NEW YORK – I tried several times over recent weekends to make a reservation at Qanoon, Manhattan’s first trendy Palestinian restaurant. But each time I received the same response from the reservation app: “The restaurant is full.”
In fact, it took no time for this new-on-the-scene eatery to become extremely popular. What is it about Qanoon that is drawing so many diners to Chelsea?
Tarek Daka, originally from the Arab town of Baka al-Garbiyeh in northern Israel, is an accountant by training who decided to trade balance sheets for baking trays. Qanoon (“Grill” in Arabic) is his third restaurant. The first two were Sicilian Italian, but this one is a homage to his mother’s home cooking.
Up to now, Arabic cuisine has not gained much of a reputation in New York, being known mostly as simple and cheap food. Arab restaurants here are mostly very casual or offer street food. Krishnendu Ray, associate professor of food studies at New York University, once told Haaretz that a study he conducted found that New Yorkers were willing to pay 2.5 times as much for “Israeli” food as its “Arabic” equivalent.
Palestinian cuisine, if there ever was such a thing in the city, got swallowed up in the Middle Eastern restaurants. Before now, only one place – longtime fixture Tanoreen – clearly identified itself as Palestinian, but that is out in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Still, some Israeli Arabs have done quite well in New York’s tough food market: For example, Moe Issa, originally from Haifa, is behind one of the city’s top upscale restaurants – Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare, which features French and Japanese cuisine.
But Daka took the next step when he opened a Palestinian restaurant in the heart of Manhattan. He does not hide behind the euphemism of “Mediterranean cuisine,” but explicitly uses the term “Palestinian” to describe and define his restaurant’s fare. This is not a luxury restaurant like Chef’s Table, but it is a high-quality eatery with prices on a par with the city’s best Israeli restaurants.
People might think there is a political aspect to calling the restaurant Palestinian, but Daka insists that is not the case. “My restaurant has nothing to do with politics,” he says. “I have Israeli customers, Jews and Arabs. Everyone has his opinion, and politics doesn’t come in here. I have Jewish and Arab friends. I have no problem with anyone from a different background, and it was the same when I lived in Israel.
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“I try not to follow the news too much, because it makes my head and my heart ache,” he continues. “Everyone thinks he has the solution to the conflict and when they talk about it, it doesn’t seem like it’s going anywhere. So it’s better to focus on good things. If there’s one thing that unites people, it’s food. Let’s leave it at that.”
‘Discrimination does exist’
Daka is the youngest of eight siblings – four boys and four girls. “My father was a farmer and a businessman,” he recounts. “My grandfather died young and my father devoted a lot of himself to raising his brothers and sisters, as well as his own family. In Baka, we had 40 to 50 dunams [10 to 12 acres] of land on which we built greenhouses with vegetables and fruit. That’s what I grew up on until I went to university. We children worked hard from a young age so the family could survive. As a kid, I didn’t appreciate the work that I did. I didn’t like doing it. I wanted to play. School started at 8 A.M. and I was already out since 5 A.M. working the land, planting and harvesting. And every day I had a lot to do.”
After high school, Daka worked odd jobs and began studying accounting and economics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“I worked at Kesselman & Kesselman, which is part of the big PricewaterhouseCoopers accounting firm. I also taught at the university. I got an MBA and was on the dean’s list. I worked all the time. I lived in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and then I went back to live with my parents.”
Eventually, though, he grew tired of life in Israel. “On the one hand, I was doing very well and I came from a family where the children are lawyers, engineers, in high-tech. On the other hand, you aren’t rewarded in Israel for your abilities and you have no control over this. This was against my principles. It’s not just the salary – it’s the attitude, the way society accepts you. Discrimination does exist and I experienced it, even when I rented an apartment. Even if you’re successful, you’re still the ‘other.’”
Daka first flew to the United States at age 29. As it turned out, the date was September 11, 2001.
“When the attack on the Twin Towers happened, I was in the air. We landed in Canada. I only got to New York two days later,” Daka recalls. “That was the first time I ever left Israel and despite everything that was going on, I connected to a place where I had no ties. It’s a place where you can speak any language you want and, as long as you behave OK, no one minds about you. This is the place I want to live. I went back to Israel and finished my studies. My parents weren’t happy and had trouble accepting the idea that I was leaving. Even now when I call my mother, she thinks I’m about to tell her I’m returning.”
His brother Wissam also moved to New York to work in high-tech and now has his own startup. “After two weeks at the company I got an offer from Pricewaterhouse and I took it,” Tarek Daka says. “But after a year and a half I knew it wasn’t for me, and I left.” He went on to study business at Columbia University, like his brother had, and went on to work for several companies as an accountant – until, just over a decade ago, he decided the time had come to start his own business.
“The first thing we thought about was food,” Tarel recounts. “My wife and I both have a passion for food. I grew up in a place with fresh food, with a mother who is an excellent cook, and I always loved cooking too. Though I never formally studied it, people were impressed with my cooking.”
