visit its website at www.foodservice411.com
By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor
"There is an explosion of flavor discovery happening in America," says Rafih Benjelloun, chef-owner of Imperial Fez, an upscale Moroccan restaurant in Atlanta where all meals begin with shlada, petite salads such as shredded carrots in orange-blossom water and orange juice spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. "Before, if you told a customer a menu item was from Morocco or Israel, you'd get a questioning facial expression. Today they want to try it," says Benjelloun.
Diners' growing openness to different cultures and curiosity about cuisines are factors, but so are consumers' attraction to more healthful options, vegetarian dishes and small plates. Whether at concepts centered on Middle Eastern cuisine or at those that simply dabble in the region's spice box, chefs are capitalizing with traditional and contemporary takes on mezze, widely varying premeal bites and small plates.
The vast majority of guests at eight-unit The Lebanese Taverna Group in Arlington, Va., are American, says Dany Abi-Najm, president of the family-run company.
"The Middle Eastern population here exposes others to the culture, but we can't depend on them for all our business," he says.
Popular mezze options at the group's two concepts-one casual dining and the other fast casual-include shakshouky, a salad of baked, chopped eggplant with tomatoes, green onions, garlic and pomegranate reduction; and shankleesh, balls of dried, aged feta blended with hot paprika and rolled in za'atar, a spice mix of thyme, sesame, sumac powder and salt.
Executive Chef Eidat Edmony, an Israeli native raised by a Yemeni father and Iranian mother, draws on her diverse background and a heavy Mediterranean influence to craft eclectic mezze at New York City's Ludo. She serves traditional Lebanese kibbeh-beef and pine nuts stuffed inside thin, circular pouches made from bulgur wheat and flour-with minted cucumber sauce and harissa, a fiery Tunisian spice paste of hot chiles, cumin, coriander, caraway and olive oil. For a predessert offering, Edmony recommends date roll-ups stuffed with Lebanese yogurt cheese called labneh, spicy walnuts and Sicilian pistachios.
Adapting such simple, traditional dishes to fine-dining presentations can be a challenge, she says, an obstacle also noted by Chef-owner Ana Sortun, whose menu at Oleana in Cambridge, Mass., features Arabic-influenced foods of the Mediterranean.
Among Sortun's pre-appetizers is a spicy purée of boiled and coarsely mashed carrots, vinegar, olive oil and harissa, meant to be spread on Arabic flatbread called manakish. The dish is served with dukkah, an Egyptian spice blend of toasted nuts and seeds including cumin, coriander and sesame.
"Because we're located between Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, we have a pretty big international crowd that recognizes the flavors," Sortun says. "For others, the spices are very new, so our staff knows the menu to help people along."
Flair for the Exotic
Executive Chef Michael LeClerc's global travels inspire the cuisine at 350 Main Brasserie in Park City, Utah, but memories of New York City's Middle Eastern restaurants spurred him to add roasted-vegetable falafel as a signature starter.
To ensure appeal to his high-end customer base, the chef adds a purée of roasted squash, peppers, onions and tomatoes to the typical mixture of chickpeas, lemon juice, garlic and spices. He pairs the deep-fried croquettes with cucumber-tomato salad in spicy yogurt sauce and tahini-lemon vinaigrette for dipping.
"People come to us for things they don't get at other places," says LeClerc of the white-tablecloth, 200-seat restaurant. "We've been here almost 10 years, so they trust us with things they might not be able to pronounce or are not familiar with."
At Mundo Café and Restaurant in New York City, servers rattle off a four-minute menu introduction to acquaint new patrons with wide-reaching fare that taps cultures from the Mediterranean to South America. This element of the unknown, followed by extraordinary flavors, intrigues guests, says Chef and co-owner Canalp Caner.
The Turkish native draws on family recipes for small-plate specialties such as Red Sonja, a dish of dense, bite-sized mounds of red lentils with bulgur, green onions, parsley, tomato paste and spices. Caner places each hand-formed piece on romaine lettuce to be wrapped up and eaten with a squeeze of lemon. Other starters include Nile's Flower, a plate of Egyptian artichokes simmered in olive oil with peas, carrots, pearl onions, dill and fava beans; and Gypsy's Passion, grilled eggplant and red pepper with creamy yogurt and garlic, served with warm pita.
A Matter of Taste
While menu wanderlust drives many chefs to explore world cuisines, others are motivated by the simple quest for flavor.
Customer feedback directed Tim Grandinetti, executive chef at Renaissance Grand Hotel's Capri Restaurant in St. Louis, to seek high-impact flavors and spices he could present in dishes approachable for conventioneers and discriminating travelers alike.
On a menu that used to be mainly Mediterranean, Capri now features a Lebanese-influenced starter of spicy eggplant and chickpea fricassee, a rich, stew-like dish accented by fragrant spices including cumin, cinnamon and coriander. Poured over a small serving of white rice, the vegetarian- and vegan-friendly item is garnished with cilantro and crispy garlic shards.
To Executive Chef David LeFevre, the Middle Eastern influence means light, refreshing tastes with plenty of citrus, spices and fresh herbs, elements he enlists to bring new life to crab cakes at seafood haven Water Grill in Los Angeles.
Rather than include standard crab-boil seasoning, LeFevre matches the crab cake with spicy harissa tempered with a cool mixture of yogurt, crème fraÁ®che and lemon. Roasted eggplant purée and herbed couscous with mint, cilantro and parsley-the chef's takes on baba ghanoush and tabbouleh-also accompany the dish, garnished with pickled red onion and lime-marinated cucumbers.
"I think we'll slowly and surely see a more Middle Eastern influence on menus," he says. "The trick is to present it in a way that people are a little familiar with. In fine dining, if it tastes great and looks beautiful, people will eat it."