Despite the city’s robust Middle Eastern and Maghrebin communities, their respective culinary traditions have largely been relegated to pockets of the Marais and the north-eastern section of the city—until now.
Award-winning Israeli chefs like Michael Solomonov and Alon Shaya may not have name recognition in Paris, but their cuisine—contemporary Israeli with flavors from North Africa, the Middle East, Greece and Turkey—is growing in popularity in the French capital. Finally. Despite the city’s robust Middle Eastern and Maghrebin communities, their respective culinary traditions have largely been relegated to pockets of the Marais and the north-eastern section of the city and overly simplified (Falafel sandwiches! Couscous! Kebab!). Call it an extension of the Ottolenghi effect—all of his books have been translated into French—or an overall lightening of the plate, but there’s recently been a noticeable shift toward more diversity in offerings.
The first step beyond falafel came with the arrival of the Parisian outpost of the Tel Aviv street food institution, Miznon. Eyal Shani’s gourmet take on pita sandwiches, filled with ratatouille, kebab, or roasted cauliflower, landed in Paris in 2013 with a similarly vibrant atmosphere and a near-religious following right from the start. But it would take another three years before any semblance of a scene would find a foothold.
For Liza Asseily, owner of the contemporary Lebanese restaurant Liza in Beirut that first opened in Paris in 2006, there are practical reasons for the delay. “Lebanese and most Middle Eastern cuisines are actually quite labor intensive when it’s done well—just think of all the herbs that need to be chopped for tabbouleh! I have two guys in the kitchen just to cut parsley,” she said. “The problem isn’t the cost of ingredients but the cost of labor. It’s extremely expensive in a country like France.”
Luc Dubanchet, founder of the food guide and culinary road show Omnivore, would argue that cultural considerations are a bigger factor in the movement’s slow start. “Paris was quick to accept pizza, couscous and Asian cuisine into their daily lives, but has never recognized the gastronomic value in African, Indian and Mediterranean cooking. It’s a lack of culture and awareness that stunted its development,” he said, adding that what diners were willing to embrace was the legendary falafel on the rue des Rosiers, without looking further for much else.
Then, there’s the issue of timing. It wasn’t too long ago that Parisians were reluctant to consider foreign imports at all. “Parisian—and French people overall—have never really taken non-French cuisine seriously until recently,” says Experimental Group co-founder Romee de Goriainoff, who is behind the new high-energy restaurant Balagan (which loosely translates to “chaotic,”) helmed by Jerusalem’s creative chef duo Assaf Granit and Uri Navon. “Diners today are more keen to discover outside influences. And when Israeli chefs go and open restaurants in London, it makes it that much easier to try it and understand the cuisine.”
According to Sharon Heinrich, an Israeli pastry chef, tour guide and de facto ambassador to Israel in Paris, Granit’s restaurant is the best representation of Israeli fare in the city. “It’s hard to define our cooking because it’s actually composed of hundreds of influences—Persian, Syrian, Lebanese, Greek,” Heinrich said. “Balagan shows off the Israeli kitchen’s amalgam of tastes.” And they do so with a bon vivant spirit and touch of theatrics that make dining out in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem such an experience on and off the plate.
From Bonhomie, a Mediterranean sharing plates restaurant and cocktail bar, to Yafo, a new hummus bar run by former Ladurée and Prince de Galles chef Lotan Lahmi, to Tavline, a Marais canteen that showcases the range of vegetables, spices and herbs in Moroccan-Israeli cooking, a new guard is redefining what it means to dine out in the city with a rich and complex repertoire of spice, flavor and technique. “We bring a few spices from Israel but all the other ingredients are sourced from local markets here. The quality is among the best in the world,” said chef Granit.
Looking back on the last decade of her business, Liza’s Asseily thinks she probably arrived on the scene too early for local tastes. “2016 to 2017 has been our best year yet, but that’s because it’s become cool to eat Lebanese, Israeli and Mediterranean food,” she said with a smile. “But I’m happy about it! People are curious, that’s what matters.”
The good news is that affordable travel, wide-reaching press and social media coverage have had a positive impact on the Parisian palate. For how long—and to what extent—remains to be seen. Dubanchet insists we not forget that among the city’s 22,000 restaurants, this style of cooking is still quite niche. “It’s far less developed than in London or in many parts of the United States. I think we have to wait a few years before we can say Israeli and Mediterranean cooking are here to stay for the long-haul.”
Where to eat:
- Mokonuts, 5 rue Saint-Bernard, 75011
- Yafo, 96 rue d’Hauteville, 75010
- Bonhomie, 22 rue d’Enghien, 75010
- Balagan, 9 rue d’Alger, 75001
- Miznon, 22 rue des Ecouffes, 75004
- Tavline, 25 rue du Roi de Sicile, 75004