If there is an unsung hero of the current Middle Eastern food trend sweeping the city, it is George Abou-Daoud. He was not the first person in L.A. to open a modern Middle Eastern restaurant — Cleo in Hollywood and the (sadly) short-lived Mezze in Beverly Grove were earlier trailblazers. But Bowery Bungalow, which Abou-Daoud opened in Silver Lake in 2014, was an important addition to the scene, in part because, unlike many of the young chefs and restaurateurs playing in this realm, Abou-Daoud is Middle Eastern.
While many new restaurants bill themselves as Israeli (often because that's a convenient catch-all for the mishmash of cultures that make up the Middle East), Abou-Daoud is very careful to celebrate the specific ancestry of each dish, without being slavish to tradition. At Bowery Bungalow, the food is described as “the cuisine of the Levantine, North Africa, Anatolia and the Mediterranean.” It would be easier, given the prevalence of all of these cultures within Israel, to simply call the food Israeli, but Abou-Daoud understands the intricacies of the region, the push and pull of cultures, and the erasure of many of those cultures and their traditions that occurs when their foods are co-opted under new, simplified umbrellas.
His new restaurant, Farida, is named for his Lebanese-Palestinian-Egyptian grandmother, and it aims to honor her legacy with food that nods to that broad heritage. At the bottom of Farida's menu is a glossary of terms, each crediting the region and culture in which an item originates. You'll get a lesson in how to pronounce lebneh (“LEB-neh, not LAB-neh”) and a reminder that “hummus” is just the Arabic word for “chickpea.”
If any of this leads you to assume that Abou-Daoud's restaurants are somber or self-serious, you'd be wrong. While giving the complexity of Middle Eastern food its proper context is obviously a mission, these restaurants are supposed to be fun above all else.
At Farida, which sits on Sunset Boulevard just on the edge of the churning, dark heart of Hollywood's most touristy few blocks, the walls are covered in bright tilework, and the metal chairs are painted in primary colors. Huge 1950s Egyptian movie posters decorate the back rooms in a clever flip of the Hollywood nostalgia script. There's a rainbow of cocktails, many of them containing Middle Eastern spices, and they're a little too sweet and blunt to rise to the level of serious mixology, but that's not really the point. Abou-Daoud understands the city he's in and the hedonism of the neighborhood, and he plays to those things, for better or worse.
Meals start with a complementary taste of lentil soup, shot through with a ton of lemon, and it's a bright, warming palate primer to get you going. Acid is used to great effect throughout the menu, in a navy bean ful stew that's served with warm pita and in the form of charred lemon that comes alongside the “cheesy green pie,” a triangle of phyllo filled with spinach and feta and smeared with chermoula.
The best meal I had at Farida was entirely vegetarian, and perhaps its most creative dish was the tahini toast, a sweet/savory mashup that reminded me of the insane after-school snacks I used to make as a teenager, with everything in the fridge smeared on toasted bread. A thin layer of tahini is drizzled with date jus (the tahini entry on the bottom of the menu says, “Tahini is to sesame seeds what peanut butter is to peanuts”; I think this sesame/date combo is in some ways a wink at the PB&J), then topped with spicy cucumber and riced cauliflower. It's a lot of flavors yet somehow harmonious and delicious.
The hummus comes with charred shishito peppers piled in the middle, while the baba ghanoush gets a flurry of wilted pea tendrils on top. That kick of acid shows up again in “Mideast tostones,” slightly smashed potatoes coated in a vibrant green harissa and served with yogurt.
It was the meat dishes where the kitchen seemed to struggle, particularly on the issue of salt. Salt is hard to complain about because everyone has different levels of preference, but Farida's six-hour spicy lamb belly, which comes in a beautifully alluring juicy heap over lebneh, was so salty it burned — so salty that my companions and I were thirsty hours later, so salty I swear I could feel the numbing effect on my tongue the next day. An entrée of lamb awarma (a lamb confit dish, not to be confused with shawarma), served in hunks in a pool of hummus bi tahini with cured eggplant and a soft egg, was also intensely salty, and oddly dry and lean for a dish that's usually all about the fat.
I loved the Aleppo turmeric cream that came under a filet of branzino and the roasted green pepper rice that it soaked into, but the fish itself was waterlogged and mushy, and so unlike branzino I wondered if there had been some kind of switcheroo.
Some of these issues may come down to management and organization. There was no beer available at all one night, and the wines on the list weren't the wines being served. (I found out later that an incident with the cooler had ruined much of the wine stock.) Abou-Daoud says he is the chef and the restaurant is serving his recipes, but his multiple businesses disallow him from doing the actual cooking, and someone else runs the kitchen. This is a fairly common setup, but (and it pains me to say this) I've rarely seen it work well outside of larger, more corporate-style operations. In smaller, less micro-managed environments, it's hard to get members of a kitchen staff to care deeply about a vision that's not their own. I did get the sense during my meals at Farida that it was a relaxed, fun place to work, possibly to a fault.
I had similar experiences when I visited Bowery Bungalow after it opened three years ago: meals were promising but flawed; service was friendly but a bit untethered. Friends declared it their favorite restaurant in the neighborhood, and I understood that on the right night it could be wonderful. But the margin of error, on the wrong night, was a little too wide.
With this wave of new modern Middle Eastern restaurants, we need people like Abou-Daoud to remind us of the origins of this food, to care as much as he does, to keep pointing out the complexity of the region, to make sure we remember the Arab and North African and many other influences on a cuisine that's too often severed from its roots. Not only that, but Hollywood could use a smart, fun, colorful place to eat, one that's not too expensive but not too down-and-out, a quality neighborhood option to counter all the glam and grime and tourist bait surrounding it.
Farida could be all of these things. As of now, it almost is.
FARIDA | 6266 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood | (323) 498-5100 | faridarestaurant.com | Mon.-Fri., noon-11 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 6-11 p.m. | Dishes, $6-$24 | Full bar | Street parking