It’s unquestionably the best Lebanese food outside of the Middle East, Europe or Montreal. But the name… how dumb can they be?
Reminds me of a story that Colin Peter Field, bartender of the legendary Hemingway Bar at the Ritz in Paris, likes to tell about his friend at the Crillon. Field has been named the world’s greatest barman by both Forbes as well as Travel + Leisure and he’s got the attitude to go along with the title. He’ll readily admit, though, that his friend is a better mixologist; however, the friend lacks a fundamental understanding of personal marketing. Field reminisces about his friend’s creation of what he considers the cleverest concoction in bartending history: Pernod with a dash of bitters, this, that and the other, which the friend proudly dubbed “Perod Hell.” Now, when James Bond walks into a bar in a ravishing tuxedo he makes an equally important statement about himself when he confidently orders a “vodka martini, shaken not stirred.” Applying the logic that a drink order is a personal advertisement to all who surround (think about it: it’s not easy to pick up girls with a piña colada in hand, and the designated driver is not going to order a Shirley Temple either…), no gentleman would ever admit that he wanted something to be inevitably misunderstood as a “Père Noël” (…that’s French for Santa Claus)!
Restaurants bank on sex appeal. There is an air of excitement that comes along with an invitation to dine at the hot and trendy new restaurant in the Meatpacking District or at any of the classy and pricy establishments in say, the Timer Warner Center’s restaurant collection. “Let’s go to Mayass” just sounds creepy. I fear that the wonderful folks behind what is undoubtedly one of the best new restaurant openings of the year may be headed for the same fate as “Pernod Hell” if we don’t help them out a little bit here at Used York City by pointing out just how fantastic they are, so you gentlemen can feel a little more comfortable steering your friends and girlfriends toward this noteworthy arabesque abode.
Culture clash continues as you arrive. Despite the irresponsible business acumen (which is also to blame for the continuity of Al Mayass’ name in its exact transliteration from the original in Beirut) I’m nevertheless thankful for the unlikely (mis)use of space, where familial round tables and sparse open spaces contribute to a welcoming sense of serenity virtually unknown to the precious real estate of NYC’s teeming restaurant scene. Think about it: when is the last time you sat at a round table in New York? Communal tables may be cute and in vogue, but they along with banquettes are no more than timelessly quintessential tricks in a restaurateur’s arsenal used for the sole purpose of packing more paying counterparties into spaces far too small to comfortably accommodate them. So wrong, and yet so right. And so comfortable… as if you’ve been graciously invited to dine in a lavish Lebanese home.
Order accordingly. An obliging host of a Lebanese feast would flood the table with mezze, and so you should be sure to do the same. The menu debuts with five variations of hommos (from special sauce to pine nuts or meat and combinations thereof: $8-11); chances are you will pick at least one of them, and be rewarded you shall with a heavenly texture so often attempted yet so rarely achieved. When you finish it (or are dining with my Lebanese guide Ali, who scarfed down two bowls of the diced filet version before I could even get a taste) order another just to keep at the corner of the table… a perfect pairing for the heavenly pita, which is thin and airy with just the right balance of softness and bite – very much unlike the thicker, heavier Greek and Turkish varieties to which New Yorkers are typically accustomed. Bouchon’s award-winning baguette is to Wonderbread as Al Mayass’ pita is to all others.
Continue with the itch ($8) – it’s the name of a dish – no, seriously – but these guys should just go into comedy if it doesn’t work out for them in the restaurant business… a clever combination of crushed wheat with fresh tomatoes and onions, parsley and mint, sort of like tabouleh for beginners who aren’t quite ready to be bombarded by a barrage of parsley as would be expected in the authentic version. Novices appeased, we’ll move onto a dish for more seasoned eaters, which is my personal favorite at Al Mayass – the kibbe nayeh ($14), a tartare of sorts where raw filet is blended with the perfect mix of Arabic spices and crushed wheat. Unlike a good French tartare (of which I’ve resigned to the fact that there are none to be found in New York – readers, prove me wrong by commenting below) which should have a hand-chopped dice-like consistency and characteristic mustardy piquant notes, the Lebanese version is silky smooth, heightened by the aromatics of a good fruity olive oil and without even the slightest hint of pastiness.
Main courses – my expectations were high. Ali and his sisters rave about the signature sweet and sour cherry sauce, which adorns the beef kebabs ($29) at the original Al Mayass in Beirut. We all agreed, however, that while nonetheless delicious, the sauce at the New York outpost was not quite the stuff of dreams. The kebabs were pretty good though – nothing fancy but very well executed. You would be absolutely thrilled to have these served to you at someone’s dinner party.
Realistically, restaurants are really less about the food than we may otherwise choose to believe. Service, comfort, décor, music, etc. are all important too. But good restaurants are above all else venues to celebrate friends and family. Al Mayass creates that perfect opportunity with its inviting service, spacious tables, and simple foods fit for sharing. Admittedly, I’ve forgotten most of the flavor profile from that delightful cherry sauce, but the atmosphere and mood created by Al Mayass made that evening of friends and family one to be firmly etched in my memory. While New York has yet to offer a hip and foodie-worthy destination for contemporary middle-eastern food on par with the Momo’s of London, 404’s of Paris or Tawlet’s of Beirut, Al Mayass is nonetheless a welcome beacon of progress toward New York’s appreciation for this delectable and underappreciated cuisine.WHERE: Al Mayass Flatiron: 24 East 21st Street, between Broadway and Park $50-70 per person Rating: The new standard for high-end Lebanese with one of the most comfortable and hospitable dining rooms in Manhattan
Honorable mentions in the Lebanese / Middle Eastern category:
Café Mogador East Village: 101 St. Mark’s Place, between 1st and Avenue A $20-40 per person Rating: Quintessential hidden gem – casual, comfortable, convivial, cheap and most importantly, very delicious
Ilili Midtown South: 236 Fifth Avenue, between 27th and 28th $20-40 per person Rating: A noble effort at “fattoush meets fashion”
By: Adam Gross