Williamsburg: Zizi Limona and The New Middle Eastern Cuisine

Slideshow SLIDESHOW: Williamsburg: Zizi Limona and The New Middle Eastern Cuisine

[Photographs: Max Falkowitz, unless otherwise noted]

Zizi Limona

129 Havemeyer Street, Brooklyn, NY 11211 (b/n Grand and South 1st; map); 347-763-1463; zizilimona.com
Service: Mellow and casual but attentive
Setting: Homey but colorful; your funky grandma's loft with Zeppelin on the stereo
Must-Haves: Falafel, Tershi, Shawarma Wrap, Shakshuka
Cost: $15 to $25 per person for food
Grade: A

During the Passover seder we talk about four children who each ask a question of the adults at the table. The wise child, the only one we really celebrate, says to the family, "What are these laws and traditions we carry out?" In other words, "what does all this mean to you and me?"

So the allegory goes, this is the child we entrust our traditions to. We trust him to keep them safe and practice them well.

Zizi Limona is what happens when the wise child opens a restaurant—or when three of them do. And though chef Nir Mesika and Hummus Place vets Yigal Ashkenazi and Sharon Hoota have succeeded in creating a neighborhood spot that's casual and affordable enough for weekly meals, they've also made something greater. Call it pan-Middle Eastern or the New Israeli Cuisine or whatever else you like, but heed this: if the deceptively simple stuff at Balaboosta gets you hungry, it's time to head over to Williamsburg for a taste of smart Middle Eastern cuisine like nothing else in New York.

I'm hard-pressed to find another restaurant that uses caramelized pumpkin and preserved lemons and charred onions quite like Zizi does. And I'm even harder pressed to find another that respects tradition while embracing the new so effortlessly. Whether we're talking about the Tershi ($5), a roasted pumpkin and ginger purée topped with gently spiced chickpeas; or a dish of Crazy Baba ($5), smoke-tastic eggplant dip made funky by feta and basil, one swipe of the pita tells you what you need to know: they get it here. They understand the technical and cultural underpinnings of great Middle Eastern cooking, and they nail it.

Take the Grilled Baby Eggplant ($7) with its crisp, pliant skin and custard-like innards bathed in smoke. At a lesser restaurant the mop of arugula, feta, and cherry tomatoes on top would be distracting. But not here, where a drizzle of olive oil draws raw and cooked together with ease and balance.

Aunt Trippo's Falafel ($6)

Aunt Trippo's Falafel.

And then there's Aunt Trippo's Falafel ($6), the equal of our very favorites across the city. It's oblong with a greaseless crust that takes browning to heart while keeping the insides moist and bright. "It's all very simple," chef Mesika says, "just chickpeas, coriander, cumin, cilantro, and lemon." But that doesn't capture the coriander's crunch, the cumin's warmth, the lemon and herbal lift. The falafel cairn is topped with curry-enriched tahini, charred onions, pickled cabbage, and a smoky tomato relish. Who needs pita? It'd only mask the fun.

Of all the small plates we tried, only the burek, Sometimes a Cigar is Just a Cigar ($7) with a subdued mozzarella-almond filling disappoints. But even there the phyllo wrapper, glistening with honey, is shatter-crisp the way it should be, the way so few others in New York are.

Getting these dishes just right, simple though they are, isn't easy, and the "grandma does it best" trope isn't unwarranted where smoked eggplant and crisp phyllo are concerned. Which is why Mesika admits that, although he studied under Meir Adoni at Israeli's celebrated modernist restaurant Catit, cooking at his grandmother's side was just as vital to his culinary education. That tershi recipe comes from her, as does the slow cooked oxtail further down the menu.

His salads are also done well, if a little more expected. The Fatush ($12) is more plant than pita, with cherry tomatoes, more of that tangy feta, roasted peppers, and charred onions ("charred" is a good omen for the menu items that offer it). The kicker is a spoonful of tapenade on top, flecked with za'atar, that makes this crunch-forward salad something to talk about. Charred Beet & Lentil Salad ($11) sure sounds ordinary, but its sexy dressing of sweet carrots, ginger, tahini, and dates runs laps around the salad bar staple.

