In its presentation of Palestinian food at what was neither a falafel joint nor a formal, white-tablecloth establishment, Ayat was revolutionary. The open storefront, with its high counter and display of pastries and olive oils, behind which shawarma cylinders twirled and a baker patted fresh pitas, replicated the way Palestinian eateries in a cobbled souk in Jerusalem might look. Can ambiance improve the taste of food? You bet it can.
The food was great, too, with some dishes familiar and some rarely seen before in New York City. But the lack of a real kitchen was a challenge, and some of the family-style dishes were difficult to assemble in a space confined behind a counter. Which is why, when I tried some of those same dishes at newcomer Al Badawi — which opened nearly a month ago on Atlantic Avenue in downtown Brooklyn — they actually tasted better. I mentioned this to co-owner Abdul Elenani, and he replied, “I’m not surprised. The professional equipment in this kitchen makes preparation easier and more efficient.”
This is seen in the grilled kebabs, with a choice of six chicken, lamb, and beef varieties, which have superior char and a smokier taste. The queen of the genre are the lamb chops ($28), four to a serving to which additional chops can be added at $3 each. Their terra cotta platter also holds substantial quantities of baba ghanoush, a chopped salad, and hummus sluiced with olive oil and chickpeas, all on a king-size bed of seasoned rice, perfect for sharing with a group.
Another reason the chops are so good — meaty and fresh, with a meadowy flavor — is that the sheep are raised on a farm near Pittstown, New Jersey. These may be the best lamb chops you’ve ever tasted. Elenani’s partner in Al Badawi is Akram Nassir, owner of Yemen Cafe across the street, where lamb chops are also a specialty. He previously operated a short-lived cafe and used book store in the same space with the unfortunate name of A Novel Kitchen.
Upon approaching Al Badawi, the first thing you’ll see outside is a banner proclaiming “Family Style Palestinian Restaurant.” Right through the door a stacked pizza oven has been decorated with tiles in shades of brown and beige. Further inside, the walls explode with wildly colored plastic foliage that suggests a desert oasis, with Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock painted on the wall and a farmer bending over his crops in the foreground. Trestle tables encourage strangers to sit together, and an ample open kitchen bustles at the end of the dining room.
The best seats in the house are at a raised counter facing the pizza oven. A steady flow of khubz — the Arabic name for pita and other flatbreads — flies out of the oven on a continuous basis. Round and delicate, the pitas emerge extravagantly inflated, and more are delivered to your table when you finish the previous batch. While this hospitable feature was also a part of Ayat, here the same dough is used to make a long menu of manakish, a thick flatbread with seasonings, meats, cheeses, and other ingredients on top.
It wouldn’t be disrespectful to call it a Palestinian pizza, I discovered one evening as I tucked into the one called pistachio ($18), in which crushed nuts and a drizzle of honey were spread across a bed of molten cheese. “What kind of cheese is that?” I asked Elenani’s wife Ayat Masoud, who developed many of the restaurant’s recipes. I expected her to mention baladi, akkawish, or shanklish. “Mozzarella,” was her reply with a faint smile. This is Brooklyn, after all.
These flatbreads make a nice light lunch for two or an appetizer for the table at dinnertime. My favorite and doubtlessly the most filling is the one heaped with chicken and beef shawarmas. But despite the expanded collection of topped flatbreads, the heart of Al Badawi’s menu remains the home style dishes that are the soul of Arab hospitality, copiously served on round terra cotta trays
Mansaf ($34, enough for two; $65 enough for four) is the name of a dish made with lamb shanks marinated in a solution of jameed, a dried yogurt. It arrives on a bed of almond-sprinkled yellow rice with a giant flatbread underneath. More of the thin marinade is served on the side, to be dumped over the rice, as a waiter tells me, rather than used as a dip for the lamb.
Msakhan is its poultry counterpart, depositing a half chicken, its skin rubbed with spices and roasted to a reddish-brown crispness, served on a sumac-dusted taboon flatbread. In a similar vein of large format dishes — and one not available at Ayat — is zahr ma laban ($35, $68), cauliflower plunged with lamb hunks into a thick yogurt sauce. And plenty of other new dishes dot the Al Badawi menu. My favorite is malfouf ($11), thin cabbage-leaf rolls filled with rice, ground meat, onions, tomatoes, and parsley. Pick them up with your fingers and finish each off in a bite or two.
Other new dishes I didn’t try were the whole fish displayed on ice at the rear of the restaurant, grilled and served with lemon potatoes in the Greek fashion; and a series of ouzis, boldly spiced casseroles of rice, diced vegetables, and meat or poultry.
But here you can never go wrong ordering the dishes you already know, and favorites like baba ghanoush and the walnut and red-pepper paste called muhammara are prepared at Al Badawi in superior versions. These dips magnificently come together in mezze filistini ($27), a platter referencing the ancient Philistines, heaped with hummus, baba ghanoush, strained yogurt labneh, tabbouleh, and the aforementioned muhammara. As a starter to share for several diners it can’t be beat, and nothing stimulates conversation around the table like sharing mezze, torn flatbreads in hand.