Pity the local falafel and its brother-by-another-mother, the gyro. One may find them at every Middle Eastern and Greek restaurant around town, but too often they’re unremarkable – suffering from an essential sameness as though they emerged fully wrapped in paper-thin foil from some food conglomerate’s regional distribution center.
Happily, this is changing. A couple of newcomers offer a fresh perspective on these affordable street foods as well as broadening the ever-increasing spectrum of vegetarian fare. In Fauborg St. John, 1000 Figs presents a vibrant approach to all things chickpea underscored with an array of creatively prepared produce. Owners Theresa Galli and her fiancé Gavin Cady first got their feet wet with restaurant ownership with the Fat Falafel Food Truck, which they started back in November 2012. Two years later they opened 1000 Figs.
“The restaurant is an extension of the truck,” Galli says. “We still serve the same things but with more choices, as we have a lot more space to explore.” The terrific location just off of Esplanade Avenue in the heart of Faubourg St. John is a big plus.
Recommended dishes include the Falafel Feast for Two, an artful composition that draws looks from other diners when it comes out the kitchen. The long, slender platter features a pair of salads – one with mixed local produce that changes based on availability and the other a house slaw of beet, carrot and cilantro. Fridge pickles add another flavor profile – they served radish and cauliflower at my last visit – to accompany the hummus and babaganoush. Their homemade flatbread serves as a canvas for scooping things up, and a pair of sauces punch up the flavor. One, a creamy tzatziki, is freshened with dill and cucumber. The other is toum, a raw garlic emulsion brightened with lemon juice, which is especially bold and surprising.
The falafel here is particularly distinctive, ping pong-sized fritters redolent with cumin, coriander, cayenne and sesame. The satisfying complexity will give even the most committed meat eater pause. And while it may be a vegetarian-forward menu, there are a couple of meat dishes that round it out – a dish of braised lamb in particular.
There are, oddly enough however, no figs. “The restaurant is named after a tree in our yard that I’m pretty sure had 1,000 figs on it,” Galli explains. “We will have them on the menu when they’re back in season. Then we’ll go really fig-heavy.”
Quick note: The homemade flatbread comes with the platters and feast, whereas the pita for the sandwiches comes from Mona’s. It is definitely worth ordering the former, as the bread makes a big difference. (“We tried to bake all of it in-house but we couldn’t keep up,” Galli explains). Right now the restaurant is BYOB, but with Swirl right next door that’s easily remedied.
Over on St. Claude Avenue, Kebab offers a different sort of experience while espousing similar values when it comes to food.
“We are a sandwich shop with a small menu, but we really focus on our ingredients,” says owner Benjamin Harlow, who operates the restaurant along with chef Walker Reisman. All their meat is sourced from purveyors that practice stringent ethical standards, including Springer Mountain Farm. Most everything is made in-house, including the bread, ketchup and coconut-habanero hot sauce. The result is a short-list of carefully considered and executed fare that rises above the shoestring surroundings.
The impetus for the restaurant came from chef Reisman’s tour of duty on a theater ship, where he spent several years working around Europe. When the ship would sail into port, Reisman would make a beeline for the nearest kebab shops. Along the way he became attenuated to the myriad variations on kebab, becoming enamored of the traditional Greek version.
“The Greek gyro was originally just pork and didn’t utilize lamb or beef,” Harlow says. “As the Turkish style disseminated throughout Europe, other groups would roll into it the ingredients that were locally available. That is why you have variations as far away as in Northern Germany.”
Their menu basically features three sandwiches customizable with house-made sauces and a strong supporting cast of sides. The Greek-style Gyro Kebab uses pork from Chappapeela Farms. The kebab, a collective term meaning basically “meat on a stick” is put together by slicing, tenderizing then marinating the pork with an herbaceous concoction that includes rosemary, oregano and thyme. It gets skewered onto the Gyro stack, essentially a vertical rotisserie, and the exterior is charred as it spins and sliced to order on the homemade bread. Dressed with pickled cucumbers, cabbage and red onion, it gets slathered with a pair of sauces. One, the skhug, is an Israeli sauce akin to a chimmichurri, which gets its heat from raw jalapeño. Kebab’s version is relatively mild – “We keep the skhug level down a bit so it doesn’t scare anyone off of our sandwiches,” Harlow says. For that they offer their homemade coconut habanero sauce.
Kebab is open on limited days – at press time Fridays through Mondays, but they do now have a liquor license with specialty cocktails that make use of their homemade sodas with flavors such as grapefruit cardamom. A pair of happy hours – one early and one late – rounds out the appeal. Downtown delivery is offered as well.
Middle Eastern Feasts
Other Middle Eastern restaurants around town have their fans, though by-and-large there is a prevailing predictability and sameness about them. Still, Lebanon Café’s fare is better than most and its kibby plate is a personal favorite. Several Mona’s dot the area, but the one on Banks Street offers a really nice grocery store to go along with the restaurant. Many local chefs shop there for harder-to-find ingredients unique to the region.
3141 Ponce De Leon St.
Lunch and dinner, Tuesdays-Saturdays
2315 Saint Claude Ave.
Lunch and dinner, Fridays-Mondays