Pita and Tahini

A note about that tahini: it makes you stop and give pause. Mesika insists it's just sesame paste and oil that he mixes with water and salt, but it's so sweet and nutty and fresh-tasting that you'll wonder how we've gotten by on the jarred stuff for so long. Fortunately you can purchase it, along with select spices, pita, and olive oil, right in the restaurant's mini market, a display case against one of the brick walls.

Were this all Zizi Limona did, it would be enough. But they also make sandwiches that take a sledgehammer to staid falafel joint classics. There's that bizarrely delicious Sabih Croissant ($10 at lunch, $11 at dinner), but also a Shawarma Wrap and Zizi sub Moroccan-style ($10 each, lunch only) that joyfully mix meats, smoked and charred vegetables, and preserved lemons in pliant laffa bread. To use the awful word, they're authentic to nowhere in particular, but are full-flavored and complete-tasting and smart. Mesika takes pleasure in busting cultural divides, but he does so to draw together ingredients and techniques that taste better without walls in between.

Larger dishes are listed on the menu as "Big Zi's," and though they qualify as single entrées, they're better shared. The best may be the Shakshuka ($10), a breakfast staple reformulated for dinner with a solitary egg afloat in a sea of gently spiced tomato that melts into more of that creamy tahini. It's sauce for dinner, so ask for extra pita (excellent, by the way) and get to cleaning that plate. For an additonal $8 you get upgraded to Cowshuka with a sizable portion of skirt steak on top. It's a cute take on steak and eggs, but the meat is cooked past the medium-rare sweet spot, which makes for awkward knifework with all the surrounding sauce.

Others dishes are solid but a little less successful: the spiraled Five Hour Boureka ($15), filled with unctuous braised oxtail, lacks the vibrancy of other dishes on the menu. And we enjoyed the cinnamon-tinged chickpea stew and yogurt dollops more than the Stuffed Root Veggies ($15) and compacted lamb kofta that they support. That said, it's hardly a chore to finish them.

Baklvava

I usually find that it's best to skip dessert at Middle Eastern restaurants in favor of some strong coffee, but if Baklava is on the menu when you visit, make that your order. Mesika emphasizes crisp phyllo and a multitude of nuts over heavy spices and over-sweet syrups. Though the homemade ice cream in the Basbosa Semolina Cake ($7), really a scoop of vanilla with halvah crumbles on top, could stand to be creamier, and those sesame crumbs are just too dense. As for that Turkish Coffee ($2.50), it's more like an Americano in taste and volume, which you'll find welcome or frustrating depending on your coffee tastes.

So of all the things Zizi does well, what does it do best? Small plates for sure: that falafel, that pumpkin. And sandwiches too, which aren't cheap at their price point but filling values regardless, as fun to eat as they are rewarding to think about. Plus a shakshuka I'd return for tonight to fill out the braised oxtail I'm curious about. (We haven't even talked about brunch; keep an eye out for that.)

There's also the friendliness of the restaurant: you can get in without a wait and servers treat you with unrushed kindness. They endeavor to treat you like a guest in their home, and they succeed. It's casual, straightforward hospitality with Led Zeppelin and The xx humming in the background.

But on a higher level, Zizi's greatest rewards are its integrity and sense of adventure. Pita and tahini and falafel this good don't happen by accident, and I'm happy to call this restaurant a new standard bearer for New York's Middle Eastern restaurant world. But those high standards coexist with a commitment to reinterpreting ancient cultural forms with agility and care. The wise children are hard at work here, and we should be paying attention.

More dishes in the slideshow »

About the author: Max Falkowitz is the editor of Serious Eats: New York. You can follow him on Twitter at @maxfalkowitz.

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