Seattle's Suddenly Flush with Middle Eastern Flavor

This Turkish snack bread is called simit, and Grand Central Bakery is baking the delicious knots right now.

The mainstreaming of Middle Eastern flavors in Seattle has been a long time coming.

Granted, I've made regular trips south to pick up shawarma from Mawadda for years now; it's the best in town if you ask me. And the Hallava Falafel truck is on my regular lunchtime rotation, too, though I prefer the family-owned Turkuaz, a jewel of a find in Madrona that's been a quiet favorite of mine since I reviewed it several years ago. They make dolmades to weep over.

But lately there've been hints at a groundswell, especially at restaurants like Sitka & Spruce, where aleppo pepper, tahini and dukkah have become commonplace since the restaurant moved from Eastlake to the Melrose Market; you'll taste the flavors of the Middle East in an array of vegetable, meat and fish dishes. Cafe Munir serves the lemon- and herb-flecked foods of Lebanon to north Ballard; there, diners can dig into muham’mara (red pepper and walnut dip) with hand-torn pieces of warm flatbread, and in such a pretty space. 

Eltana serves one of my favorite lunch dishes in town: a colorful, spicy pepper stew with poached eggs and your choice of wood-fired bagels (I prefer the wheat sesame or the everything) called shakshuka; it's a dish that, according to Eltana, hails from Egypt (though it has Tunisian roots).  Even Tom Douglas has a falafel shop in the works, although it's been back-burnered in lieu of work on the Via6 project (which is no longer being called Grange Hall, by the way). Just today I got a press release from Grand Central Bakery telling me about a new Turkish sesame roll, called simit, that they're rolling out. I stopped by to taste one today and they are quite good: tender knots completely covered with a thick layer of toasted sesame seeds. Yum.

With the recent opening of Mamnoon (which is marvelous! Watch for my full review in our April issue), we're starting to see not only accents, dips and seasonings from the Middle East, but entire menus dedicated to it. And these places are chic, stylish, sexy. That part matters, too.

In fact, it feels like a shift, a welcome change in what and how we're eating. True, in the last year we've seen an equal increase in the number of fried chicken joints in town, especially at the higher end. But those places feel like they're playing off of the already established luxe comfort food movement, and I suspect there'll always be plenty of that. 

This movement--toward Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavors--feels fresh. It's new, invigorating, modern, unexpected. And it's largely unchartered territory, especially at the higher end of Seattle's restaurant chain.

As if to underline the idea, today's New York Times features a Mark Bittman piece on the health benefits of eating like a Greek (which piggy-backs on a study of the so-called Mediterranean Diet by the New England Journal of Medicine). Drink more wine, it says, and eat more ancient grains, plenty of (and diverse sorts of) fish, legumes, olive oil. If we can get those sorts of foods at more and more restaurants like the ones listed above, being healthy will be easy-peasy.