In Los Angeles, food trends fuel constant chatter, whether it’s about vegan, farm-to-table, or rustic Californian fare. Now, there’s another type of food stealing the limelight: Middle Eastern. “Things we eat in the Middle East are now all of a sudden much more prominent here,” says Lebanese-born executive chef Yousef Ghalaini, who debuted alongside the newly designed and conceptualized FIG at the Fairmont Santa Monica (formerly a French bistro) this spring. Los Angeles is embracing Middle Eastern cuisine, and we’re talking way beyond hummus and kebab.
Ghalaini’s Lebanese-meets-California menu at FIG includes vadouvan roasted carrots, lamb shank with pomegranate molasses, and fattoush. His tomato and radish salad, however simple, is a game-changer—the French feta is the creamiest you’ll ever taste—and the balloon-sized pita (alongside dips like labneh and eggplant salad) is a crowd-pleaser. His strategy is to put “weird, crazy flavors into things that are familiar,” like sumac on feta, zaatar on the bread balloon, and lamb sausage on pizza. “We try to sneak it in so it’s easy and comfortable,” he says. Indeed, like a song you suddenly hear everywhere, Middle Eastern flavors seem to be popping up on menus all over L.A.
During a walk through the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market one Wednesday, Ghalaini points out the increasing varieties of Middle Eastern ingredients such as purslane (a succulent green with a juicy, acidic quality), heirloom eggplant (“Iraquis, Persians, Lebanese, Egyptians—everyone uses it a zillion ways”), figs, dates, and legumes in the stalls. Brentwood’s and West Hollywood’s weekend markets now feature a proliferation of Middle Eastern flavors in prepared foods, perhaps because these types of meals are naturally guilt-free. It's naturally seasonal and vegetarian-friendly, and many dishes naturally fit into a gluten-free or dairy-free lifestyle.
At Georgie, the Montage Beverly Hills’ new restaurant, chef Geoffrey Zakarian is rumored to have added Middle Eastern hits like falafel, zaatar, tabbouleh, and tahini (and, notably, zero pork) to his “modern American” menu, with an eye toward the area’s Saudi and Emirati residents and tourists. Downtown, the new restaurant inside of the forthcoming Freehand Hotel will explore the flavors of urban L.A. through an Israeli lens. Also dispensing the region’s flavors: Sara Kramer and Sarah Hymanson, who in 2015 “tested the waters” with Madcapra, a falafel stand in Grand Central Market that proved a quick success. “L.A. is a very diverse place, so there’s a huge range of experiences with Middle Eastern cuisine,” says Kramer. “For the newbies, more often than not, we get very positive feedback and usually also from even the most steadfast falafel traditionalists.”
Their sophomore effort, Kismet, is expected in December in Los Feliz. It’s a vegetable-driven, 45-seat restaurant where family-style eating—with your hands!—is encouraged. With an Israeli mother and Moroccan great-grandmother, Kramer grew up with these flavors, but admits, “Our dedication to the cuisine is more from a standpoint of admiration and inspiration rather than an attempt to replicate any tradition.” In the morning, expect shakshuka (a cumin-spiced egg and tomato dish); at night, things like crispy rice, shell beans with green tomato and sunflower seeds, lamb with carob and Meyer lemon, and eggplant with beet molasses and chiles. “We both love the flavors, the vibrancy, the sharing, and the inherent warmth in the Middle Eastern style of food; it’s both homey and exotic at once,” Kramer says.
Then there’s the slew of fine-casual concepts capitalizing on the health factor of this newly popular regional food to outwit chains like Chipotle. Two examples: the Turkish-inflected Prime Cutts on West Third and the falafel-heavy Dune in Atwater Village, which both opened this year. Owners of the former Mediterranean restaurant Farm Stand in El Segundo are also working on a new incarnation. Sylvie Gabriele (whose Persian husband Ali Mosavi will stay on as head chef of the revamped restaurant) says, “We certainly embrace the fact that Middle Eastern food is naturally very healthy, but our first interest in it has been and continues to be the flavor profile.” The new Farm Stand (most likely coming to L.A.’s Westside mid-2017) will blend their Persian backgrounds with Lebanese and American influences, resulting in rotisserie-driven meats, grilled flatbreads, pickled veggies, and slow-cooked lamb braised with sour grapes.
Spread Mediterranean Kitchen in Downtown—also opened this year—marries two worlds: Counter service during the day features a streamlined mix-and-match menu (think bases like basmati rice or hummus, a braised meat or falafel, and Middle Eastern sauce), but after 6 p.m. there’s crispy halloumi, zaatar fried chicken, and the popular housemade harissa-braised beef. Also expect innovative cocktails, such as a harissa margarita, a fig-infused old-fashioned, and a sazerac using the ubiquitous Middle Eastern liquor called arrack. Says partner Brandon Parker, who credits NYC’s Zahav and DC chain Roti as influences, “We decided to create Spread because in Los Angeles you have ready access to produce year-round, a climate that’s close to that of the Mediterranean, and people who focus on healthy eating.”
Those paving the way for more Middle Eastern fare all note the positive reception they’re receiving from Angelenos, many of whom are unfamiliar but happy to take their taste buds on a lunch-hour vacation. Kramer says, “It’s a broad, rich, diverse, and delicious cuisine that deserves a little limelight. And I think the more people that are doing it the better—we help each other create a frame of reference for diners and widen their exposure.” One thing’s for sure: L.A.’s Middle Eastern food boom is just getting started.