With Middle Eastern restaurant Nava now open at Soho House West Hollywood, Joshua David Stein explains why Levantine cuisine is on the rise
There was a time, not too long ago, when bistros, brasseries and bouchons were popping up on street corners the world over. French cooking was everywhere. Until the dawn of the ‘ampersand era’, that is, when every new restaurant was called Proper Noun & Proper Noun and offered greasy comfort foods drawn up from some mythical, cheese-drenched past. The fried chicken sandwich became ubiquitous. Edison bulbs all over.
Now, another cuisine is surging, as Middle Eastern ingredients work their way into kitchens across the globe. In London, Yotam Ottolenghi is a towering figure thanks to his radiant Syrian, Turkish, Lebanese and Israeli flavours. Chefs Einat Admony and Michael Solomonov are revolutionising Israeli cuisine in New York and Philadelphia respectively, while in New Orleans the hottest table in town is at Shaya – Alon Shaya’s Israel-meets-The Big Easy mash-up. Amanda Gale’s restaurant, Nava, is now open at Soho House West Hollywood, using locally-sourced ingredients in Middle Eastern-inspired salads and vegetable dishes, with fish and meats chargrilled over wood. The signs are clear: today’s most talented chefs find themselves drawn to the food of the Fertile Crescent that stretches from Egypt to the Persian Gulf.
“today’s most talented chefs find themselves drawn to the food of the fertile crescent that stretches from egypt to the persian gulf”
There’s one simple explanation for the rise of Middle Eastern food: its focus on fresh, seasonal and local ingredients dovetails perfectly with how we want to eat today. Sabrina Ghayour, whose 2014 cookbook Persiana introduced many to the flavours of her native Tehran, describes it as being “quite similar to an Italian approach”. In her new book Sirocco (out in May), Ghayour brings that approach to life. “It’s regional cooking,” she says. “If you don’t live by the sea, you don’t eat fish. If you don’t live where garlic grows, you don’t eat garlic.”
Happily for Gale, Los Angeles is both coastal and near the garlic-growing regions of Santa Clara. When the Australian chef arrived in LA five months ago – having spent six years working as executive chef for the Como Group in Bali – she was struck by the wealth of local produce. “There are farmers up and down the coast,” she tells me, on a rare break from service. “And such amazing ingredients in close proximity to LA.”
Gale and Ghayour share an approach to the Levantine palate which is by no means traditional, and you’ll find some bracingly un-Middle Eastern ingredients on Nava’s sun-soaked tables – dishes with brussels sprouts and butternut squash sit alongside the region’s famous fattoush salad. What is typical, says Gale, is the use of sumac and pomegranate, spice mixes including ras el hanout and dukkah and bountiful amounts of strained yogurt, or labneh.
The MENA (Middle East and North African) region, as it’s often called, reaches from Morocco to Iran and has experienced more than its fair share of war and instability. Many chefs have emigrated, taking their spices and the recipes of their families abroad. But, as Gale suggests, it’s a particular class of Israeli chefs who’ve spent years laying the groundwork for this latest boom – among them Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich of Honey & Co in London, and Ottolenghi before them. Growing up in Sydney, where she began cooking aged 19, Gale remembers how, even then, she was making harissa, a chilli paste from North Africa, and chermoula, a marinade for seafood from the Maghreb. Chermoula makes an appearance at Nava, woven amongst freekeh, an ancient Middle Eastern cereal grain, and aubergine, which is to the Middle East what the potato is to Ireland.
“This is my interpretation,” says Gale. “But, after all, most cooking is simply interpretation.” Ultimately, it might be the mutability of the flavours of Middle Eastern cuisine that has helped its spread across many lands. As with Ghayour’s cookbooks, what Gale is doing with sprouts at Nava feels at once warmly Middle Eastern and excitingly unknown. “It’s not food with an identity,” says Ghayour. “It’s just good food with flavours from the East.”