There might not be peace yet in the Middle East, but that region’s restaurants in these parts have long presented a remarkably unified front. Pass under any middle eastern food awning and you’ll find a familiar assortment of lemon-and-mint-dressed salads, stuffed-pita sandwiches, and sundry meats twirling on spits, whether the proprietor hails from Alexandria or Istanbul. Lately, though, we’ve noticed a subtle shift on our falafel forays, a growing tendency to specialize and introduce some distinct national nuances into New York street-food parlance. Zhoug, that fiery green hot sauce? Yemenite. Melokhia, the viscous vegetable soup? Egyptian. And if you see something full of walnuts and pomegranate, it’s probably Persian.
There’s no mistaking the pedigree of Bread From Beirut, a Lebanese fast-food joint that opened two months ago with a brick oven, a pair of energetic Lebanese chefs, and a bustling, yellow-bandanna’d counter crew that keeps the lunchtime lines moving. A good thing, since neighboring diamond dealers, bargain-seeking office workers, and a multicultural clientele of Israelis, Turks, Palestinians, Egyptians, and Lebanese have discovered this affordable oasis in the midtown-lunch desert. What, exactly, are breads from Beirut? Here, they’re meals in themselves, something akin to pizza – round, flat, and delectably topped with za’atar, a mixture of sesame seeds, ground sumac, olive oil, and fragrant thyme; or keshik, a powdery blend of crushed wheat, sesame seeds, and crumbled dry goat cheese.
All the sandwiches come rolled in thin house-baked pita, in traditional Lebanese fashion, rather than stuffed in store-bought pockets. The succulent chicken shawarma, crisp, charcoal-edged, and slathered (upon request) with Altoid-defying garlic sauce, is rolled tightly and squished in a sandwich press. Chickpeas dominate the New York falafel market, but here they’re combined with fava beans, and at their freshest, they’re astoundingly light. During the midday rush, the front of the shop becomes a falafel-assembly line, with a designated team systematically frying, draining, smooshing, rolling, and wrapping the sandwiches, one after another.
Stuffed kibbeh, fat little deep-fried torpedoes of bulghur wheat filled with minced meat, onions, and pine nuts, are to the Lebanese what crab cakes are to a Baltimorean, or barbecue is to a Texan: one of those cuisine-defining regional dishes that no one but your grandmother ever gets right. Bread From Beirut’s are crisp golden brown outside, juicy and aromatic with a hint of cinnamon within, although drier if you don’t get them right out of the fryer. (As is everything, which makes the bustling lunch rush a better bet than dinner, when lower turnover can result in dry rice, reheated kafta, or – sorrow of sorrows – an eighty-sixed chicken shawarma.)
We’ve yet to be disappointed by any of the vegetarian appetizers, those spreads and salads that can make or break a Middle Eastern kitchen’s reputation. B From B scores with first-rate hummus, smoky baba ghanoush, and bracing laban bill khiar, a cool, creamy blend of homemade yogurt, garlic, mint, and cucumbers. The warrak enab look unloved and underdeveloped, but they might be our very favorite grape leaf ever, stuffed with rice, tomato, and parsley, slick and tart with olive oil and lemon. Two invigorating salads – a romaine-based fatoush dusted with sumac and strewn with pita croutons, and a bright, parsley-packed tabbouleh – manage to overcome their sad, winter-wan tomatoes (a shame, at the height of the local season). Lebanese moussaka is as far from the Greek casserole as the thick labne yogurt is from Light n’ Lively – which is to say, out of the calling area. It’s cold and tangy, a delicious vegetarian stew of eggplant, chickpeas, and onion in a chunky tomato sauce. And moudardra, a rice-and-lentil medley topped with crispy caramelized onions, demonstrates what those Near East pilaf people were shooting for.
Eating in means busing your tray to a windowless back room outfitted with children’s school chairs and communal tables pushed up against sponge-painted walls. There’s not much atmosphere, and even less at night, when the deserted business district feels a little gloomy. But we’ll happily forgo frills when a kitchen makes such a delicious declaration of culinary independence from the Middle Eastern morass. Now that’s what we call baking a name for yourself.
Bread From Beirut, Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday to 6 p.m. Appetizers, $4 to $6.50; sandwiches $6.50; platters $8 to $15. All major credit cards.