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Showy Eastern Mediterranean Spot Zou Zou’s Is a Party Worth the Price of Admission

The pleasantly gimmicky Quality Branded team pivots to Middle Eastern fare and (mostly) pulls it off, critic Ryan Sutton argues

A triangle-patterned ceiling and chandeliers with spherical lights hang over empty dining room tables before service
The dining room at Zou Zou’s.
Melissa Hom/Zou Zou’s

The grand plateau — typically a multi-tiered affair teeming with halved lobsters and whole shrimp with beady black eyes — is an extravagant yet functional way to kick off a meal, a way to convey indulgence while also creating table space for other dishes down below. Things are different, however, at the Eastern Mediterranean Zou Zou’s, a Midtown West spot brought to us by the pleasantly gimmicky group behind Don Angie (famous for its mochi mozzarella) and Quality Italian (where cooks manufacture crisp pizza crusts out of ground chicken). The chefs here deck out their plateau not with shellfish, but with ramekins of apricot-topped ricotta, brown-buttered squash, and poop swirls of hummus. Zou Zou’s platter is the mezze version of a cake on a short pedestal, a way to make these dips and spreads feel opulent. It costs $35 and it is very nice to look at — and eat.

Chef Madeline Sperling has given Manhattan West — part of the larger Hudson Yards development — a fun, frivolous ode to the Levant, North Africa, and the Middle East. The Gramercy Tavern alum runs the packed space with chef de cuisine Juliana Latif, a fellow Danny Meyer alum with family roots in Lebanon and Jordan.

It’s tempting to say it all feels like a party, but you’ve probably heard that line a bit recently. If venues like Sushi on Me or Dept of Culture are drawing patrons back into restaurants with a dose of forced fun, Zou Zou’s has more of the slick trappings of a pre-pandemic clubstaurant. Guys in button-downs and tucked-in polos crowd the bar. Birthday balloons get caught up in the ceiling above multiple parties of 10 or more. Lush red booths squeeze in a veritable clown car’s worth of revelers. Waiters ferry over stretchy platters of kasseri cheese, soon to be set ablaze. And like at neighboring Ci Siamo, cooks sear assorted meats over a wood-burning fire in an open kitchen. Related: $53 kebabs come on skewers so long and hot that one wonders whether impalement is a possibility when passing around plates.

The energy levels and over-the-top presentations feel like an effort to make up for last year’s #HotVaxSummer that never was. The prices, like at fellow Manhattan West venues, also betray a predictable mindset, which is to lure in well-heeled West Side office workers — and perhaps tourists from the expensive Pendry hotel upstairs, where nightly rates start at around $718. Here’s a breakdown of some of the venue’s more notable dishes.

Four colorful spreads in ramekins sit atop a pedestal adjacent slices of pita-like bread; a variety of crudites sit upright on the table below in a small bowl
The grand plateau of spreads.
Noah Fecks/Zou Zou’s

The Spreads

This is a very solid starter for two. Saffron-laced apricots — bright orange and jammy — impart milky ricotta with a sweetness and pungency that recalls good truffles. Black garlic perfumes a delicate swirl of hummus. Brown butter enriches a heady mound of mashed kabocha squash. And best of all, a white foam of aquafaba (chickpea water) sits above verdant green tahini. The traditional sesame acts as a conduit for pure cilantro; one experiences a rush of grassiness in the form of rich paste and airy fluff. Spread everything onto pita-esque bazlama bread, and gossip with your companion for an hour. Cost: $35 for five dips, or $25 for three.

Chunks of tenderloin sit skewered on a white plate, topped in a zhoug herb puree
The Yemeni au poivre kebab.
Zou Zou’s

Au Poivre Kebabs

Zou Zou’s is the rare bro-friendly restaurant to omit the de rigueur strip or rib-eye. In its place is what they call a “Yemeni” au poivre kebab. Sperling dusts cubes of filet mignon in a blend of cumin, turmeric, and black pepper; brushes them with hawaij honey over the fire; and serves them on that frightening skewer. The meat is faintly charred, with a delicately red interior. The honey lends a sweetness that vaguely recalls good Kansas City barbecue ribs, while an herbal chutney adds refreshing bitterness.

The cost is $53 for this modest-sized main course. That’s about the going rate for a quality steak, and it’s nice to see Middle Eastern fare getting a special-occasion treatment along the lines of an Ilili in Flatiron or Maydan in D.C. What’s more curious, however, is when a fancy party spot distills the complex and underrepresented foodways of an embattled country into something that looks and tastes like a nightly special at a high-end French-American brasserie. It’s also hard not to think about how a high-profile operator can thrive selling upscale steakhouse riffs on street fare — there’s also a $130 halal-cart-style “Sixth Avenue” leg of lamb with white sauce and red sauce — as Hudson Yards street vendors themselves face ticketing and police harassment.

A golden pastry on a platter with several other dishes surrounding it.
The duck borek.
Noah Fecks/Zou Zou’s

Duck Borek

Borek, savory pastries popular in the Balkans and other ex-Ottoman territories, could always use a bit more appreciation, I like to think, and Sperling has one for the ages. The chef stuffs duck sausage into layers of phyllo-like yufka dough, twirls it into something that looks like a butcher’s pinwheel, crisps it up in the oven, and glazes the golden confection with a sheen of orange sugar syrup. The $42 dish flakes with more ease than soft apple pie; even the loosely packed meat exhibits a preternatural tenderness. The orange glaze, in turn, balances out the funk of the duck with sugar and acidity. This is a spectacular dish.

White cream cheese sits between layers of phyllo and underneath a red-tinted nest of kataifi
The kataifi cheesecake.
Noah Fecks/Zou Zou’s

The Kataifi Cheesecake

The $18 cheesecake boasts a width of over five inches, appropriate for such a classic New York form of overindulgence. Dots of tart, sugary cheese, shaped into kisses as if piped from a pastry bag, sit between two thin layers of phyllo. A pile of shredded wheat-like kataifi, arranged like shoestring fries, sits on top.

The first thing you notice is the ratio: There’s an equal proportion of pastry and kataifi to cheese. It’s like a BLT that’s equal parts bacon and lettuce. The bulk of any mouthful is a pile of soft crunch — like an airy breakfast cereal — until the sweet cream cheese and creme fraiche take over. Then a cloud of aromatic fruit releases its perfume, thanks to the fact that Chef Sperling dusts the entire creation with dehydrated raspberries. One could think of the whole thing as a loose analogue to cheese-y, crispy knafeh, but I’ll simply call it one of the city’s great cheesecakes.

Zou Zou's

385 9th Avenue, Manhattan, NY 10001 (212) 380-8585 Visit Website

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