Wassim Matar, Phoenician Taverna’s owner, once told me something interesting: Be careful with recipes. Reason being, a recipe can make you think you know how to make something and give you false confidence. A dish should never be a mechanical procedure, because when you cook you are always working with living things. No two cloves of garlic are exactly the same and neither are the harvests of thyme which go into making za’atar, one of the central spice blends in Lebanese cuisine. You need to taste each ingredient, get a sense of its particular identity at that moment, and then adjust accordingly, even if you are assembling a dish you have made a thousand times before.
This level of alertness and attention to detail is what keeps Phoenician Taverna operating at such a high level, from its smoky baba ghanoush to its irresistible sweet-and-sour muhammara, made with walnuts and pomegranate reduction, all served with baskets of fresh-baked pita emerging from its busy, glowing ovens. You go to Phoenician Taverna craving certain favorites, but what sets it apart is its sense of discovery. The menus at many ethnic restaurants never change; Phoenician Taverna, though, is always adjusting and experimenting, from the lemon garlic whip served with french fries at lunch to the traditional makdous, a tiny stuffed eggplant preserved in oil over the winter in Lebanon. During one visit, the special was mehshi malfouf, a silky lamb cabbage roll, redolent of cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg, and absolutely delicious. “Here, you must try this,” Matar often says, circulating from table to table, and the excitement he feels about the food and the tradition in which he works is entirely palpable. If you don’t already love Middle Eastern food, you will after a visit here.