The Palestinian Bistro Bringing a Taste of Sheikh Jarrah to Brooklyn

Although there are plenty of Middle Eastern eateries in New York City, it’s stil rare to find ones that are branded as Palestinian. The owners of Ayat aren’t afraid of celebrating their roots – or delicious, generations-old family recipes

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The Ayat Palestinian bistro in Brooklyn.
The Ayat Palestinian bistro in Brooklyn.Credit: Eleanor H. Reich
Eleanor Hannah Reich
Eleanor H. Reich
New York
Eleanor Hannah Reich
Eleanor H. Reich
New York

NEW YORK – As you enter the Ayat Palestinian bistro in Brooklyn, it’s hard to miss the political context that accompanies your meal. The walls are covered with paintings of olive branch-bearing doves and writings calling to end the occupation and live in peace. A large mural shows a Palestinian woman crying while looking at an Israeli soldier aiming his gun at an imprisoned Palestinian underneath Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock. The message is very clear at this restaurant that promises “honest, authentic Palestinian food made with love.”

Husband and wife Abdul Elenani, 29, and Ayat Masoud, 33, both grew up in Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge neighborhood, both the children of immigrants from the Middle East: his parents arrived from Egypt, and hers from the Palestinian neighborhoods of Jerusalem. Up until 2020, the couple had two distinctly different career paths: Masoud worked as an attorney specializing in immigration, criminal and family law, while Elenani was the owner of Cocoa Grinder, a Brooklyn-based chain of coffee shops.

Then COVID-19 arrived and things suddenly changed: the courts were closed and the coffee chain’s clientele started making their own morning espresso at home. The couple found themselves without work. Turning this lemon into lemonade, Elenani decided to shutter Cocoa Grinder and pursue his dream of opening a Middle Eastern restaurant, branded as a Palestinian bistro.

Masoud, who grew up eating the Palestinian dishes that have run in her family for generations, decided to join the adventure, creating a menu based on her family’s traditional recipes.

“She had no idea I was going to call it Ayat,” Elenani smiles of his romantic gesture to his wife.

When your correspondent first entered the Ayat bistro, the background music and smell of saj bread (unleavened flatbread) brought back memories of visits to Jerusalem’s Old City – something that doesn’t happen very often on the streets of New York City.

Upon its October 2020 opening, the restaurant received plenty of positive feedback. While dozens of Middle Eastern restaurants have opened in the city over the years, a place branded as Palestinian is still hard to find. “I think that comes from fear,” Elenani says. “If you say the word ‘Palestine,’ you get a lot of negativity. We faced it ourselves.”

Two months after the opening, The New York Times published a Critic’s Notebook article on the bistro, which was mostly favorable but then generated a flood of public negativity, according to Elenani: The entire night, his phone kept buzzing with “hundreds of one-star reviews” from different dining apps – mostly published by people who had not even visited the restaurant but were opposed to the political art on its walls, and perhaps even the mere mention of the word Palestine.

The interior of the Ayat bistro in Brooklyn's Bay Ridge neighborhood.Credit: Eleanor H. Reich

When asked about the artwork of the crying woman, which is visible to anyone entering the restaurant, and why that was chosen over a more peaceful, optimistic message, Masoud responds: “In order to hope for a better future, you have to expose the current reality.”

Before marrying a Palestinian American, Elenani’s connection to the Palestinian cause originated from his Palestinian childhood friends. He remembers coming back from summer vacation and hearing friends’ stories of being held for hours on end at Israeli checkpoints, en route to visiting family members in the West Bank. He therefore developed what he refers to as a “Muslim-humanistic commitment to the Palestinian cause.” This, he says, also informs his work today in the restaurant.

‘Food, family, culture’

For Masoud, food used to be more of a side passion. She fondly recalls cooking with her mother for her father and eight older siblings. Yet her academic curiosity drove her into law school. It was only the grim reality of the pandemic that convinced her to finally return to that other love – cooking Palestinian food, drawing on the recipes of her childhood.

“Food, family, culture – that’s where I feel Palestinian,” she says.

Before opening the restaurant, she made sure to get her mother’s input on all the recipes. Now, she spends her days running between the family restaurant and, a few blocks away, her Masoud Law Firm offices.

Her mother’s side of the family lives in Sheikh Jarrah, the East Jerusalem neighborhood at the heart of recent Israeli-Palestinian tensions as Jewish settler organizations seek to evict Palestinian families from their homes of many decades. “My mom never raised us to hate Jewish people,” she says. “Essentially, she grew up with them in Jerusalem.”

If Israel is determined to continue controlling East Jerusalem, which has been under its rule since 1967, it needs to “treat the people living there with respect,” she adds. “There were empires that took over lands but didn’t hurt the people already living there.” In her view, Israel has been doing the opposite since it took over Arab neighborhoods in the Holy City.

One thing she loves about the restaurant, she says, is teaching customers how to correctly pronounce the names of Palestinian dishes. “I’m always laughing with joy when people come in and they say ‘Let me try the ma, ma, maskhan?’” she says, referring to m’sakhan, fresh bread baked in a taboon oven and topped with onion, sumac, pine nuts and poultry. By helping confused costumers with Arabic pronunciations, she offers them a portal into her culture.

The small, cozy bistro is located in the couple’s childhood neighborhood of Bay Ridge, known for its eclectic immigrant community. Myriad restaurants offer food from different regions of the world here. With that in mind, the restaurant is certainly a place of comfort for those hailing from the Middle East – but it serves an extremely diverse clientele. The average Israeli patron might be taken aback by the political art, but will ultimately find themselves embraced by the sense of hospitality that dominates the place.

Ayat recounts how a uniformed U.S. soldier came to enjoy Palestinian dining. When she posted a picture of him eating next to the mural, she received some criticism as it seemed as if she was supporting the U.S. military and all that this represents. But she viewed it as evidence that food brings people of all walks of life together. “The way I saw that was, thanks for putting this [military identity] aside and being down to earth and wanting to eat this cuisine.”

The art on the wall – be it the crying woman mural or the peace doves – may catch your attention, but it’s not the main course at Ayat.

Art on the walls at Ayat. Not the main course.Credit: Eleanor H. Reich

If you go there, pay close attention even to dishes that you may think will never surprise you, such as the classic tabouleh salad or the shawarma meal. These are just done differently here, in a way that distinguishing the restaurant from other Middle Eastern eateries.

For a more uniquely Palestinian taste, try the mansaf, a traditional Palestinian dish of lamb cooked in a sauce of fermented dried yogurt and served over a bed of rice. This combination rests on ishrak bread that soaks the yogurt sauce. Savor those flavors and it could almost feel like you are in Jerusalem’s Old City, not New York City.

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