What Does ‘Middle Eastern’ Food Mean? These Atlanta Restaurants Are Redefining It.

food, what does ‘middle eastern’ food mean? these atlanta restaurants are redefining it.

Aziza taps into the roots of Israeli cooking, enhancing traditional dishes by pulling in ingredients and flavors from the Southern U.S. and countries like Morocco, Lebanon, and Iran.

Three decades ago, what’s known as Middle Eastern food wasn’t prevalent on the dining scene in Atlanta, other than a few restaurants, banquet halls, and food markets catering specifically to those communities. Fast forward to 2022, and there’s now an abundance of such restaurants serving cuisines representing a number of countries from around the region, including Israel, Iran, and Lebanon. In many cases, these restaurants are helping rewrite the narrative on how “Middle Eastern” food is perceived in Atlanta.

food, what does ‘middle eastern’ food mean? these atlanta restaurants are redefining it.

Tal Baum.

“Saying ‘Middle Eastern cuisine’ is a very wide definition. It’s almost like saying, ‘European cuisine,’” says Tal Baum, owner of Atlanta restaurants Aziza, Rina, Bellina Alimentari, and Atrium. Both terms lack specificity about the exact countries they’re trying to refer to. “Even though the ingredients [across the region] might be similar, it’s not all the same type of cuisine.”

Baum’s Israeli restaurant Aziza opened at Westside Provisions District in 2019 and is named for her mother-in-law, whose name means “happiness” in Arabic. At Aziza, she blends traditional Israeli dishes and wood-fired cooking techniques with local ingredients and eclectic flavors in dishes like littleneck clams tossed with toasted couscous, tomatoes, and red peppers served with kubaneh toast or grilled octopus spiced with coriander and garnished with almonds, peppers, and sunflower seeds atop couscous and a romesco sauce. The restaurant taps into the roots of Israeli cooking, enhancing traditional dishes with a fresh approach, but without losing what makes each dish uniquely Israeli. It’s an approach that flips the script on what many people in Atlanta envision when they think of what’s commonly referred to as Middle Eastern cuisine.

Atlanta’s first restaurants of this kind opened in the 1990s. These were mainly mom-and-pop operations serving street foods like shawarma and kebabs — dishes the owners assumed Americans likely knew and already enjoyed. But it was the openings of Persian restaurants like Shamshiri, Mirage, and Persepolis in the mid-to-late 1990s, which proved a turning point for this food scene in the city and metro Atlanta.

Of those, only Persepolis remains open today, but all three expanded Atlanta’s palate with offerings such as grilled koobideh (minced meat) and jujeh (chicken) kebabs; heaping plates of tahdig-crusted rice; and ghormeh sabzi, a dynamic combination of braised greens, fenugreek, kidney beans, and dried limes enveloping beef or lamb shank.

“These guys really paved the way when it comes to establishing Middle Eastern and Persian cuisine here,” says Ashkan Famili, owner of the former Caspian Grill in Marietta and upcoming Persian-Mediterranean restaurant Yalda in Sandy Springs and Home Park in Atlanta.

food, what does ‘middle eastern’ food mean? these atlanta restaurants are redefining it.

Roasted green circle chicken with chanterelle mushrooms and mushroom puree.

food, what does ‘middle eastern’ food mean? these atlanta restaurants are redefining it.
food, what does ‘middle eastern’ food mean? these atlanta restaurants are redefining it.

Persian-Mediterranean restaurant Yalda from Ashkan Famili opens soon in Sandy Springs and Home Park in Atlanta.

Between 2000 and 2019, the Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) population in the United States more than doubled. With this wave, Atlanta’s small collection of restaurants representing this part of the world continued to grow and flourish, introducing regional dishes rather than a one-size-fits-all cuisine. Famili is part of Atlanta’s influx of MENA immigrants that began in the early 2000s. He and Fares Kargar, owner of Delbar Middle Eastern, actually met in Turkey while emigrating from Iran. Baum, who was born in Haifa, Israel, moved to Atlanta after a seven-year stint in Italy.

But this more recent wave of immigrants isn’t solely responsible for the recent rise in MENA and Mediterranean restaurants in Atlanta. John and Ryan Akly, co-owners of Mission and Market, as well as upcoming modern Lebanese restaurant Zakia in Buckhead, are the result of growing up watching their father open restaurants in the 1970s and 1980s. “We’ve been surrounded by the restaurant industry basically our whole lives,” John Akly says. Kameel Srouji, a Nazareth, Israel, native and owner of Mediterranean restaurant Aviva by Kameel, arrived in Atlanta in the late-1980s and also opened a series of restaurants.

In the early 2000s, Atlanta’s Persian restaurants in particular crossed a major threshold and really began targeting diners from outside the local Persian community. This wave of restaurants, starting with Divan in 2005, emphasized ambiance, top-notch hospitality, and robust cocktail menus. Rumi’s Kitchen, which chef Ali Mesghali opened in 2006 and relocated to its present location in Sandy Springs in 2012, was Atlanta’s first Persian restaurant to really gain widespread recognition in the metro area.

