New York is filled with countless chains and delis where one can find chicken cutlets that are often flat and dry. But the chicken schnitzel ($22) at Sami & Susu will come as a revelation. It’s smaller, yes, but the serving of poultry is more plump, carefully coated with crumbs, and tender. There’s also a pleasant buttery taste, though no butter is involved, according to co-owner Amir Nathan, who previously worked front-of-the-house at Via Carota. “The chef pounds it for a long, long time,” he says when I ask him why the cutlets are so soft, referring to chef and co-owner Jordan Anderson, a veteran of Olmsted and Maison Yaki.
Sami & Susu is named after an Israeli kid’s show aimed at Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation in the late 60s and early 70s. The show was broadcast in Arabic with Hebrew subtitles. The Lower East Side restaurant of the same name got its start a year ago as a Brooklyn pop-up, but moved into its permanent home at 190 Orchard Street a month ago. “The food itself symbolizes unity,” Nathan told the Jerusalem Post when the pop-up debuted.
I visited a couple of times last week and was blown away by the menu, but it’s still difficult to describe the restaurant. It’s a freewheeling mash-up of Middle Eastern (including Israeli and Palestinian), Turkish, Eastern European, and perhaps most notably, French cooking styles.
The Israeli part of the formula often favors Sephardic food, the cuisine of North African, Spanish, and indigenous Middle Eastern Jews. That schnitzel, for example, though fundamentally European, comes with a side of zhoug — a chunky condiment of cilantro, chiles, and garlic from Yemen, adding strong flavors to what is basically a mellow cutlet. When you’re done inhaling the schnitzel, you’ll want to save the remaining zhoug to use on other dishes.
Another local Israeli restaurant, Taim, has popularized sabich in New York City. At Sami & Susu, the sabich — a mushy combo of boiled eggs and eggplants — eschews the typical pita bread and is instead stuffed inside a very French baguette from nearby Partybus Bakery, compact and crunchy, but light enough to not overpower the fillings. The restaurant’s version of amba, a bright orange condiment of fermented mango with a puckeringly sour taste, is slathered on the baguette, and the eggplant has absorbed all sorts of smoke in the cooking process.
Indeed, baguette sandwiches are a major part of the menu at Sami & Susu, which is currently open all day from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., but will extend those hours in the evening and add small dishes when the beer and wine license arrives. The best I tried featured the Jewish deli standard of beef tongue ($13), usually rubbery but here sliced thin and delectably soft. Surprisingly, an anchovy or two are also plopped on, in addition to capers and fresh dill, sending the flavor into orbit (though I could have wished for more tongue).
In addition to the baguettes, the chicken liver is another French touch. One might have expected the kind of chopped chicken liver found in Jewish delis with its coarse-texture and onions. At Sami & Susu it’s more of a Parisian mousse, light and smooth. It’s put in carryout containers — perfect for picnics if you ask for pitas to go with it — that can be pulled from the refrigerator case to the left of the counter.
In the same way Middle Eastern cuisines often favor vegetarian fare, so does Sami & Susu. The best thing on the menu is vegetarian: A corn tabouleh ($14) that adds kernels freshly shaved from the husk to the standard recipe, with the further addition of crushed almonds. The corn adds a winning sweetness to a dish often overshadowed by the verdant bitterness of its parsley. Other vegetarian offerings include a Moroccan carrot salad not quite as lemony as the version at, say, Cafe Mogador. This rendition is further improved with a handful of pistachios, a lake of olive oil, and a cloud of thickened yogurt — really, it could be a main course for one.
There are full-blown main courses, too, including the schnitzel mentioned earlier. These also constitute mash-ups of the contributing cuisines, including a trio of Eastern European cabbage rolls stuffed with lamb ($22). They lie upon a radiant bed of caponata, according to the menu, but it is really more like ratatouille, lacking the sharper flavors of anchovies and raisins usually found in the former (though recipes for both dishes vary).
A small bowl of mom’s chicken soup with a matzoh ball planted in the middle and some carrots and shreds of bland chicken floating around proves unremarkable in every way, but isn’t that what you want “mom’s chicken soup” ($11) to be, more tonic than a focus of your attention? Still, at a place as innovative as Sami & Susu, I’d come to expect at least one surprise per dish.
Save room at the end of your meal — whether eaten indoors, in the outdoor seating area, or carried home — for the reconfigured boureka ($10). The pastry originated in Turkey, but modified versions are popular in both Israel and the Balkans.
On both occasions I tried it, it had just been freshly baked to order. Coiled like a snake and made from rolled puff pastry, the boureka was filled with an amalgam of chocolate and hazelnut far more chocolatey than Nutella. And that dark sweet filling burst out of its flaky confines, inviting you to lick it before biting into the pastry.
Ultimately, Sami & Susu is a novel new Israeli restaurant that makes a modest plea for peace, but also provides flexible dining options that let you enjoy a cup of coffee, a small or large snack, or a full meal. And all the food I tried there was at least very tasty, and some of it also unusual.