The bright marble table starts to fill up with meze: falafel balls, made of 75 percent ful (fava beans), typical of the southern Levant, and 25 percent hummus (chickpeas); small, delicate dumplings known as shish barak, filled with meat and cooked in hot yogurt; a yogurt salad with cucumbers; wild chicory fried in olive oil and onion and served with radishes; hummus with whole chickpeas; fattoush salad; a salad of freekeh – roasted, smoked green wheat, cauliflower, almonds and goat cheese; stuffed grape leaves; and cigars filled with chicken shawarma, served with garlic aioli and sumac.
We are served our first glass of Lebanese arak with water and ice. The liquid in the glass emulsifies; our thoughts grow lucid and disconnect from daily woes. A variety of pastries from the taboon: lahmajoun (a flat bread topped with chopped meat and baked), muhamar (slices of chicken, onion and sumac roasted on flat bread), arayes (pita bread stuffed with meat) and excellent fatayer (a small spinach turnover).
“The Levantine custom of drinking arak and eating meze,” says Luna Zreik, “strengthened the Nazareth kitchen and made it rich and diversified. Nazareth cuisine is an integral element of the liberalism that characterized the city for years. This is a city that has a tradition of good food and takes great pride in that tradition. I don’t think you’ll visit any home here and encounter food that isn’t tasty.”
Zreik was born in this Galilee city in 1969. “My mother is from the Kawar family, who are known today for the arak they manufacture, and my father is from the Nasrallah family. Both families have lived in this city for generations and understand good food. I grew up in a home where it was clear that hospitality is an essential part of our culture and that food is part of the love you express for the people around you. I’ve always been fond of the kitchen, of cooking and eating, and as a girl I remember myself being glued to my mother, grandmother and aunt. But precisely because I am from a very liberal home, it was also clear that choosing the kitchen as a professional career was not an option, and that great things were expected of me.”
She studied special education at the University of Haifa and worked in that field for 15 years. “I worked with deaf and blind people. In retrospect, it was actually good training for the restaurant business, because it’s easy for me to accept and understand everyone,” she laughs. “But all along I wanted to get into the world of food. Ten years ago, when I was absolutely stifling, the opportunity arose.”
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For a decade, Zreik held a franchise of the Café Café chain in Nazareth’s Big Fashion mall. “That provided me with managerial tools and an understanding of the professional side of the restaurant business,” she says. “When the lease expired, the owners of the mall, who in the end became my business partners, told me they would like me to open a restaurant of my own there, which would serve the menu I’d been dreaming about for years.”
The restaurant, which bears her name – Luna Arabic Bistro – opened a few weeks ago for a trial run. It’s located on the roof of the mall, which can be found on entering the city from the direction of Tawfiq Ziad Street. Those who love Nazareth’s splendid Old City might think its location in a mall is less than promising, but the glass walls of this modern, stylishly designed restaurant offer a view of hills, church towers and minarets. Almost every seat inside or out on the open terrace provides an iconic view of the traditional red-tile roofs that became identified with the city in the 19th century, its golden age. Other advantages include the mall’s parking lot and the relatively convenient location between the Arab and the Jewish city (Nazareth Illit), whose inhabitants live in almost total separation.
The décor, like the menu, draws on tradition, but with a nod to the modern. “It’s important for me that people who come here will get to know traditional Nazareth cuisine without frills,” Zreik says. “But it can be served with an up-to-date look, using contemporary utensils – as long as it’s cooked in a way that’s faithful to its roots. I believe that personality dictates people’s lives and occupations, and the place I opened reflects me: a Nazareth woman, modern and feminist, not a woman who’s stuck in a tradition from which, though I respect and appreciate it, I have progressed.”
Along with sayyadiah (a traditional fish and rice dish), taboon-roasted kebab or entrecôte, entrées include ma’ashuqa (“desired” in Arabic) – small meatballs with ginger, dates, rosewater and pistachio. That dish, inspired by a medieval Arab recipe, made its way onto the menu following a dialogue between Zreik and a London-based Syrian blogger, revolving around the re-creation of recipes from the ancient Arab world. Zreik is still contemplating whether to serve it with mashed potatoes or with rice (“My goal is for every dish to combine the authentic and the new, but the truth is that I’m not yet sure how it goes together”).
One of the desserts worth trying is knafeh othmalia – kadayif baked in samneh, or clarified butter, and served cold with kaymak (clotted cream), rosewater and pistachio.
Zreik, enchanting in her sincerity and her craving for good food, oversees the large staff with a high hand. “There’s a cultural paradox here: a woman in a profession that’s considered a male preserve in our society,” she points out. The team includes Leven Jamali, the kitchen manager, also in charge of the taboon, who was born in Adana, Turkey, and is married to a Nazareth woman; and chef Ibrahim Ateieh. Among the kitchen staff are older women from the city; they perform typical traditional tasks, such as preparing stuffed items, meat dumplings and cookies, dates and pistachios.
“When I shut down Café Café, I published a post on Facebook calling for women who want to work with me in the new restaurant,” Zreik recalls. “It was heartbreaking, because so many women who aren’t making a living wanted to be part of the kitchen staff, or work as waitresses. I only hope that one day I will be able to establish a food center where all those women will do the cooking.”