This seems to be a thing lately: my path to a good Tunisian meal in NYC has been filled with a few screw-ups, mostly of my own making.
- Tunisian food fail #1: I had heard great things about Bistro Lamazou, a restaurant owned by the Tunisians who brought us the always-excellent Lamazou Cheese Shop. The bistro was walking distance from my apartment. I didn’t try to go there until after it had closed. Oops.
- Tunisian food fail #2: The nice Tunisians in the cheese shop recommended that I speak with the Tunisian chef at an ostensibly French restaurant on the Lower East Side. I walked in, and asked the chef if he would prepare a Tunisian meal if I brought in a large crowd. He said sure, and told me to email him to set everything up. I did. He never responded. I probably should have taken the hint when the email address he gave me included the words “mean chef.”
- Tunisian food fail #3: In a chance encounter in a Midtown Subway restaurant (don’t judge!), I asked a Tunisian diplomat where I could get a good Tunisian meal in NYC. He pointed me to Steinway Street in Astoria, but couldn’t remember the name of the restaurant. So I walked into random stores on Steinway, asking if they knew about this mythical Tunisian restaurant. Turns out it had closed just a few weeks before I started snooping around.
I’m apparently bad at finding Tunisian food. But I’m trying, I swear!
Fast-forward a year or two, and there’s now a Tunisian-owned restaurant in Williamsburg, called La Goulette. The restaurant is basically an upscale counter-service place, serving a variety of Middle Eastern standards like shawarma, kabobs, merguez (sausage), falafel, stuffed grape leaves, and salads.
Technically speaking, I ate a large, delicious Tunisian meal at this Tunisian-owned restaurant. Along with a posse of seven pals, I inhaled some outstanding falafel, a nice mildly-spicy rendition of merguez, some lamb and chicken kabobs, some fantastic roasted cauliflower and artichokes with labanah (a.k.a. “yogurt cheese”), and plenty of hummus, rice, and Tunisian carrot salad. The meats were all nicely grilled, the vegetables were ludicrously fresh, and the falafel was about as good as it gets. La Goulette is a good place. You should eat there.
The only hitch: if I didn’t know that the owners were Tunisian, I probably wouldn’t know that anything there was Tunisian. Sure, the word “Tunisian” appears a few times on the menu – there’s Tunisian carrot salad, Tunisian fries (sprinkled with parsley and Parmesan) and merguez with “Tunisian spices.” I even asked one of the cooks what made the food Tunisian, and he said, “Well, we’re Tunisian. We use Tunisian spices. They’re really good!”
He was 100% correct. The spices were really good – as they often are in a solid Middle Eastern or North African restaurant. But I worried that I was missing out on some traditional Tunisian treats, like brik or couscous or tajin or seafood. But after four attempts at Tunisian food, I decided… well, screw it, I figured I’d make one last attempt to track down bonus Tunisian food. I wandered into Saba, a Yemeni restaurant in Astoria, based solely on a torrid rumor that the restaurant serves Tunisian food on Fridays. I even called ahead to confirm that the Friday food was Tunisian, but had no luck getting an English-speaker to answer the phone.
So I showed up on a Friday with three friends, and inquired about Tunisian food. Technically speaking, that was Tunisian food fail #4: the confused server just said, “Yemeni food every day,” as if I’d asked for a plate of stewed pink elephant seasoned with beach balls.
And then we saw the footnote on the menu: Saba had couscous on Fridays! And it was Friday! We were in luck. Except that we weren’t: the server informed us that there was no couscous that day. There were, however, acres of fresh Yemeni flatbread, an excellent version of hummus topped with a deliciously olive-y olive oil, and a phenomenal appetizer translated as “chicken curry” that consisted of pan-fried chicken with scallions and jalapeños.
For our entrees, we shared Zorbian chicken — basically, a Yemeni version of chicken biryani — along with meat fettah, chunks of lamb stewed with spices and more acres of Yemeni bread. The fettah was amazing – it was as if the chef knew that we were getting too lazy and food coma-ed to soak our own bread in the lamb juice, so he did it for us.
As great as those dishes were, the real star was the fahsa, an outstanding pan of sizzling shredded lamb cooked with piles of fenugreek. Easily a candidate for the best dish I’d ever eaten while trying to order Tunisian food. Who knew that fenugreek was so damned delicious?
So yeah… attempt #5 at Tunisian food? Fail. Just like attempts #1-3. But man, it was a darned tasty fail. I need to fail like that more often.
159 Grand Street, Williamsburg
Subway: Bedford (L train) or Metropolitan (G train)