Middle Eastern March
Three for the tastes
One of the more rewarding aspects of covering food and dining is when I encounter something new. This usually takes the form of either a revelatory recreation of known dishes through a fresh approach, or else it might be the discovery of a whole new type of cuisine. Happily, both these boxes get checked by 1000 Figs and Shaya, respectively. As a bonus, these entrée points into Middle Eastern and Israeli fare are healthy and, for the home cook, not as intimidating to make as they may seem.
1000 Figs is located in Faubourg St. John, slotted neatly between the wine bar Swirl and Canseco’s Market. The restaurant makes efficient use of its shotgun-style dining room through a clever array of design innovations, like the silverware stashed in drawers under each table. Wait times – and on weekends, expect to wait as reservations are not accepted – are tempered by a text alert system that pings you when your table is ready, allowing guests to enjoy a glass of wine at Swirl next door.
The restaurant is owned by husband-and-wife team Gavin Kady and Theresa Galli. The duo took an unconventional route to restauranteurship by opening the food truck Fat Falafel.
“We felt like we would learn more and learn it more quickly if we were forced to figure it out for ourselves,” Galli says. “Also a food truck was manageable whereas where a restaurant would have been too much. The difference between the two,” she adds, “is enormous.”
They have weathered the transition well. 1000 Figs is defined by a creative approach to Middle Eastern fare expressed through the use of local produce and handmade breads as well as an emphasis on fresh herbs rather than dried spices. To get a crash course, opt for the Falafel Feast. A smorgasbord for two, this entrée spans a long platter and is supplemented by a flotilla of accessory plates, bread and dips. On the main dish, a slaw of raw beet, carrot and cilantro is flanked by spheres of perhaps the best falafel in town, orbs of fried chickpea seasoned with cumin, coriander, cinnamon and cayenne. On the opposite side of the mixed green salad is an array of picked vegetables, which can include mirliton, daikon or cabbage, depending on what’s in the larder. The homemade flatbread is accompanied by paprika-spiced hummus and babaghanoush. Of the trio of dipping sauces my favorite was the toum, a Lebanese garlic sauce made from an emulsion of lemon juice, garlic and olive oil – akin to mayonnaise but without the egg.
If you’re in a hurry or looking for something late-night, Cleo’s Cuisine and Grocery is open 24/7 and offers a terrific array of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean fare. Try the spicy Musabaha, a chickpea blend spiked with hot peppers and garlic, or else the Egyptian Breakfast, featuring sesame falafel, fried eggplant and much more. Prices are reasonable to boot.
I realize that some of this fare will sound familiar, but you need to taste it to understand what sets it apart. Unlike almost all other Middle Eastern joints in town, 1000 Figs doesn’t take a cookie-cutter approach. The ingredients are super-fresh – with much of the veg sourced from Veggi, a farmers’ co-op in New Orleans East, as well as Pelican Produce – and the emphasis on lemon and fresh herbs makes the food far brighter and livelier. Quality sourcing trickles through the menu – an excellent appetizer of Haloumi features the namesake cheese sourced from Cyprus through St. James Cheese Company.
And while 1000 Figs is certainly vegetarian-friendly, it isn’t exclusively so, as evidenced by dishes featuring lamb and chicken. The emphasis is on freshness and what motivates the owners. “We pull from the Mediterranean and Middle East but we don’t claim authenticity to any region,” Galli says. “We choose things that we enjoy and that we hope other people will like as well.”
Alon Shaya’s eponymous restaurant, Shaya, has garnered national accolades, and with good reason. The James Beard-award winning chef’s homage to his Israeli roots has as much to do with personal expression as it does with talent. Shaya’s cuisine is more complex than that of 1000 Figs. This makes sense, given the Israeli focus of the menu. As a country, Israel is less than 70 years old and in that short span has pulled together a polyglot population from all over the globe. With them came their recipes, many of which were grafted onto the bedrock Middle Eastern fare of hummus and the like.
At Shaya there are plenty of dishes that cross over with 1000 Figs – like the grilled Halloumi – which here gets more dolled up with a garnish of caramelized celery root and pomegranate molasses. Where Shaya breaks ranks is with Israeli fare like Matzo Ball Soup, made with duck in lieu of the traditional chicken, and with regional favorites like Shakshuka – a unique concoction of egg poached in a sauce of stewed vegetables redolent with Tunisian spice. Terrific homemade pita is the perfect accompaniment to the small plates like Hummus and Curried Cauliflower.
If you’d like to make this type of cuisine at home but don’t know quite where to begin – a common predicament – an excellent point of entry is chef Michael Solomonov’s beautiful and comprehensive cookbook Zahav – A World of Israeli Cuisine. To stock your spice rack, the Napa-based Whole Spice sells regional spice kits online. For the staples, Mona’s Grocery on Banks Street offers basics like chickpeas, Tahini and pomegranate molasses. For equipment the only really indispensable thing is a food processor – homemade hummus is tastier than store brands and easy to make – and rather than buying pita that has been sitting around consider substituting an artisan bread like ciabatta from a local bakery.
Must-Try Middle Eastern
3141 Ponce De Leon St.
Lunch and dinner Tuesdays-Saturdays
4213 Magazine St.
Lunch and dinner daily
Cleo’s Cuisine and Grocery
165 Roosevelt Way