The success Rumi’s found in Sandy Springs, a mostly white, middle-class city just north of Atlanta, encouraged other eager restaurateurs to open their own establishments, broadening the culinary lexicon in terms of the variety of such foods served on menus around town.

food, what does ‘middle eastern’ food mean? these atlanta restaurants are redefining it.

Fares Kargar opened Persian restaurant Delbar in Inman Park in 2020.

Kargar and Famili, for example, stack their restaurant menus with dishes they’ve personally eaten and enjoyed in countries around the region. At Caspian, Famili served dishes from northern Iran’s Khorasan province, like zeytoon parvardeh, which are green olives marinated in a blend of walnuts, herbs, and pomegranate, and kabab torsh, which translates to “sour kebab” (it’s marinated in pomegranate molasses, walnuts, garlic, and olive oil).

“I was one of the first cooks or entrepreneurs [to mix] the cuisine a little bit [in Atlanta],” Famili says. “When I had my first Caspian [Grill] restaurant in Marietta, I had kebabs and I had some dishes that were a little edgier and were not super popular at Persian restaurants.” For example, he offered Mediterranean salads as an alternative to rice, the typical accoutrement served with kebabs.

At that time, older Persian customers tended to find Caspian’s somewhat unconventional menu bewildering, Famili says; though later generations, many of whom would order dishes like a soltani kebab paired with a Greek salad rather than rice, were often more open to what he was trying to achieve at the restaurant.

The Srouji family takes a different approach to the menu and service at Aviva by Kameel, marrying quality, local ingredients with assembly-style efficiency at its counter-service restaurants in Downtown and Midtown Atlanta.

food, what does ‘middle eastern’ food mean? these atlanta restaurants are redefining it.

Nas and Kameel Srouji of Aviva by Kameel.

Aviva by Kameel opened in 2012. At its downtown location in Peachtree Center’s food court, it became an instant hit with office workers and tourists looking for a quick, healthy lunch option, one that could also be customized as a plate, sandwich, or salad. Run by the delightfully personable Kameel Srouji (who makes it a point to always tell customers, “I love you”), dishes are served with a heaping dose of hospitality. Srouji’s son joined the business in 2013, and a second Aviva by Kameel’s location opened at the Collective at Coda food hall in Midtown in 2020, serving weekend dinner specials, including whole roasted fish entrees.

“Atlanta’s been a meat and potatoes town for so long that it’s nice to see them embrace different cultures and different concepts,” John Akly says. For him, that means a restaurant serving meze, alongside chargrilled meat and seafood skewers and other entrees styled after those found in the Levant in the eastern Mediterranean.

“Lebanese food is interesting because it’s very ingredient-driven,” he says, noting the cuisine is lush with ripe, fresh flavors, acidic notes, and olive oil. Along with chef Ian Winslade, the Akly brothers plan to showcase both traditional dishes and modern interpretations of dishes at Zakia and incorporate traditional Lebanese flavors, ingredients, and cooking techniques, seen in dishes like pan-seared duck breast with rose syrup, bulgur, and cauliflower; grilled quail with sour cherry sauce, manouri cheese, and sesame seeds; and smoked brisket shawarma.

food, what does ‘middle eastern’ food mean? these atlanta restaurants are redefining it.
food, what does ‘middle eastern’ food mean? these atlanta restaurants are redefining it.
food, what does ‘middle eastern’ food mean? these atlanta restaurants are redefining it.

Aviva by Kameel includes locations at Peachtree Center in downtown Atlanta and the Collective at Coda food hall in Midtown.

After the success with Aziza, Baum expanded Atlanta’s culinary scope with fast-casual restaurant Rina, located in the Ford Factory Lofts on Ponce de Leon Avenue. Here, Baum broadens diners’ understanding of Israeli cuisine, capturing the beachy vibes of Tel Aviv with a menu of Israeli street food. Rina’s laid-back menu includes multiple variations of hummus; meze dishes like roasted cauliflower and tabbouleh; meat and falafel platters; and pita wraps enveloping falafel, chicken shawarma, Jaffa fried rice with Gulf grouper, and sabich (eggplant, hard-boiled egg, harissa, slaw, salad, and amba, a tangy pickled mango sauce with Indian roots). Baum also serves tahini shakes and Turkish coffee here, with the option to add either bourbon or rum to each. A takeout window allows diners to grab their food and drinks to go for strolling the Eastside Beltline trail or for picnicking in nearby parks.

“I feel a great sense of pride to be able to expose people to the flavors of the Middle East and share an aspect of this region that is often forgotten,” Baum says. “When people think about the Middle East, they immediately think about politics and conflict and other aspects that are related to this region. I want to expose people to the food, to the culture, to the people, the warmth, the hospitality.”

Sarra Sedghi grew up in Georgia and is now a freelance writer based in Birmingham, Alabama, She graduated from the University of Georgia with a MFA in narrative nonfiction in 2017. Her work has appeared in Eater, Atlas Obscura, MyRecipes, Polygon, Taste of Home, Bon Appetit, and Thrillist.

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