Bestia's Ori Menashe Opens Long-Awaited Middle Eastern Concept
If there’s one thing you should know going into the highly anticipated new Arts District restaurant, Bavel, it’s that you won’t be eating Israeli food. Nor will you be eating Turkish, Moroccan, or Georgian food, strictly speaking. Instead, you’ll be eating Ori Menashe and Genevieve Gergis’ food.
The second restaurant from the husband-and-wife team behind L.A.’s perpetually buzzing Bestia, Bavel is the loosely defined as Middle Eastern concept named for the Hebrew word for "Babel." The Judeao-Christian tale referencing a unified Middle East torn apart through the confusion of language, Bavel is a cuisine unified by the heritages and experiences of its two creators.
Influenced equally by Menashe’s Moroccan, Turkish, Georgian, and Israeli roots as it is by Gergis’ memories of her father’s Egyptian food and her mother’s Ukrainian pierogis, Bavel is the sort of chef-reflective cuisine that leaves a singular definition lacking.
“I really can’t say what it is,” Menashe tells Food and Wine. “Some of the food here is influenced from me living in Israel for 14 years, but then it’s also from me being Moroccan, Turkish, and Georgian, and me traveling all over the world. Then there’s techniques you see in Spanish cuisine, French cuisine, and Italian cuisine. It’s really unique to me.”
With a menu that L.A. (and the rest of America) has been wondering about since whispers of the mythical second restaurant started filling Bestia fans with promise and anticipation well over five years ago, Menashe’s take on Middle Eastern cuisine has some big boots to fill in the face of Bestia’s grand success. Thankfully, Bavel’s menu is one of those instances that proves the old adage: Good things come to those who wait.
Ripe with a range of Middle Eastern-inspired spreads, flatbreads, small plates, and house-made charcuterie dishes, Bavel surprises where you don’t expect. A foie gras halva, inspired by Menashe’s disdain for the traditional version of the confection he remembers from childhood, takes form as creamy pate studded with date purée and sesame seeds that you’re meant to ravage with thick slices of buckwheat loaf. There's an open-faced shawarma (of sorts) made from the only cut of meat served at both Besita and Bavel: lamb neck.
Menashe’s personal favorite on the Bavel menu, the lamb neck shawarma first gets coated in a thick spread of onion, sumac, allspice, cardamom, black pepper, salt, nutmeg, and cinnamon before roasting on low heat overnight. It’s then served over a fluffy Iraqi bread known as laffa alongside herbs, fermented cabbage, and tahini. “You tear through the bread and pick up the lamb neck then put on some of the tahini and cabbage,” Menashe says. “That bite is unreal.”
Like many of the dishes at Bavel, Menashe’s pita is approached differently. The dough is fermented for three days to give it a welcome amp of acidity. A warm tear of Menashe’s pita reveals an airy, infinitely bubbled webbing inside.
“I whip it like brioche,” Menashe says of the version settled on after endless test batches. “But instead of putting butter in there I put cold olive oil. That way, you’re able to add more air into the dough and you get this crazy fluffy dough with amazing webbing. It’s different on the palate. It’s pita but it’s not pita.”
“He made it like 50 times,” Gergis adds. “And the worst part was he changed it, like, one percent each time. I was like ‘I can’t even tell! You’re killing me!'”
Seeing as Menashe made a reported 400 different test batches and sampled every sesame paste in the United States as well as sourced garbanzo beans from everywhere from Canada to India to Mexico to come up with the perfect hummus, we can’t really say we’re surprised.
“I made it from my memory, what I remember as a child from the best hummus I ever had in Israel,” Menashe says. “I was like, 'How can I make it as good or top it?' I got so obsessive and made so many batches that I actually didn’t like to eat hummus anymore.”
Besides amping things up with fermentation—they ferment everything from doughs to cabbage and even strawberries—for added acidity, funkiness and depth of flavor, the dedication to sourcing is one of the things that set Bavel apart. With hundreds of spices imported globally, each dish tells a story. Menashe located the world’s only cured sumac, and mixes a killer house za’atar with rose petals, black sesame, marjoram, thyme, and citric acid.
“Licorice root has to be shipped from overseas because Americans make licorice with anise oil,” Gergis says. “It’s not licorice. We use raw licorice roots from Iran that they freeze dry. It’s not like regular licorice it’s almost like root beer, birchy and greener. You have to source like that or you won’t get the true stuff you want.” Gergis hopes this sort of dedicated sourcing of Middle Eastern ingredients will inspire others: “Hopefully others will be like, ‘What’s this?,’ and start importing it and make my life a lot easier.”
As at Bestia, desserts at Bavel fall under Gergis’ command. Her dessert menu draws from the flavors of the Middle East while not necessarily relying on many of the desserts themselves. “It’s hard because in the Middle East, they don’t really do the plated dessert thing,” Gergis says. “It’s more like cookies, dried fruits, dates and nuts alongside mint tea there. So, I took Middle Easter flavors and made them into more composed desserts.”
Highlights include a strawberry sumac and sweet cheese pastry with fermented strawberries and cured sumac, as well as a gorgeous layered licorice ice cream bon bon with sour licorice caramel and muscovado cake, Gergis refuses to go the traditional route and make baklava. Instead, she opts for the lesser-known Georgian version called "paglava," which she rolls and slices to show off colorful layers of walnut and apricot farm cheese, honey, and dried borage flowers.
The day before opening and Menashe and Gergis sit in Bavel’s sun soaked room of exposed brick, colorful tile work, and lush hanging garden reflecting on what they hope to come of this new project. “People will probably call this an Israeli restaurant because I’m Israeli,” Menashe says, looking to Gergis and folding his arms across his chest. “But what’s important for them to know is that it’s not. Sure, there may be some things on here you’d find in Israel but there are also things you never will. It’s the food of our lives.”