Middle Eastern food is woven into the fabric of L.A. My education in it began in the Walkman era at counters like the original Zankou, which brought a potent Lebanese-inflected version of Armenian cooking to a strip mall at Normandie and Sunset. At Javan, a sometimes-sleepy corner spot in a cluster of Persian businesses near Sawtelle, I’ve enjoyed countless helpings of sumac-scented celery stew, along with sour cherry-studded polo and platters of charred meats served over fluffy saffron-colored rice. When my son was teething, he’d soothe his gums on the pink-blushed turnips at Sunnin.
But lately so many chefs are exploring the tastes and flavors of Middle Eastern food, it’s as if we’re in a golden age. Slightly nuttier than farro, the green grain freekeh is showing up in half the city’s grain bowls with mint and cubed feta, but several new restaurants are going further than that. Off Vermont at Kismet, Sara Kramer and Sarah Hymanson travel around the eastern Mediterranean with dishes like griddled potatoes and house-fermented labneh, the urfa pepper they add lending a Turkish slant. Among the jars of spices at Momed in Beverly Hills, a sesame-crusted chicken breast rides alongside the fattoush bread salad. In Hollywood, George Abou-Daoud’s Farida is decorated with Arabic movie posters from the ’60s and is named after his grandmother. If the pomegranate-marinated lamb riblets served with kishk, a fermented bulgur-and-yogurt porridge, are any evidence, she was quite a cook.
That dish is way more specific than the dutiful pita and a kebab that pretty much represented Middle Eastern cuisine even a decade ago. The term sounds increasingly vague in an era when we’re familiar with the nuances of Yucatecan food and different shadings of cucina in Italy’s Alpine valleys. Which is why the meze selection that Yousef Ghalaini serves at Fig in Santa Monica is not only terrific but promising. The marouch-style bread brought out from the wood-burning oven is modeled on the ones his grandfather Mahmoud made in Sidon, the Lebanese port city where Ghalaini lived until age 12. Perhaps because the chickpea hummus is refined and the product of a skilled chef’s thinking—blended with the California olive oil he insists on for freshness and dollops of an Israeli tahini made of Ethiopian white Humera sesame seeds—it seems particularly powerful because of the memories it can hold. “When you’re a kid in Sidon,” he says, “your mom sends you down to the hummus guy with a bowl, and he makes it and covers it and sends you off home.”
It’s thrilling to be able to find so many smart renditions of known and newly discovered dishes, but I think what I like most of all is the openness of chefs like Ghalaini. There’s always been a little bit of reticence to the older places. Enjoy the food, don’t ask too much. I get it; things weren’t always sunny in the old country. But a great dish is something we do want to share, and it’s all the more meaningful when it’s evoked in a modest gesture such as a welcoming soup bowl of cumin-laced lentils. Actually, I’m also partial to the way they fry them with bulgur in the Syrian style at Kobee Factory in Van Nuys.