By Mary Yeung, Photos by Todd Barndollar
A few days after I had lunch at Zizi Limona, I found myself telling all my friends about it. I haven’t been so excited about a new restaurant for a long while, but Zizi Limona really meets my criteria for what good Middle Eastern food should be. Colorful dishes that are smoky and tangy, with layers and layers of exotic flavors. You can taste the cumin, peppers, tahini, mint, dates, preserved lemon, and toasted olive oil, and, occasionally, even basil and Thai fish sauce will make an unexpected appearance. The flavors are intense and complex, but never muddled or overwhelming.
“When you walk into the kitchen, it smells just like my grandma’s, but when you taste it, it’s different, something new and modern,” says Sharon Hoota, who co-owns the restaurant with Yigal Ashkenazi. Hoota met Ashkenazi a few years ago, while managing the wildly popular Israeli chain, Hummus Place, before they teamed up to open their own place at 129 Havemeyer Street.
Ashkenazi says it was their determination “not to open a cookie cutter American Middle Eastern eatery” that led them to create Zizi Limona. “We wanted to take Middle Eastern food to another level. We want to serve food that reflects modern Israeli life. Israel is a young country; we have people coming from all parts of the globe, bringing with them their own food cultures. We want to incorporate that into our menu.”
The partners found a kindred spirit in Nir Mesika, a young chef whose grandfather baked for the king of Morocco. Born in Israel, Mesika grew up on his Moroccan mother’s home cooking. He studied at the Bishulim Culinary Institute and worked at the famed Catit restaurant under the tutelage of Chef Meir Adoni. He even operated his own restaurant in Milan before coming to America.
The restaurant’s signature dish is the Moroccan Oxtail Tanzia, a braised oxtail served on a bed of cracked white wheat, with caramelized carrots, rosemary, and shishito peppers. Five hours of slow cooking in the oven is what gives the sweet beef its alluring tenderness. It’s a dish that won the heart of a New York Times restaurant critic. The crowd favorite is the Crazy Baba, a baba ghanoush dish with an Italian twist. Mesika’s eggplant is infused with feta cheese and basil, and whipped into a soft pudding. It’s as green as jade and smooth as velvet, yet it manages to retain its Middle Eastern characteristics. Another standout offering is Bureka, a filo dough pastry stuffed with braised oxtail, a dish that originated with the Ottoman Turks. Grilled chicken, fish, and skirt steaks served with lentils and roasted vegetables are also on the dinner menu ($12 to $25).
The beer and wine list is short, but diverse, curated from around the globe. Ashkenazi highly recommends the Massaya, a mellow red wine from Lebanon that has been aged in French oak barrels. Of course, you’ll want to sample the desserts; after all, they’re made by the grandson of a royal baker. Everybody loves the elaborate semolina cake, all jazzed up with ice cream, halava, cardamom syrup, and date honey. Or you can choose the light and flaky baklava.
Lunch is a great time to eat here, as the prices are quite reasonable for simpler dishes cooked with the same finesse. A small plate of falafels is only $5, but oh, what falafels. The chickpea balls, served with a mild curry tahini sauce, are laced with strands of vivid greens, giving them a delicate crust and a pleasing lightness. It’s definitely not something you can get from a street cart. Fatush ($10) is a tasty salad of cherry tomatoes, charred onions, roasted pepper, olive tapenade, bulgar, feta cheese, and za’atar spice. Embedded in the salad are tiny shards of fried pita croutons, making a healthful salad as addictive as snack food. Not in the mood for pita bread? There’s a roasted eggplant and cured egg croissant sandwich. Need a blast of omega 3? Try the Gravlax Limona, a house cured salmon served with fried cauliflower. The $7 house wine, Vranec, is a bold red from Macedonia.
If, on a lazy Sunday, you decide you’re a bit bored with the usual bacon and scrambled eggs routine, you can head to Zizi Limona for their Shakshuka, a popular Israeli breakfast dish. You’ll find sunny side up eggs simmering in an intense tomato sauce seasoned with cumin and tahini sauce.
The décor is urban rustic, with the front painted a muted country green and an interior with mix-and-match furniture and a small bar. Not a whole lot of Middle Eastern bric-a-brac, just a handsome floor to ceiling shelf dedicated to gourmet products you can take home: Turkish coffee, rosewater, date honey, za’atar, and a really good olive oil from Greece—all products used by the chef. So now you can add a little Middle Eastern flair to your home cooking. Watch the cooks work their magic through the semi-open kitchen. Maybe we all can learn a thing or two.
129 Havemeyer Street