At 7 p.m., Luay Kayyali was slumped over the small counter of his restaurant, Amir. Kayyali, originally from Jordan, opened his bare-bones bakery and cafe two months ago and hasn't slept much since. From 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. seven days a week, Kayyali serves pocket pies, salads and dolmas to a growing crowd of customers.
On this particular evening, three young men flung open the restaurant's doors shouldering heavy, black plastic bags that appeared to be filled with meat. As they handed the bags to Kayyali, my dining companion whispered, "I don't know if it's good or bad that people are bringing in meat in plastic bags."
Very good, it turned out. As soon as our colorful feast came out cradled in a startling amount of Styrofoam, it was apparent this place was going to be legit. Perhaps the most obvious example was the tabbouleh salad ($3)--a bright green mound of chopped parsley sprinkled oh-so-sparingly with flecks of bulgar, tiny chunks of tomato, mint and sweet red onion. The salad was strikingly fresh with just the right lemon tang to mute the parsley's bitter bite. The baba ghanoush ($4) was even better.
Immensely flavorful, the creamy spread balanced a light garlic heat with a heavy hit of lemon. My friend and I both agreed it's the best we've ever had. The baba ghanoush wasn't served with pita, but it did add a welcome depth to the strangely bland zaatar and cream cheese pie ($3). Though the crisp, pizza-like dough was slathered with a thin layer of cream cheese and a mixture of sumac, sesame seeds and herbs, it needed a little something else to tie it all together. As did the meat and cheese pie ($3), a flat crust cut into quarters and topped with crumbles of beef, minced bits of bell pepper and onion. Crowned with an green pile of tabbouleh, the pie came to life.
But the real star of our meal wasn't on the menu: the lamb and cheese pocket pie ($3). Seasoned with a blend of seven spices that Kayyali coyly refused to divulge, the lamb had a light curry flavor that shone through an oozy layer of cheddar. Encased in a lightly crisp sourdough shell, the pie was a bit like a Middle Eastern calzone. After I polished it off, I immediately ordered another one to take home, along with a side of baba ghanoush.
And I'm not the only one singing Amir's praises. The place is so popular that both times I tried to order the mansaf ($7.99)--a Jordanian dish consisting of lamb and fermented yogurt served over rice--they were sold out. So Kayyali has decided to expand into the empty space next door and open a full-service restaurant, which he hopes to unveil in three weeks. For now at least, there doesn't appear to be much sleep on the horizon.