It’s a bit surprising that the Middle Eastern food movement—at least on the high end—has taken so long to take off in L.A., considering our sizable immigrant population. But there’s perhaps no better person to take on the task than chef-owner of the Arts District restaurant Bestia, Ori Menashe, whose family roots reside in the greater Middle East.
Angelenos have long awaited Menashe’s next move—and rightfully so. The chef’s regional Italian fare at Bestia has a stronghold on pretty much every “Best” list, and almost six years after opening, it’s still near impossible to get a table. Seats are equally hard to snag at Bavel, Menashe’s homage to the Middle East’s diverse culinary tapestry. Like its Italian counterpart, Bavel is buzzing. On a Monday night, its a who’s who of the culinary scene. Well-known chefs, prominent food writers and even a Netflix comedienne known for her affinity to the food world are seated in the oversize dining room, huddled over steaming Moroccan tagines with beef cheek, or noshing on thick chunks of lamb neck with pillows of freshly baked laffa.
But the buzz is where the similarities between Bestia and Bavel end. At Bestia, bone-marrow luges and rich handmade pastas reign, and you can easily walk out in need of a repentance. Bavel, on the other hand, has a levity and freshness that will undoubtedly open hearts to the region’s cuisine. For the uninitiated, Middle Eastern cooking in many ways is quite Mediterranean. The similarities between the two—but also the exciting and possibly unfamiliar differences—are why the cuisine has the potential to play so well in L.A.
What separates it from its counterpart is its rich and complex layering of spices, along with the application of bitterness, lent from ingredients like preserved lemon and pomegranate molasses; the use of cooling elements like labneh, a thick dairy not dissimilar to Greek yogurt; the addition of sweetness to savory dishes via smatterings of dried fruit; smoke and dense char from cooking over a live fire; vibrancy lent from freshly torn mint and parsley; and the perfect amount of acid in the form of vinegars and citrus, all of which combine to make dishes pop.
Bavel is wildly ambitious, not just in terms of attempting to cook food from an entire region rather than a singular country, but in its sheer volume. At any given point, there are between 20 to 25 dishes on the menu, not inclusive of wife and pastry chef Genevieve Gergis’ fabulous desserts. But Menashe’s command of the kitchen is ever-present no matter which way you choose. It’s a safe bet that if you were blindfolded and pointed, you’d do very well. The eggplant escabeche is a vegetarian’s dream, and a perfect example of a dish being “all the things,” with its combo of sweet, smoke and acid from vinegar, pomegranate molasses, burnt eggplant puree and mint. Same goes for the scallop crudo, which is like a great Sinaloan aguachile and comes swimming in a punchy, acidic broth made with pomegranate molasses, citrus, burnt serrano chile oil, charred cucumber, mint and black sesame. There are sweet, succulent prawns done in a similar style to the Creole version, but, here, are marinated in harissa and served alongside an eggplant tzatziki, herbs and lime. Again, there’s that winning combo: hot, cool, smoky, fresh and bright.
You’d be remiss not to order one of the hummus offerings. The duck version is served with a heaping spoonful of ’nduja, a spreadable salumi that’s given its kick from Aleppo pepper and paprika. The deep, smoky heat pairs perfectly with the silken chickpea puree, with freshly chopped parsley adding a wonderful cooling effect. The same goes for the malawach, an ancient grain-infused bread that reads as a nuttier, more flavorful version of Indian roti. It’s served with the traditional grated tomato and egg like you’d find at Toast on West Third Street, but with the addition of dill creme fraiche dotted with a spoonful of seasonal strawberry zhoug: a uniquely Californian version of the spicy, herbaceous Yemeni dip.
Seated at the bar among Arabic arches, detailed tile work, and a lush, draped hanging garden—while enjoying a glass of vino from Ryan Ibsen’s incredible wine program—you can’t help but feel that you’re in a modern version of the Alhambra. It’s fitting that the architecture shines, as the name Bavel nods to the Biblical tower of Babel, a massive edifice built in Babylon (now modern-day Iraq) intended to reach the heavens. The tower was built when there was a singular language among humanity. But as a punishment to civilization, God cursed humans to no longer understand each other. Communities were divided; countries were formed.
While the lines between mythology and history are blurred, it’s easy to see the parallels: In a time plagued by conflict, we’re reminded that food is the tie that binds. It’s our common language. And what better place to commune than a restaurant like Bavel?
500 Mateo St., L.A., 213.232.4966
Spreads, $12-$21; appetizers, $7-$26; flatbreads, $17; entrees, $38-$165; dessert, $10-$13
Sun.-Thu., 5-11pm; Fri. & Sat., 5pm-midnight