Modern Mediterranean restaurant Sami & Susu opens on New York’s Lower East Side
New York is full of countless chains and delicatessens where you can find often flat and dry chicken cutlets. But the chicken cutlet ($ 22) at Sami & Susu will be a revelation. It’s smaller, yes, but the poultry portion is meatier, carefully coated with crumbs, and tender. There’s a nice buttery taste too, although no butter is involved, according to co-owner Amir Nathan, who previously worked at the front of the house in Via Carota. “The chef beats him for a long, long time,” he says when I ask him why the chops are so soft, referring to chef and co-owner Jordan Anderson, a veteran of Olmsted and House Yaki.
Sami & Susu takes its name from an Israeli children’s show aimed at Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The show was broadcast in Arabic with Hebrew subtitles. The Lower East Side restaurant of the same name debuted a year ago as a Brooklyn pop-up, but moved to its permanent home at 190 Orchard Street a month ago. “The food itself symbolizes unity,” Nathan told The Jerusalem Post when the pop-up debuted.
I have visited several times in the last week and was blown away by the menu, but it is still difficult to describe the restaurant. It’s a free mix of cooking styles from the Middle East (including Israeli and Palestinian), Turkish, Eastern European, and perhaps most notably French.
The Israeli part of the formula often favors Sephardic food, the cuisine of North African, Spanish and Middle Eastern Jews. This cutlet, for example, while fundamentally European, comes with a side of zhoug – a voluminous condiment of cilantro, chili peppers and garlic from Yemen, adding strong flavors to what is essentially a chewy cutlet. When you’re done inhaling the schnitzel, you’ll want to save the remaining zhoug to use on other dishes.
Another local Israeli restaurant, Taim, popularized sabich in New York City. At Sami & Susu, the sabich – a pasty mixture of hard-boiled eggs and eggplant – eschews the typical pita bread and is instead stuffed into a very French baguette from the neighboring Partybus bakery, compact and crunchy, but light enough not to dominate the toppings. The restaurant’s version of amba, a bright orange condiment of fermented mango with a sweet and sour taste, is smeared on the baguette, and the eggplant has absorbed all kinds of smoke as it cooks.
Indeed, baguette sandwiches are an important part of the menu at Sami & Susu, which is currently open all day from 8am to 7pm, but will extend these hours into the evenings and add small dishes when the beer and wine license arrives. The best I tried featured the Jewish Deli’s beef tongue ($ 13), which is usually chewy, but here thinly sliced and deliciously soft. Surprisingly, an anchovy or two is also dropped, in addition to the capers and fresh dill, sending the flavor to orbit (although I could have wished for more tongue).
In addition to the baguettes, the chicken liver is another French touch. You would have expected the kind of ground chicken liver that you find in Jewish delicatessens with its coarse texture and onions. At Sami & Susu it’s more of a Parisian mousse, light and creamy. It’s placed in take-out containers – perfect for picnics if you ask for pitas to go with it – which can be removed from the fridge to the left of the counter.
Likewise, Middle Eastern cuisines often favor vegetarian dishes, as does Sami & Susu. Best thing on the menu is vegetarian: a corn tabbouleh ($ 14) that adds freshly grated kernels from the husk to the standard recipe, with the addition of crushed almonds. Corn adds a winning sweetness to a dish often overshadowed by the verdant bitterness of its parsley. Other vegetarian offerings include a Moroccan carrot salad not as lemony as the version of, say, Café Mogador. This rendition is further enhanced with a handful of pistachios, a lake of olive oil, and a dash of thickened yogurt – really, this could be a main course for one.
There are also full-fledged main dishes, including the previously mentioned schnitzel. These are also mixes from the participating cuisines, including a trio of lamb-stuffed Eastern European cabbage rolls ($ 22). They sit on a radiant bed of caponata, depending on the menu, but it feels more like ratatouille, without the more pronounced flavors of anchovy and raisins usually found in the former (although recipes for both dishes vary).
A small bowl of mommy’s chicken soup with a matzoh ball planted in the middle and some bland carrots and chicken shreds floating around turns out to be unremarkable in every way, but isn’t that what you want? Is “Mommy’s Chicken Soup” ($ 11) more invigorating than a center of attention? Yet in a place as innovative as Sami & Susu, I expected at least one surprise per dish.
Save room at the end of your meal – whether eaten inside, in the outdoor seating area, or taken home – for the reconfigured boureka ($ 10). The pastry originated in Turkey, but the modified versions are popular in Israel and the Balkans.
Both times I tried it, it had just been freshly made to order. Rolled up like a snake and made from rolled puff pastry, the boureka was filled with an amalgam of chocolate and hazelnut much more chocolatey than Nutella. And this dark, sweet filling has burst from its flaky boundaries, inviting you to lick it before biting into the dough.
Ultimately, Sami & Susu is a new Israeli restaurant that launches a modest plea for peace, but also offers flexible dining options that allow you to enjoy a cup of coffee, a small or a large snack, or a full meal. . And all the food I tried there was at least very tasty, and some of it also unusual.