Chefs In L.A. Could Make The City The Destination For Modern Middle Eastern Food

A wave of modern Middle Eastern restaurants is about to wash into L.A.

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"Nobody knew what it was," Micah Wexler says of a particular dish he put on the dinner menu at his L.A. restaurant, Mezze, five years ago. "Now it's so emblematic of where we are at: It's on brunch menus all over the city."

The dish he's referring to is shakshuka, the now-ubiquitous baked egg-and-tomato dish with Middle Eastern origins. "At Mezze, we were probably too soon and too far," Wexler, who now runs a successful nouveau deli called Wexler's, says. Struck by construction woes from a site next door, he closed the progressive Middle Eastern restaurant at the end of 2012. It was a blow personally for Wexler and more broadly to the idea that an L.A. restaurant could draw on the flavors of the Middle East but push them forward into something new.

"We really pushed the boundary. People would [often] say, 'This isn't a Middle Eastern restaurant,'" because, as Wexler puts it, he took the flavors of the region and let them "inform our consciousness." Or, perhaps more plainly, in 2012, flatbread topped with roasted green cauliflower and feta or merguez with tomato jam didn't read Middle Eastern the way piquant Persian stews or pitas stuffed with round, fresh-from-the-fryer falafel balls in local expat neighborhoods did.

That could change—and soon. With a massive wave of chef-driven Israeli-, Persian- and Lebanese-inspired restaurants that is about to crest along the shores of L.A., the city is poised to become the most significant place for contemporary Middle Eastern cooking in the U.S.

Surfing that wave are: Jessica Koslow of Sqirl, who is opening an 8,000-square-foot project dedicated to foods of the Jewish diaspora and Israel; Sara Kramer and Sarah Hymanson, who are opening the buzzy Kismet with Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo; Ori Menashe of Bestia, who at long last will open his restaurant dedicated to his Israeli roots; Portland's Jenn Louis, who is opening an Israeli-inspired restaurant in the Freehand hotel; and the team at Love & Salt, who are drawing on Lebanese and Persian cuisines for their upcoming project.

Though Michael Solomonov at Zahav and Dizengoff in Philadelphia and Alon Shaya at Shaya in New Orleans have made their respective cities destinations for a taste of the Middle East, particularly Israel, in the U.S., this group of California chefs is working with two significant advantages: a growing climate that's similar to those in much of the Middle East—hot during the day, cooler at night—and a local food sensibility that matches the region that's more than 7,500 miles away.

Jenn Louis has been experimenting with Middle Eastern flavors at her Portland restaurant Lincoln. | Photo: Jenn Louis

This kind of cooking, which leans heavily on vegetables, fresh herbs and brightness from lemon and pomegranate, "fits in with the way that people in L.A. and increasingly all over like to eat," Wexler says. "It's conducive to a shared experience, and it's food that you feel good after you eat." While it's too early for these chefs to announce menu items, every chef we spoke to says there will be a focus on vegetables and the salads that are hallmark of so many meals from Lebanon to Israel and Palestine and beyond. "We're looking at any salad from any Middle Eastern country," for inspiration, Sylvie Gabriele, the co-owner of Love & Salt, explains.

For Koslow, whose project will include a sit-down restaurant, a takeaway counter and an event space, access to certain produce is key. "The [restaurant] space has a farm in Malibu that's two and a half acres, which can be planted in conjunction with the thought process of the restaurant," she says. She's working with farmer Doug Richardson to find drought-tolerant plants that will grow well, like mulberry and carob. The produce will work its way into dishes like a tahini-less hummus that may be topped with carob syrup, a host of salads, to-go shawarma, an everything bagel reimagined with za'atar, plus several schmears. "It won't just be hummus; it will be everything. A case of schmears—that's what I'm looking the most forward to. A platter of schmears and a case of schmears," Koslow says.

She is hesitant, however, to classify her food specifically. "I'm not trying to be like, 'This is Israeli, Mediterranean or Polish,' and that's where I'm going to get into a little trouble. . . . Consumers want to put you into a box," she says, echoing the challenges Wexler faced five years ago. "Will there be a shawarma pit there? Yes. Will there be falafel there? Yes," Koslow says. "Will it be what you think of when you go to Tel Aviv? Probably not. And just to be OK with that."  Like many cuisines with deep historic and cultural roots that are on the brink of a cheffy revolution, there's a tug-of-war of sorts between tradition and modernity with Middle Eastern cooking that these chefs are caught up in.

For the Love & Salt team, the approach to balancing tradition and modernity is slightly different. Alex Mosavi, whose brother opened the first Persian restaurant in L.A. 50 years ago, is collaborating with Michael Fiorelli. "I grew up with the tastes of the food, so I know how it's supposed to be originally," Mosavi says. Fiorelli is learning to cook them from him. "Once I deeply understand them . . . my role is to say, 'How am I going to interpret this in a modern fashion? Regenerate it?'" He will do that with locally grown ancient grains and dishes like roast beef rubbed with shawarma spice and cooked rotisserie-style, then sliced and placed into a pita with yogurt and fresh herbs.  

For Louis, the opportunity to interpret the cuisine personally in L.A. is liberating: "You're never going to get the same things outside of its home. It's fun to understand it and adapt it outside."

Diners should be able to bite into that dish and Koslow's za'atar everything bagel, and sit down for a meal at all of these restaurants by next summer. Until then, we'll be keeping our eyes on that wave.