I like bread and I cannot lie.
Forget the sourdough. 2023 is all about Middle Eastern breads.
Perhaps some of you have made New Year’s Resolutions? It’s a thing, this resolution tradition. I’ve heard rumblings of it. To be honest, I’m not very good at them, so I tend to think more about New Year’s Intentions, which are a little more wishy washy and allow for more forgivable rules of engagement. Like “I will run more, but perhaps it will just be running to the bar?” Or, “I’ll open only one bottle of wine per day, not two!” Yeah, I read this study that seems to support drinking less.
Obviously the most important New Year’s resolution is to read The Strong Buzz, and the best way to do that is to subscribe. So what are you waiting for?
Now, I realize many of you are far more motivated and disciplined than me, which is why you’re successful, and why I’m writing a newsletter on Substack at the age of 53 with less than 2000 subscribers. But we digress. You are fabulous, and you know it, and I know it. But if you’re struggling with a resolution, and sort of want to commit to something, I have an idea for you. Commit to bread. And by bread I do not mean sourdough, that’s very 2022. This is 2023 people and I am pushing for a new obsession: Middle Eastern breads. Breads like Lafa and Kubaneh, Malawich and Frena, and Pita and Gozleme.
In today’s Strong Buzz, I’ve included a few of my favorite spots to eat these breads, but there are many more across the city not mentioned here (Laser Wolf, Miss Ada), so please add your faves to the comments!
Also, if you’re gluten free, I’m very sorry that this Bread Consumption Resolution won’t work for you, but we can find you another resolution. You could consider a commitment to daily naps? You could commit to saying no to things (and by things I mean people) that don’t spark joy? Or perhaps commit to taking your daily SSRI with a glass of cold champagne instead of tap water? The world is your oyster!
Shukette: Frena, Pita, Lafa, Gozlome, and more
At Shukette, chef Ayesha Nurdjaja serves four different Middle Eastern breads—all homemade and freshly baked so they are warm when they’re placed in front of you, where they will last approximately 1.5 minutes before they are ripped, dipped, and demolished, and reordered.
Ayesha’s breads are amazing; and I say this because the data is very persuasive here. She goes through 300 orders of Frena a night. Frena, you ask? Yes, Frena, a Moroccan bread that resembles a focaccia: high and puffy, with deep dimples and a crusty bottom and glossy top. This is one of my favorite of her breads.
Ayesha learned to make Frena on a trip to Israel she took before opening Shukette. She hired a guide who set her up with meals in people’s homes. “I would rather eat in someone’s home than in a restaurant,” she said. “You learn the most that way.”
On one visit she met a Moroccan-Israeli woman, a home baker who lived in the north, near the border of Lebanon. She made this Frena, a Moroccan-style flatbread, in a contraption on the stove top, a pot that resembled a pressure cooker with a heated coil at the top of the pot. In her home kitchen, she taught Ayesha how to make the dough and how to cook it so it was crusty and griddled on the outside and warm and puffy inside. “It was so delicious, a sort of football shape with a crunchy bottom and a pillow top,” Ayesha recalled. As soon Ayesha she got home, she began fiddling with the recipe for Shukette.
The trick with Frena is that it needs to be made a la minute, it doesn’t hold well and if it is made in advance. That’s a risk for a restaurant that does over 300 covers a night. But Ayesha figured out a way: make the dough in advance, portion it out, and to order, sear it off in black steel pans used for paella, and finish the top under the salamander. It gets drizzled with olive oil, giant cloves of confit garlic, chiles, and sea salt and fresh za'atar or oregano. The tweaks and the recipe worked. Now, every single table gets at least one.
In addition to the Frena, Ayesha makes made-to-order lafa, a recipe she adapted from Claudia Roden that’s includes flour, yogurt, olive oil, water, yeast and salt. She’s also doing a puffy whole wheat pita pocket that gets a three day ferment, and a rotating stuffed bread. She’s done Gozleme, a Turkish bread that resembles a scallion pancake that’s often stuffed with cheese and potato. Sometimes it’s a Khachapuri, the boat-shaped Georgian bread she often fills with feta, hand pulled mozz, labne and some garlic and dill. Right now she’s doing a bar-shaped Lebanese Sfeeha bread, made with caramelized onions and cumin, stuffed with ground lamb, and sprinkled with sesame seeds.
