Friday, September 3, 2010


As Boris Yelnikoff conceded, "Sometimes a cliché is finally the best way to make one's point." So here goes: in Los Angeles, the Mediterranean cuisines with their similar climes have been adapted to California's cherished agricultural and piscatory products to salutary effect. While this practice has produced such cringeworthy locutions as "Cal-Ital" and the antipodean "Cal-French," I will trade their regular utterance for the work product of Suzanne Goin, chef-owner of Lucques and the city's foremost practitioner of Cal-French and for that matter Cal-Maghrebi. (She prepares an expert lamb tagine.)

But until the advent of Momed, the great cuisines of the Eastern Mediterranean--from Turkey, Greece, and Lebanon--have never received their due Californication. Granted there is no shortage of falafel shops around, owing to Los Angeles's large population of persons of Middle Eastern lineage. I plead to an especial weakness for the lamb's tongue sandwich at Falafel Arax despite its dreary location. But Arax and its ilk are yoked to a specific Old World sense of tradition that nevertheless yields an everydayness well suited for Los Angeles, owing to their various foods' lightness of flavor and casual sensibilities.

Momed was conceived when businessman Alex Sarkissian, an émigré from Iran by way of London and of Armenian lineage, somehow linked up with chef Matthew Carpenter over their shared interest in the cuisines of the Eastern Mediterranean and, to a lesser extent, the Maghreb. In thinking about menus and recipes, Sarkissian and Carpenter explored Athens, Beirut, and Istanbul, a city that is the dream that the otherwise trenchant Paul Keating says it is. Along with GM Vasilis Tseros, they did not want to be serving basic shawarma and hummus a la Arax. Carpenter, it should be noted, is no prima donna and is prone to setting up Momed's patio tables and chairs in the morning hours.

With Beverly Hills's many pedestrians and Semites, management settled on the suburb for its location, the very same Beverly Hills that is home to the original Cheesecake Factory; the opulent hook bar known as Cut; Crustacean, known for its soi-disant Secret Kitchen; and best of all Mr. Chow's whose popularity has endured despite being derided 28 years ago by the Stern Critic of the Contemporary Scene as the spot where narcotics salesman Jive Miguel celebrated at midnight with "Szechuan dumplings / After the deal has been done." Accordingly, Momed's cultivated sense of style and charm, which is an extension of Mr. Sarkissian's personality, and the elegance of its informal service make the restaurant one of few in Beverly Hills where an unironic meal can be had.

Dips are a staple of the Levantine kitchen, and Momed has engineered several twists on the familiar that are as clever as they are agreeable to the palate. The avocado hummus tastes as creamy and green as its looks with a flavor that splits the difference between the chickpea and the avocado. A single bite overcomes any initial fear that the dip is as contrived and off-putting as a grocery store California roll, or for that matter, a Kogi taco. The balanced, spicy eggplant dip, which--it has been intoned--is not baba ghanoush, gradually reveals its flavor and gentle spice over a period of seconds. Momed does offer a standard hummus for the timorous and hidebound, but its overly thick texture yields one of Momed's few missteps.

The salads, in constant variation, exemplify seasonality and an adaptation of the Mediterranean. The tabbouleh swaps parsley for fresh watercress, not that there is a shortage of parsley on the Left Coast. One constant salad is a showcase for samphire, a seaweed resembling baby asparagus that is tossed with green beans and actual asparagus. (I have only seen samphire used elsewhere in Casa Mono's fideos, where I used it to sweep away that dish's mayonnaise, a surefire emetic.) When in season, Momed serves roasted artichokes with fava beans and peas, a dish that appears much less oleaginous than the comparable version served at Tawlet Restaurant el Tayeb, a restaurant profiled in the recent "Back to Beirut" episode of No Reservations. My favorite salad is a simple helping of roast potatoes—sorry, Weiser potatoes—served room temperature with a tapenade of the First Triumvirate, namely anchovies, capers, and olives. I can assure you that Caesar, Crassus, and Pompey would have concurred.

Of course Momed offers an array of meats and seafood cooked on skewers. I am most taken by the pepper-laced lamb and beef koefte, which is always a model of succulence and spice. Accompanied by lightly grilled watercress, mint, and cherry tomatoes, the heat can be elevated with a helping of muhammara, the delicious red dip of roasted red pepper, walnut and pomegranate. Underneath the koefte lies one of Momed's toothsome and delightfully chewy pide, the pocketless Turkish flatbread that is a Momed specialty. Despite the considerable restraint required, one must allow the pide to soak up all the escaping juices and not devour all the muhammara at once. When the pide is all mucked up with koefte remnants and the piquant muhammara, the taste is irresistible. Patience is a virtue.

For my tastes and proclivities, which have always favored seafood to meat, the Byblos seafood salad is the standout. Named after the ancient Phoenician seaport near Beirut, the plate overflows with tender marinated shrimp, octopodes of various stages of adolescent development, and calamari. Bolstered by fennel, herbs, and the occasional schmear of avocado hummus, the salad is dressed just lightly enough with an admixture of lemon and raki, the anise-flavored spirit popular in Turkey. At the suggestion (and compliments) of Mr. Tseros, I had a glass of the Domaine Spiropoulos, a Peloponnesian white wine made from the autochthonous moschofilero varietal which has a striking pink tint. The combination of wine and all that octopus and fennel instantly transported me back to Mr. Tserors's native and bustling Salonika, where I once spent two days drinking wine and eating olives along the Aegean. Reality only re-intruded when I finished a section of the Gray Lady, looked up, and found myself in Beverly Hills, California.

Momed is so comprehensive with its coffee that it offers both mild and dark roasts of Turkish coffee which Momed has re-christened as "Mediterranean coffee" in the spirit of ecumenism. (In this vein, the wine list spans Greece and Turkey, Israel and Lebanon. If only it were that easy.) The mild roast, which is from Edna's Coffee in Glendale, is the best coffee in Los Angeles, that is, when the single barista trained to make it happens to be on duty. Momed's genius is to imbue every sip with physicality; the coffee has the thickness and color of the waters off the Louisiana coast, perfect for Turkish coffee if not life itself. The Four Seasons at Sultanahmet in Istanbul could not approximate such quality. For this luxury, I deem Momed's sin of using Intelligentsia beans for espresso expiated. When Edna's mild is coupled with a sweet, walnutty ma'amoul soirée cookie, any afternoon would be complete.


233 South Beverly Drive

Beverly Hills

(310) 270-4444