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Lean into the babel at Bavel, the Arts District's buzzing Middle Eastern gem.
Bavel, Ori Menashe’s vibrant take on Middle Eastern cuisine, is an exhausting place to visit for a gentleman of a certain age who finds the notion of a restaurant with a “downtown vibe” more of a threat than a promise. The eclectic music pumps out belligerently from speakers across the restaurant at levels that could wake Lazarus. The pink-shirted staff who hurtle around the restaurant with the tenacity of Pac-Man are prone to aggressive pre-bussing and, at one point, collided with objects to decant sauce over my wife’s new purse.
It could all become a bit too much, but Bavel has quickly claimed the number-one spot as L.A.’s new must-visit, and the Arts District restaurant is constantly packed. Work your way through the frippery and you’ll see why: Underneath it all, Bavel is a very serious restaurant indeed. It’s here that chef-owner Menashe adds to the success he’s already achieved at Italian mainstay Bestia, turning his focus to favorite flavors from Israel, Morocco, Egypt, Turkey and beyond.
That passion is obvious from the first tear of fried pita to be dipped into the smoky burnt eggplant purée of eggplant escabeche ($12), and from the first scoop of silky hummus topped with duck ’nduja and pungent Jerusalem spice ($13).
It continues with the arrival of one of the best dishes of the night, a whipped foie gras halva ($21), where a smooth pâté arrived decorated by sesame seeds—providing a nutty texture—and a date purée's natural sweetness offsetting the fattiness of the liver. Like the soft farm cheese ($13), the halva came with slices of superb toasted buckwheat sourdough bread; elements of the meal that could easily be dismissed as delivery systems are treated with the respect they deserve by a chef raised in a culture where bread is the staff of life.
When you’re offering up food so unapologetically filled with flavor as Menashe’s, there’s a good chance that some of it isn’t going to work. A lamb flatbread ($18) was simply that: flat. The sprinkle of nigella seeds added little benefit other than something to be discovered at a later date—between my teeth—to remind me of our meal. A dish of roasted cauliflower ($17) came overcooked to softness, and the bitter flavor of raw turmeric overtook to the point that we handed the plate back to a server after two bites. With the arrival of our main courses, a pretty looking dish of wagyu beef cheek tagine ($42) smelled of cloves as soon as the lid was lifted, and tasted of little else once we took a bite.
Other entrées were considerably better. A slow-roasted lamb neck shawarma ($45) fell apart at the touch and was perfectly complemented by the sharp tang of its accompanying pickled turnips and fermented cabbage. Even better was a grilled lamb saddle chop ($42), which came cooked to pink, flecked with licorice and lightly sweetened by a borage vinaigrette—it’s one of L.A.’s standout dishes of the year so far, and not to be missed if you visit.
Of the desserts, the paglava ($12) was uninspiring, but the soft, delicious and slightly salty rose clove chocolate doughnuts ($13) showed that the pastry kitchen—helmed by co-owner and Menashe’s wife, Genevieve Gergis—at least knows how to keep clove under control. It was also good to see the reappearance of a diplomat cream on a modern-day menu.
With a pre-dinner cocktail and a bottle of wine from the middle range of the list, a meal here could see you handing over upwards of $200 for two; that’s usually enough to see me raising a warning flag. However, for food that is sometimes flawed—but often astonishing and definitely the result of passion—Bavel earns its right to be the number-one must-try restaurant in Los Angeles, and I am just going to have to buy earplugs.
WHERE TO SIT
While there are quieter spots on the outdoor patio where you can hold a conversation without shrieking, when you visit a place as noisy, busy and frenetic as Bavel, you just have to own it. Get a seat in the center of the restaurant, facing the open kitchen, and learn semaphore so you can chat with your company.
WHAT TO EAT
The duck ’nduja hummus is rightly receiving much of the attention on social media, but as I type this review it’s the foie gras halva and the farm cheese, followed by the grilled lamb saddle chop, that would be first on my reorder list.
WHAT TO DRINK
The cocktails at Bavel do their job, the Marius being the best of those we tried. However, it’s the wine offering that’s really a joy, with bottles from Greece, the Canary Islands and Sardinia rounding out the usual suspects, and a short but well-picked sherry list. For those fond of their brettanomyces, the Lebanese Chateau Musar remains one of the most interesting wines in the world, if reserved only for those deep of pocket—at $475 a bottle.
500 Mateo St
|Opening hours:||Sun-Thu 5–11pm, Fri & Sat 5pm–midnight|
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