Beirut was once in the eye of the perfect culinary storm. Billed the “Paris of the Middle East”, the city was lined with souks, waterfront fishmongers, and Parisian-style boulevards. The cuisine that emerged from the area -- part Turkish, part French, part holistically Lebanese -- was a perfect melding of the region’s cultural influences.
Food like that is hard to come by in New York -- but perhaps the closest you’ll get is a narrow, modest, tavern on Avenue A titled Au Za’atar.
Helmed by the Lebanese-born Tarik Fallous, the Arabian-French Bistro’s menu attempts to pay homage to all of the distinct flavors that make up traditional Lebanese cooking. “All the recipes at Au Za’atar are recipes I grew up eating, recipes from my mother and family,” Fallous tells Thrillist, “recipes that I enjoy cooking.”
The inclusive menu, which features over 60 items, offers a roster of unrivaled classic dishes like expertly-whipped baba ganoush, a smoky in-house cultured labne, and pita bread so soft and flavorful, it hardly requires any of the signature mezze that accompanies it. On the more ambitious side, Fallous serves up dishes like Dalaa Mahshi -- a braised lamb shoulder stuffed with minced beef, seasoned rice, and topped with herbs and ground nuts -- or Samke Harra, a spiced sea bass fillet cooked in tahini with diced potatoes. The restaurant, cobbled together with dark wood and simple curtains, is Fallous’ fragment of Beirut in the heart of the East Village.
And while most of the expansive menu is rich, nuanced, and deftly prepared, the standout dish is the tableside shawarma: a towering hunk of beef, served directly from spool to plate. To prepare the meaty, cylindrical sculpture, Fallous and his team marinate fresh cuts of beef for 24 hours in a house-made tahini and an eight-spice blend, before stacking them atop a spinning pole, where they’re cooked in steady, even turns on a spinning griller. Tallous delivers the contraption directly to each table, so guests can slice their own fresh cuts of meat, served with warm pita, and spiced potatoes.
“I wanted to have a place for my family and friends,” says Fallous, “where I can take them to Lebanon without them having to leave New York City.” He seems to have done just that.