Adding nubs of green onion to thick labna is not a revolutionary move. Chop some onion, mix it in—it takes maybe two minutes, tops. But whereas Middle Eastern joints all over the city serve their labna (or strained yogurt) plain, Habibi takes this extra step. And that’s this restaurant in a nutshell: Little things add to, and elevate, the experience.
For example: When mugs of complimentary tea were brought out to my table, the gentleman serving them held them close to my face, right under my nose. “Cinnamon tea,” he said. He needn’t have explained—the sweet aroma had already permeated the room—but I was grateful for his excessively kind service. Without it, I might have been more anxious at the start of the meal. Though the restaurant is new, the decor (part faux-palace-luxury, part Egyptian disco) is already dated and a little shabby, and it hardly inspires confidence in the kitchen. And when I visited, the place was deserted, making me wonder if I was about to have a meal that the neighborhood was actively avoiding.
But then the labna came, followed by then the baba ghanoush (one of the smokiest in the city), and it became clear that great care was being taken with this food. “You must use olive oil,” the gentleman told me about Middle Eastern cuisine. It was obvious that the olive oil, the tea and everything else in the place made him very proud. And he had every reason to be: This is an ambitious menu, and it seems to reach all over the Middle East, but everything I tried was delicious, even when it looked dubious. The musakhan, a traditional Palestinian dish, resembled something from a Mexican kitchen: A thin, circular bread was wrapped around sumac-dusted chicken and loads of sautéed red onion. It had the look of enchiladas, but it boasted an unmistakably—and pleasantly sharp—Middle Eastern flavor.
When a shawarma “baguette” sandwich arrived at the table not in a crispy baguette but in a long, soft roll with pale french fries underneath, I was sure I had found the restaurant’s undoing. But the roll soaked up the shawarma’s spicy juices, and the dish turned out to be the one that made me fall for the place. It wasn’t just that Habibi had invented the Middle Eastern hoagie (though it definitely deserves props for that), it’s that it quietly did it with pride.