Daka opened his first restaurant, featuring Sicilian cuisine, in 2009. Then he opened a second one in 2013. “I purchased the ingredients and my knowledge of accounting helped me in running the restaurant,” he says. He kept working as an accountant until he decided to go to culinary school. “I’ve always had ideas for dishes. I cooked, but I wasn’t really a chef. In the meantime, my wife and I divorced and we split the two restaurants. I got the Pastai restaurant [also in Chelsea], which is doing very well. I could manage the restaurant, cook, serve – everything. That was a big saving for the business.”
The next step was Qanoon. “I thought about the new restaurant five years ago,” Daka explains. “The idea didn’t work out because the place I found didn’t work the way I wanted and I canceled the contract.” A few months ago, though, he found a place near Pastai and took it. “I built the restaurant and designed the menu at the same time. I worked nonstop from 5 in the morning until the wee hours, and I didn’t feel tired. The whole idea of the restaurant is a sign of gratitude for my mother’s sacrifice and for her recipes. When I’m cooking, I remember all the many hours she spent in the kitchen and her devotion to the family.”
He continues: “I didn’t find the food of my home in New York. You find falafel and shawarma at every Middle Eastern restaurant in New York. But you won’t find authentic Palestinian dishes anywhere else here. It takes a long time to cook my mother’s dishes. Falafel and shawarma is food that you only eat on the street and not at home.”
Spices from Jenin
Daka says Americans have gradually come to see that Arabic cuisine is not just tasty but healthy. “In New York, healthy food is everything today. Over the years, Middle Eastern restaurants, including Israeli restaurants, have opened up here, so people have gradually gotten to know this food. They’ve also learned about food from the region from the internet. We live in such a small world now that in New York there is za’atar from Jenin and Tul Karm.”
He says that Palestinian food is “much more sophisticated than the Arabic street food New Yorkers are used to. It requires a lot of work and the cost of preparing it in a restaurant is high. The ingredients have to be fresh. The kind of lamb meat we use is very expensive here.” This is why Qanoon’s prices are relatively high – not sky-high, but definitely not what you’ll find at your average falafel and shawarma joint. The price of a two-course meal ranges from $40 to $50. “The high rent in New York also affects the prices. We’re in Chelsea and it’s expensive here,” Daka says.
He opened Qanoon last September – and the place has been full ever since. “We got what every restaurateur dreams of: good publicity without investing in PR. People heard about us by word of mouth,” Daka says.
“People in New York constantly want to try new things,” he notes. “If I were to open a Chinese restaurant in Baka al-Garbiyeh, it wouldn’t last long. Here, it’s the opposite: People are open to new experiences and are searching for them.”
The vegetables are sourced at the big farmers market in Union Square. “Going to the market takes me back to my days as a vegetable peddler,” Daka says. “The taste is much fresher: You eat a tomato that has the flavor and aroma of a tomato and isn’t just a red ball. The problem is that only some of the workers at the restaurant have experience with Mediterranean cuisine. It’s not easy to find workers who know the cuisine.” Still, he does have one staffer who comes from the Ramallah area.
So what is there to eat at Qanoon? “People are picky here,” Daka says. So instead of stuffing grape leaves with rice, or with rice and meat, the chef uses freekeh, the green grain from young durum wheat, “which is healthier. We also have mujaddara, which is a wonderful dish but doesn’t look good so I make it in the form of a croquette with goat cheese. And we have hummus too, of course. Everybody thinks his hummus is the best – and that’s what I think of our hummus. We have another good dish called muhammara,” which has sun-dried peppers, pomegranate molasses and walnuts. “I love this dish!” he enthuses. “At Qanoon, we make our labaneh in balls – like my mother did – and add za’atar. My tabbouleh is also a little different than usual, with lemon zest and pomegranate seeds.”
Daka’s favorite dish on the menu is the kofta – meatballs baked with cauliflower, onion and tomatoes, in tahini sauce. Another popular dish is the makloubeh, which features basmati rice, lamb stew, eggplant, cauliflower, carrots, tomatoes and spices. “I wanted to do things that would appeal to customers and not force them to eat something,” he explains. “For example, I don’t serve mulukhiyah – a thick soup in a bold green-black color. I grew up on it, but Americans don’t go for it at all so it’s not on the menu.”
For dessert, Daka offers an excellent knafeh. “We make the knafeh for an individual diner, unlike our custom which is to have it as a portion for the entire table, or to make it for the whole village. We have three types of knafeh with different cheeses: I explain to New Yorkers that it’s a Palestinian cheesecake. We put the sugar syrup on the side so each person can put as much as he wants on the knafeh – because New Yorkers are always on a diet and are against sugar in general, even if they eat cupcakes every day.”
Daka goes back to Israel for visits several times a year, and speaks to his parents daily. Yet while they have come to New York three times over the years, they haven’t seen any of his restaurants. “The problem is that they’re getting old and it’s hard for them to fly,” Daka explains. “It saddens me that they aren’t able to see what I’m doing here – but that’s life.”
Qanoon, 180 9th Avenue, New York City, open daily at 5-11 P.M.