avel is not a bakery, but that doesn’t stop it from turning out some of the best bread in the country. At the sophomore restaurant from Ori Menashe and Genevieve Gergis -- the couple behind hit LA restaurant Bestia -- the carbs are life changing. The pita, made by whipping cold olive oil into the dough, is pillowy and retains a cakey, almost melt-in-your-mouth softness when most versions start to become chewy. The nutty buckwheat loaf arrives to the table sliced thick and toasted and is paired with a semicircle of smooth and fatty foie gras halva. And then there is the malawach, a buttery flatbread made from several thin layers of dough, which helps mop up the runny aged egg and spicy strawberry zhoug it's plated with.
Even the meaty lamb neck shawarma shows up resting on a bed of laffa -- a long oblong flatbread that is great at soaking up juices. Menashe says that Middle Eastern food “revolves around bread,” so it only made sense for the couple of build a menu that centers around it. “You need to have good bones before you start to build [a good restaurant] so the bread is our bones at Bavel,” he adds.
In many ways, we are in the middle of a Middle Eastern food renaissance in the United States, with restaurants around the country churning out incredible versions of some of the region's most celebrated dishes. (Has there ever been so much stellar hummus available at once?) It’s stiff competition, but Bavel manages to fly above the rest, not by reinventing the classics, but just doing them better -- more flavor, more time, more thought, and most importantly, more bread.
The team initially made the decision because the cost of a liquor license was too steep for the nascent restaurant to purchase without significant investment. So the team decided to get creative, according to chef Jon Nodler, one of the co-owners of Cadence, offering a handful of curated non-alcoholic drinks like a local hopped kombucha and a Concord grape vinegar soda.
Nodler, and his partners, chefs Samantha Kincaid and Michael Fry -- all alumni of Philadelphia’s beloved Fork -- have managed to open a restaurant that dodges the suffocating constraints of other fine-dining restaurants, while allowing them to still cook at a high level. The space is modern and clean with pale walls and accents from a rotating slate of local artists; the service is relaxed but attentive, and the food could easily be from a place charging three times as much -- but it’s not, and Philadelphia is better for it.
Canard, which means "duck" in French and sticks to Rucker’s bird-as-restaurant-names theme, is Rucker’s more casual concept that serves food for 16 hours a day. “If you’re awake and want to eat, we are probably open,” says Rucker. Service is laid back and the menu feels like it has been pulled out of the brain of a stoner who aced culinary school. Everything here is, quite simply, fun.
Take the Duck Stack, which I saw on nearly every table. It features the namesake bird in three ways. Two crispy-edged buttermilk pancakes -- reminiscent of my favorite versions found at Cracker Barrel -- are topped with meaty duck gravy, a fried duck egg with a high-octane yellow yolk, and a slab of seared foie gras (duck liver) for good measure.
But the real star of the menu is a $6 steam burger that draws inspiration from White Castle’s beloved sliders. Rucker swaps the standard bun for a squishy sweet Hawaiian roll by a local bakery and blends French onion soup mix (straight from a packet!) into the beef. You’ll want to eat 20 of them -- and you can for about the same price as a meal at Le Pigeon.
The restaurant doesn't hit you over the head with vegan rhetoric, but is instead a celebration of vegetables and all that they can do. “We are just having fun with vegetables,” says Landau. A couple of fan favorites from Vedge also make an appearance on the menu, like the impossibly melty rutabaga fondue, which comes with wonderfully chewy pretzel baguettes, and tangy pickled vegetables for dipping. But the majority is a whole new and exciting slate.
One the more clever dishes on the menu is a fazzoletti -- or handkerchief pasta -- made simply from mushrooms that arrive swimming in an flavor-packed savory broth. Landau and his team sear trumpet mushrooms on a plancha before shaving them into ultra-thin and wide ribbons that are covered with a special vegetable stock and reduced down before being finished with a pat of rich (vegan) basil butter. It’s one of those dishes that is secretly healthy but feels indulgent at the same time.
The dessert menu is equally finessed. Jacoby is a particularly skilled pastry chef who is able to create stunning textures and flavors without the usual toolkit of her peers -- eggs, milk, butter, or gelatin. There’s an assortment of cakes and tarts and homemade ice creams, but the real standout is the “S’mores,” which centers around a decadent chocolate cake that sits somewhere between fudge and a brownie, per Jacoby. The cake has a chocolate cookie crust that is cut with chicory powder and is plated with a generous swipe of marshmallow -- made with a soy protein instead of gelatin -- that is torched to order. On the side is a scoop of graham cracker ice cream spiked with Speculoos cookies, in case it didn’t feel campfire enough.
I still dream of the stacks of water fern cakes, or bánh bèo, a satisfyingly chewy Vietnamese dish made from steaming rice and tapioca flour in small bowls. They arrived topped with a mountainous flourish of mung beans and fried shallots for crunch and nuoc cham for an acidic punch. Nguyen says customers often refer to it as an “open-faced dumpling.” Like regular dumplings, they are equally as addictive. So is the bánh xèo, which has an impossibly crispy texture. (“Nothing is sadder to me than a soggy bánh xèo,” says Nguyen.) She pours a batter of rice flour, turmeric, and coconut milk into a sizzling-hot pan, stuffing the crepe-like dish with sautéed bean sprouts, scallions, and pork belly. It’s impossible to not finish it, no matter how full you are.
