Vancouver's new Middle Eastern–inspired restaurants get creative

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      Haitham El Khatib took quite the circuitous journey to Vancouver and the city’s restaurant industry. Born in Dubai to parents who were Palestinian refugees, he lived with his family in several parts of the Middle East, including a refugee camp in Lebanon; war and violence were frequently part of daily life.

      El Khatib went on to study business administration in Beirut, working and living in several cities. Then he met Fiona Hepher, a North Vancouver native who was working in Dubai, and fell in love.

      The two married, moved to Vancouver, are expecting their first baby any day now, and recently launched a restaurant named Aleph, which takes its name from the first letter of the Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Urdu, and Phoenician alphabets.

      This fact crystallized for El Khatib the commonalities people share across borders, something he was struck by when he began volunteering with immigrants here during the peak of the Syrian refugee crisis.

      “As a refugee, when you’re on someone else’s land and starting your lives over, [it] makes you think about the concept of place,” El Khatib says during an interview at the bright space (at 1889 Powell Street) adorned with plants and blond woods. “I started meeting Israelites here; I had never met them before in my life.…When you meet people from that part of the world, there’s a certain moment of ‘Oh, we’re the same people.’ We wanted a place that brings the social fabric together.”

      El Khatib trained at Northwest Culinary Academy of Vancouver. Although the eatery is inspired by the Middle Eastern food he grew up with, it by no means aims to re-create authentic versions of specific dishes. Rather, Aleph is a place where chefs have expressive freedom and where food brings people together.

      “We are a creative space to explore how we can push Middle Eastern cuisine beyond the traditional while maintaining the familiar flavours,” El Khatib says. He points to a dish called Silk Road, with eggplant, labneh (a yogurt cheese), hummus, zaatar (a mix of thyme, sumac, sesame seeds, and oil), and honey, as an illustration of Aleph’s food philosophy: “simple, flavourful, surprising, and innovative”, and “drawing inspiration from the ancient Silk Road in its lucrative silky texture and combining many cultures on one plate with a fresh warm saj [flat] bread that has chimichurri sauce in it”.

      There’s a traditional saj oven by the window of the open kitchen. Other items on the restaurant’s brunch, lunch, and dinner menus include shakshuka (organic eggs in an aromatic tomato sauce with fresh herbs, served with hot saj), a grilled-halloumi sandwich with fig jam, turmeric cauliflower with tahini and sliced almonds, and Persian herb-lentil rice. Beer on tap is local (Strange Fellows); wines come from Israel, Lebanon, and Oliver. There’s also Arabic coffee with cardamom to sip (with Matchstick beans, both Catalogue and Bulldog).

      Aleph is just one of a handful of Middle Eastern–inspired restaurants to open in Vancouver recently. Paramount Fine Foods (560 Robson Street) is part of an Ontario-based chain with an expansive menu featuring everything from fattoush to chicken shawarma. Lebanese restaurant Manoush’eh (620 Davie Street) specializes in baked discs of dough topped with zaatar.

      Then there is Balila Taste Kitchen (47 West Hastings Street). It’s run by brothers Waleed and Mazen Sukkarie, who moved to Vancouver from Lebanon in 1985.

      The restaurant gets its name from what is widely considered to be the original hummus dish. It wasn’t a dip but rather a hot meal of whole chickpeas mixed with garlic, salt, lemon juice, cumin, and olive oil.

      The Balila menu revolves around chickpeas, the concept reflecting the kind of neighbourhood mom-and-pop shops the Sukkarie brothers grew up with. Called hummusanis and on practically every corner in Lebanon, all they serve is hummus.

      “Hummus is essential in that part of the world,” Mazen says. “It’s like brushing your teeth. You know you’re going to have hummus every day.”

      Balila serves some Middle Eastern salads, such as tabbouleh and fattoush, which has a bright lemon-sumac dressing, as well as a spicy tomato-chickpea soup. Bowls, wraps, and rice dishes—all containing hummus—are other options; there’s also mushroom-and-oregano hummus or, for meat eaters, hummus sirloin cubes, garlic chicken, or spicy meatballs. But the heart of the place is hummus, in all sorts of glorious flavours, beet, yam, spicy Moroccan harissa, olive, pesto, walnut, and kale among them.

      The brothers will soon be opening a second Balila location in the Sheraton Wall Centre Hotel. The format will be like a Subway or Chipotle outlet, where you go down the line to customize your meal by picking your own ingredients. Look for it in April.

      Follow Gail Johnson on Instagram @YVRFitFoodie and Twitter @YVRFitFoodie.