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New York Serves Up a True Taste of the Middle East

When I recently took an Iranian, an Iraqi and an Emirati to lunch on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, a breakthrough ensued. Not diplomatic, mind you, but gastronomic. After feasting on a Jordanian delicacy in a Palestinian restaurant, we arrived at a consensus that it was one of the best meals we’d ever had.

This was a turnabout, and no mistake. For years, Middle Eastern friends — politicians, diplomats, journalists and business executives — visiting New York for UNGA have complained that their cuisines are poorly represented in the city’s restaurant scene. My standard response, that my home city offers the best from everywhere else in the world, has been met at best with grumbling acknowledgment.

And, having endured diplomatic jamborees in faraway places, I can understand their frustration: After a few too many rubber-chicken meals, courtesy of this embassy or that think tank, any palate would hanker for the tastes of home.

That’s why I was delighted to inform my friends, and demonstrate to their satisfaction, that my city now has them covered. In the three years that I was away in London — where I was spoiled for Middle Eastern choices — New York has experienced an efflorescence of restaurants serving the region’s major cuisines: Arab, Persian and Israeli.

A quick caveat: New York has always had good hole-in-the-wall eateries that cater to Middle Eastern tastes, but few places where a visiting diplomat or business exec would feel comfortable entertaining their peers. One notable exception is Tanoreen, in Bay Ridge, where Rawia and Jumana Bishara have served up superb fare for over two decades, earning citations from the James Beard Foundation.     

The new wave of Middle Eastern restaurants ranges from Ayat, a 10-minute walk from Tanoreen, which serves giant plates of Palestinian lamb dishes in a down-home setting, to the hot new Israeli eatery Laser Wolf, where the vibe is distinctly Williamsburg trendy and the Marabu-charcoal grilled brisket kebabs much pricier.

Somewhere in between those extremes are Qanoon, a mid-priced Palestinian spot in tony Chelsea and a pair of Persian fine-dining places, Sofreh and Eyval, in Prospect Heights and Bushwick, respectively.

I took my friends to Al Badawi, in Brooklyn Heights, which is a slightly upscale sibling of Ayat, and where I’d previously eaten, on separate occasions, with two fellow aficionados: Restaurant critic Robert Sietsema of eater.com and MSNBC host Ayman Mohyeldin. You can read Robert’s review here; he is especially fond of the flatbreads, which come in toppings ranging from ground pistachios on melted cheese to chicken marinated in zaatar.

Ayman ordered the fattat jaj, a layered dish of roast chicken, rice, chickpeas, mint yogurt, pita chips, garlic sauce and almond slivers. He lives within a stone’s throw of Al Badawi and has the opportunity to work his way through the menu. His verdict: It’s as authentic as you can expect to get from the West Bank or Gaza, places where he has spent much more time reporting (and eating) than I have.

Why has it taken so long for Middle Eastern cuisine to find its place under the New York sun? After all, the Big Apple has had sizeable Jewish and Arab populations for decades; Iranians have tended to go to the other coast.

Ayman’s best guess is that in recent years there’s been a generational shift. “My parents didn’t often go to Middle Eastern restaurants,” he tells me. “Maybe they felt they needed to conform to American tastes, or maybe it was just that they cooked this stuff at home.” Ayman himself is a terrific cook, but that’s rare for a second-generation Arab-American. “When we go out to eat, we are looking for connections to our ancestry, we’re looking for the authentic tastes,” he says.

Not that any of this mattered to my Middle Eastern visitors: Whatever the reason for the proliferation, they were happy to be the beneficiaries. We ordered the mansaf, a lamb stew that is practically Jordan’s national dish and long my personal favorite. The meat is slow-cooked in a fermented ewe’s milk yogurt known as jemeed, and served on a bed of rice, which in turns sits on an oval of saj bread. Sprinkled over the top are slivered almonds, which add a crunchy texture to the umami flavor.

On my many visits to Amman, I have always set aside at least one meal at Ajyad, where the mansaf is popular with the working-class clientele. Each of my fellow-diners had a recommendation for where to try the dish — interestingly, all in Dubai. My tablemates and I agreed that the version at Al Badawi was at least comparable, if not superior to our favorites.

As a New Yorker, this would have made me swell up with pride — that is, if all the lamb and rice had left me any room.

More from Bloomberg Opinion’s Bobby Ghosh on Food and Drink:

An Indian Restaurant’s Rise Mirrors Asheville’s

Momos Are Taking Over the Dumpling World for a Reason

New Instant Coffee Fans Should Try This Hack From India

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering foreign affairs. Previously, he was editor in chief at Hindustan Times, managing editor at Quartz and international editor at Time.

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion

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