Nguyen more than makes up for it with other dishes from the region like a fiery ground pork dip (prahok ktiss) by the way of Cambodia and a Balinese chicken thigh that arrives on a bed of kale and rice blanketed in a flavor-packed coconut sauce. It’s all best washed down with one of Hai Hai’s potent cocktails -- the best of which arrive to the table icy and frozen. Booze-packed milkshakes are terrible, but boozy slushies are one of the greatest joys of adulthood and Hai Hai always has several on offer.
The kitchen serves up a steady stream of hearty, carb-heavy Georgian favorites like the inadvertently-built-for-Instagram acharuli khachapuri, a bread boat filled with a lusciously fatty mix of melted cheese and an over-easy egg, with a perfectly placed pat of butter. But the true joy in the menu arrives in the subtler dishes such as the lobiani, a thick flatbread filled with mashed slow-cooked kidney beans. Traditionally, the beans are cooked with hunks of smoked ham, but Kargi Gogo eschews the pork in favor of liquid smoke, keeping the dish vegan.
In fact, a number of dishes on the menu are vegan or vegetarian-friendly. Fredericks says that isn’t exactly intentional, though the added bonus of appealing to the large local vegan culture doesn’t hurt. “Georgian food is naturally vegan anyway. Not to say they don't use meat in their cuisine, but fresh vegetables are the star of so many dishes.”
The entire restaurant is dedicated to championing Georgian food down to the beverage selection, which includes a range playful imported sodas in flavors like tarragon and “strawberry mojito.” But the highlight is the selection of Georgian wines, which includes bottles not typically found in Portland, or really, America.
Customers can still get “wings,” but they come from an entirely different animal -- the rabbit. The wings, technically legs, are pan-fried until crispy and are doused in a taste bud-awakening brown butter sauce that is heavy on the lemon and punchy capers. It’s tempting to ask the staff to bottle the remaining sauce at the bottom of the plate when the wings are gone, but it’s worth ordering a side of the house-made sourdough to soak up whatever your fingers miss.
The restaurant never quite defines what Nancy’s Hustle really is -- when I ask Jensen, he explains that it doesn’t really mean anything at all -- but if it is to make anyone who walks through the doors a regular, she has succeeded with flying colors.
The Cambodian restaurant from chef Nite Yun, located in Oakland’s energetic Fruitvale neighborhood, is affordable and chic. Millennial pink stools line the counter by the front window, while neon lights traverse the opposing wall. The walls also feature rare record covers from Cambodia’s “Golden Era” of music, while the bathroom is decked out in custom wallpaper featuring the faces of 1960s Cambodian rock stars and Oakland landmarks.
The space is low key, but the cooking is not. The satisfying banana blossom salad -- loaded with fresh herbs and crunchy vegetables -- arrives to the table piled high and tossed in a sweet, lime-spiked dressing. It’s fresh and punchy and, quite frankly, makes eating mountains of vegetables fun.
But the dish perhaps most emblematic of Yun’s cooking is the amok -- a puffy soufflé made of steamed catfish and coconut milk wrapped in a banana leaf. The dish is deceptively simple, but requires hours of care and attention to make. Says Yun, “If you have to try just one Cambodian food, it is amok.”
The website promises customers “Fun Korean fare,” which in this case means deeply personal cooking that flawlessly weaves together Korean cooking with Italian flair. It shines through best in the pasta dishes like the handmade cavatelli that arrives swimming in a smoky nori-flecked butter sauce and the clever ddukbokki lamb ragu, where seared rice cakes (ddukbokki) serve as a surrogate for gnocchi and are slathered with a sauce spiked with gochujang. The combination works so well, I now find myself wishing more Italian restaurants would swap in crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside ddukbokki more frequently.
The large-format dishes are much easier to share. Labeled “for two” on the menu, the plates definitely feed more, but you won’t want to share. The kalbi arrives to the table tender and on the bone, glazed with more gochujang, and surrounded by bowls of rotating seasonal banchan, which servers are happy to reload as they empty. The dessert menu is simple at Passerotto -- an almond biscotti with a sweet wine -- but you could just skip it for another bowl of the potato salad banchan, spiked with perfectly bruinoised carrots and a tinge of sweetness.
Each of the pizzas appear on wood-fired, naturally leavened crusts made from a sourdough starter that give them a subtle but complex tang. The toppings options are exciting without being nonsensical (yes, pineapple makes an appearance). Many of the pies draw inspiration from chef Evan Gaudreau’s favorite dishes. Elote, the beloved creamy Mexican corn dish, is transformed into a pie that layers charred kernels with hefty amounts of Parmesan, guajillo chiles, and a squeeze of lime, proving that pizza is one of the best delivery vessels for corn. Then there is the Wrath of Kahan, a pizza inspired by chef Paul Kahan of Avec and many other Chicago institutions. Gaudreau transforms Kahan’s celebrated chorizo-stuffed dates with a piquillo pepper sauce into a pie that is fatty but but spicy and cut with just the right amount of sweetness courtesy of the dates.
