By S. Irene Virbila, Los Angeles Times Restaurant Critic
December 2, 2010
Alex Sarkissian is a natural. I’ve rarely encountered a restaurateur so relaxed and engaging, whether he’s chatting with neighborhood regulars or checking on a table of newcomers. He moves around Momed, his 6-month-old eastern Mediterranean cafe, like Papa Bear, running interference between the waiters and the cooks working in the open kitchen, sometimes taking or delivering orders himself.
This guy can spot a scorched pide (Turkish flatbread) from across the room and act on it. He rushes over to offer to replace the pide fresh from the wood-burning oven with another.
Nothing doing: We actually like the places where the crust is smoky and slightly scorched. Inside is a wonderfully gooey mess of melted halloumi cheese and spicy soujouk sausage with red onions. Unlike a pizza’s, its crust is folded over at the edges and the shape is not round, but a long skinny oval, pointed at the ends and sliced on the diagonal. The one with wild mushrooms, Coleman Family Farms’ spigarello (a curly dark green) and Akawi cheese is terrific too. A minced-chicken version with peaches and pistachios misses, though.
Ask Sarkissian to describe Momed’s cuisine and he’ll tell you it’s eastern Mediterranean with forays to Morocco, Tunisia, Iraq, Egypt, rattling off countries with the sureness of someone who grew up in that part of the world. With executive chef Matthew Carpenter, he conceived the idea of Momed (the name stands for modern Mediterranean) with the idea of using sustainable or organic ingredients, or both. That makes the food a little more expensive than that at run-of-the-mill Mediterranean or Middle Eastern restaurants, but it’s still very affordable.
Momed’s shawarma, for example, isn’t made with anonymous meat: It’s made with flavorful duck, rolled up with oven-dried tomatoes, fig confit and a subtle garlic spread in a house-made whole wheat pita.
That wood-burning oven (not an easy thing to come by these days) turns out the freshly baked pita bread that arrives with almost every order. The warm 6-inch rounds are on the pale side, supple and delicately yeasty, useful for scooping up dabs of rustic crimson muhammara (a rough purée of roasted sweet red peppers, walnuts and pomegranate syrup) or smoky eggplant baba ghanouj. A trio of three classic salads or dips to share is a pretty good deal at $12.
Moroccan carrot salad, though, is too bland and Persian cucumbers cut in thick slices and sprinkled with chile and poppy seeds could use a bit more oomph.
The Arabic equivalent of panzanella is the bread salad fattoush. Momed’s version is made with shards of crispy pita, tomato, cucumber and Little Gem lettuce. And a piece of crispy brown Jidori chicken roasted in the wood-burning oven is nestled beside the salad. The dressing is made with organic olive oil flavored with tart sumac, and it’s neither over- nor underdressed. The dish is perfect as a main course salad at lunch.
That oven also turns out breakfast items. You can order manaeesh, described as a traditional Lebanese breakfast bread, a long flap of flatbread sprinkled with organic extra-virgin olive oil and fragrant za’tar and sesame seeds rolled up like a length of cloth. Egg dishes are baked in a heavy cast-iron skillet. One of the best is organic oven-baked eggs scrambled with marinated artichokes and dusky wild mushrooms. It’s really more like a frittata than scrambled eggs. For $3, you can add a patty of juicy house-made merguez sausage. You’ll want an order of “dirty” potatoes too, roasted Weiser Family Farms’ pee-wee potatoes in their skins, rolled in a black olive tapenade.
The cafe is as lively as its counterpart in Tel Aviv or Beirut. South Beverly Drive is a neighborhood that walks, so passersby will suddenly recognize friends sitting on the broad sidewalk terrace in front, come in and pull up some chairs and visit, ordering glasses of organic crimson berry or Moroccan mint and rose-petal iced tea. Or a cup of Intelligentsia coffee and some filo dough pastries made for the restaurant at a Glendale bakery. The 2-by-2-inch squares filled with a mix of pistachios and walnuts are super-sweet, the better to taste the quality of the nuts and the fine fragile pastry.
Momed is basically open all day, starting with the breakfast and morning pastries. At breakfast and lunch, it’s counter service only. At dinner, though, there is table service from personable waiters earning their way through school or their first apartment in L.A. And they like the food.
When our waiter suggests the tuna brochette with grape leaf salsa, I’m dubious, but try it anyway: It’s wonderful, the chunks of fish perfectly cooked, the sauce punchy and piquant. Another sure winner: the delicious “lamburger” garnished with crispy shallots and cucumber yogurt on a soft challah bun to soak up the lamb’s juices. It comes with Momo chips cut from a big potato, fried and brought out warm —irresistible.
In the frenzy to order, don’t overlook the mezze category. It’s just a handful of items, but they’re all very good, particularly the kibbe bil sinaieh, ground lamb baked with bulgur and pine nuts — fabulous, like a dense, triangle-shaped meatloaf, oozing with lambiness. Baleela is a must too, warm chickpeas with toasted pine nuts and preserved lemon bathed in brown butter.
The quirky décor involves a lot of white, including rows of closely packed ceiling ducts that cover the ceiling and flat lamps that look like octopus suckers. Salads in the glass display case add notes of color. At the back, pastries are displayed like jewelry. A cooler holds Middle Eastern soft drinks and bottled water, and the wine list is larded with kosher wines, some of them from Israel.
Be careful parking. Momed doesn’t have valet parking, but there’s a public parking structure nearby, and street parking, if you can find a space. I aced one and came back to find a $90 ticket on my windshield. I suspected that space was too good to be true, but it was too dark to see that the curb was red. Kind of took the fun out of the evening.
But I went back. And back, drawn by Momed’s fresh and honest take on eastern Mediterranean cuisine and Sarkissian’s warm welcome.