What are you waiting for? Go and eat bread!
Juan Pardo’s Breads at Dagon and Monterey
Pastry Chef Juan C. Pardo is the man in charge of the bread up both at Dagon and at the newly opened Monterey. These loaves are lovely—so soft, warm, and fluffy you might be tempted to nap on them. But don’t. Eat them.
If you’ve had the Kubaneh at Dagon, you know all too well what this bread is about. This Jewish-Yemeni bread was traditionally cooked in the residual heat of the hearth on Friday night, low and slow, ready to be eaten on Shabbat morning. Juan’s loaf is available every night, not just Shabbat, so yay for us. It’s a soft pull-apart loaf that resembles a savory monkey bread or cinnamon bun; it’s pull apart, and swirly, a challah-ish loaf: yeasty, fluffy, airy, and buttery. Is there a better combination? I think not.
At Monterey, he’s turned the kubaneh into a Comte and Onion Bread, his take on a Jewish onion roll, but significantly more delicious thanks to the cheese and loads of sweet caramelized onions. It comes with a completely gratuitous chive creme fraiche; this is a bread that does not need anything additional, but thanks for the thought. He’s also baking a striking Balloon Sesame Lavash to accompany a carrot tahini topped with merguez spiced almonds, a perfect loaf for ripping and dipping. The man is a bread genius.
Edith’s Eatery & Grocery
There’s a lot happening at Edith’s Eatery & Grocery, the global Jewish eatery in Williamsburg that got its start as a pandemic pop-up over the spring of 2020 at Paulie Gee’s Pizzeria. Named for founder Elyssa’s great aunt Edith, who ran a Brooklyn deli back in the 50s, the eatery is a homage to old world recipes from Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews. That means you’ve got bagels and smoked fish, homemade pita, bourekas, onion rolls, Turkish breakfasts, and their epic malawich. Yes, Malawich. This is what is most crucial for your bread-eating resolution.
This gorgeous laminated bread, a traditional flatbread made by Yemeni Jews, is what might be born if a croissant married a roti. It is wide, flat, and circular, and roughly the size of a large pizza pie. While it’s technically quite ample, one might even say massive, I find it’s never enough.
Glossed in bay leaf marinated olive oil, it’s served with zhug, grated tomato, and your choice of labneh, harissa, shakshuka, jammy six-minute egg, or simple side of house-made jam and butter. You will slowly work your way through this magnificent marvel of butter and flour, tearing it off strips with frayed edges, layering on your choice of topping. You will plan a return visit before you leave. If I may, I also recommend the house Bloody Mary served in a tall sundae glass rimmed with chile-salt, and garnished with a small meal of skewered pastrami, peppadew peppers, cornichons, and onions.
This beloved family-style Palestinian restaurant on Atlantic Avenue comes from Abdul Elenani and Ayat Masoud, who opened Ayat in Bay Ridge, and it’s already earned a reputation as one of the most welcoming spots for overeating delicious Palestinian food. There will be leftovers.
While you should by all means go for the traditional entrees like Fattat Jaj (a layered dish of roasted chicken, rice, chickpeas, mint yogurt, crispy pita, garlic sauce and slivered almonds), and Kofta bi Tahini (as good as it sounds), the breads here are worth a visit on their own. Platters of freshly baked Taboon bread (similar to lafa), warm and soft, are ferried around the restaurant from oven to table, scarfed down plain and ripped into edible spoons for the contents of the house mezze platter that includes all your faves: hummus, baba, muhammara, tabbouleh, salata tahuna and labneh. From there, dig into one of their hearth-baked flatbreads adorned with the likes of ground pistachio, Zaatar, Lahma Bi Ajeen, Shawarma, cheese, and more. This is where your bread resolution comes to life.