Owners Nayda Freire and her husband Erik Hutson -- who live in the apartment above the restaurant -- also crafted a natural wine-only list from around the globe to go with Gaudreau’s cooking, but not because the wines are now trendy. Freire says the decision was made because the philosophies of the natural wine movement -- “transparency and low-intervention” -- lined up with their philosophy on food.
The interior -- modeled after restaurants in Vienna and NYC -- has the same “low-intervention” vibe. The 120-year-old storefront feels modern but clean: Large, gold-rimmed, white-marble tables fill up the space, anchored by navy walls and large windows at the front that flood the restaurant with crisp sunlight, reminding everyone that a restaurant doesn’t have to be splashy to be spectacular.
Though he serves several courses of protein and raw dishes, at the center of the menu is a pasta family tree highlighting just how intertwined cacio e pepe, la gricia, carbonara, and amatriciana are. The differences are subtle -- the addition of an egg or a tomato here, the use of rigatoni there -- but it’s worth ordering all four. The cacio e pepe is simple, peppery (it is made with four different kinds), and it twirls perfectly around the tines of a fork. The la gricia is toothsome and savory, with each squat tube of pasta serving as a delivery vessel for guanciale and Parmesan. Add tomatoes and onions to the mix and you get SheWolf’s comforting amatriciana, or whisk in an egg instead and the result is the luxuriously rich carbonara.
Every pasta, from orecchiette to tonnarelli, gets made in the dedicated pasta room -- a glass-walled space that gently juts out into the dining area and houses a photo of actor Stanley Tucci. The restaurant makes nearly 35 kilos (77 pounds) of fresh noodles a day, all from grains the restaurant mills in house. Lombardo says he sources the heritage grains he uses, like spelt, from Michigan, with the durum wheat, crucial to most of the pastas, arriving from Arizona. Nothing goes to waste at SheWolf, meaning the leftover bran from each day’s milling is massaged into the crisp and airy focaccia and used in the water to cook the pasta, maximizing the flavor of each dish. The kitchen is clearly paying attention at SheWolf, and the deliciousness is found in the details.
The space is a calm retreat from the bustling intersection that lies near it. The ceilings are high and the space features several textured white surfaces. Though every seat is usually occupied, the restaurant manages to remain comfortably quiet. “Most restaurants are too loud,” says Alikhani. “Eating out is an occasion and I wanted something relaxing.” There are subtle touches throughout the space that point to Alikhani’s upbringing in Isfahan, Iran. Servers don blue block-printed aprons made in her hometown, the arches above the bar are inspired by her grandmother’s house, and the bathroom is plastered in posters of Iranian films from the 1970s.
The space might feel minimal but the flavors in Alikhani’s cooking are not. Comforting kofteh made from beef, rice, and tarragon arrive floating in a fragrant tomato saffron broth; smoky eggplant makes an appearance with drippy poached eggs; and a thick yogurt dip, loaded with dried shallots, monochromatic like the space, delivers a tang and a pucker few dishes can. All of it is best wiped up with hunks of the house-made bread, chewy and studded with black sesame seeds.
Save the most room for the rice. Alikhani’s kitchen whips up fluffy, lustrous piles of golden saffron rice and another version dotted with flecks of dill and cilantro. Each grain is perfectly cooked and separated. And then there is the tahdig, the pan-fried layer of rice at the bottom of a pot. The version at Sofreh, made with just oil, rice, and patience, is so buttery and luxurious, it’s no wonder Alikhani limits tables to just a few pieces, or it’s all anyone might eat for dinner.
The restaurant, tucked away inside the brand new Line Hotel in DC, is one of three new restaurants inside the hip property. It is the smallest, but it is also the best. The brainchild of beloved DC chef Erik Bruner-Yang is a nod to the Japanese bar concept of tachinomiya. A defining feature of that? No chairs, to encourage mingling with nearby diners. It might be daunting at first, but a couple bites into the meal and you’ll forget about your feet, diverting your attention to your tongue and stomach.
Chef de cuisine Matt Crowley isn’t afraid to use what many would consider to be challenging ingredients. Durian -- the contentious fruit prized by some for its taste and hated by most for its fragrance -- is fermented for two weeks and worked into a funky and bright yellow curry. The fermentation of the fruit helps to mellow the pungency, explains Bruner-Yang, and it arrives with a mound of spaghetti squash, a nimble substitute for noodles, and sliced chili peppers for heat. There is also a tender blood cake, made with well, coagulated blood, as well as dried fried rice for texture, and a pile of herbs for freshness.
Desserts, crafted by pastry chef Pichet Ong, are simple and textural. While they are good, it’s worth heading to Bruner-Yang’s sister restaurant in the Line, Brothers and Sisters, for a slice of Ong’s cakes instead. They are stunning -- and come with a chair.
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