It was just a couple of months after chef Ori Menashe and his wife, Genevieve Gergis, opened their now-acclaimed Italian restaurant, Bestia, in Downtown Los Angeles that journalists started to come at the team with questions about what was next. Menashe told them he wanted to open a Middle Eastern restaurant, an idea that grew out of backyard barbecues and dinner parties among friends. That was in 2012.
In late April, five and a half years later, that concept came to fruition as the pair opened Bavel, a Middle Eastern-inspired restaurant less than a mile from Bestia. Menashe describes it as "us on a plate," meaning he's drawing on both his family history and that with Gergis, who's also the restaurant's pastry chef. She has an Egyptian background, and Menashe has family roots in Morocco and Turkey, as well as 14 years spent living in Israel. But the points of inspiration are "not just from those places," Menashe says. "It's our journey of life that we're cooking here."
Photo: Nicole Franzen
Those influences are melded together seamlessly at Bavel, whose name is a nod to the biblical tale of the Tower of Babel, where people gathered to build a tower to heaven. They were unsuccessful and were punished, forced to speak new and different languages from one another, dividing the people. As the team explains on their website, "We liked the word Bavel, because it was written during a time when everything was one—Bavel is not specific to any one region."
The bar at Bavel. | Photo: DYLAN + JENI
Fittingly, the menu brings together flavors from across the Middle East, starting with a series of flatbreads, like one topped with spicy fermented lamb sausage, grated tomato, pine nuts, nigella seeds and tart sumac. There's also malawach, a crispy, flaky bread that originated in Yemen but is popular in Israel. Here, it's served with a soft-boiled egg and a strawberry rendition of the Yemenite hot sauce schug.
"We make sure we emphasize all of those flavors with a lot of intensity," Menashe says about his menu. "We don't want to make it Americanized." That plays out in dishes like one Menashe added just days after opening: chopped duck livers and hearts tossed with a merguez spice blend that's made with dried orange and Sichuan peppercorns, garnished with dill and onions pickled in sumac, and served with a flatbread whose dough is fermented for 10 days. The desserts from Gergis follow suit, like licorice ice cream bonbons with caramelized white chocolate and sour licorice caramel that's made with a root powder brought in from Afghanistan.
The black licorice bonbon. | Photo: Nicole Franzen
While Menashe and Gergis shy away from the confines of tradition across the board, there is one exception, Menashe says: the hummus. It's served simply adorned with a dollop of masabacha, or lightly smashed chickpeas in a tahini dressing and both green and red chile pastes. A less traditional option is to get it topped with duck nduja, Jerusalem spice mix and herbs.
Hummus with green and red chili pastes. | Photo: Nicole Franzen
Bavel is just one of several Middle Eastern restaurants washing up on the shores of Los Angeles (there are also Kismet and Mh Zh). What separates it is the personal style of the couple. Gergis likens it, in some ways, to Bestia: "Bestia is Italian, but [in] our style," she says. Bavel takes a similar approach to Middle Eastern cooking, taking its inspiration from the region but making it all its own.
Devra Ferst is a food writer, editor and cooking teacher based in Brooklyn. She cares much more about babka than any one woman should. Follow her on Instagram at @dferst.
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