Middle Eastern "Mediterranean" options in New Hampshire
With the recent closure of Mavi Bistro in Hudson, NH I’ve come to a few conclusions. First, when I hear about a great “ethnic” place that has recently opened in New Hampshire I MUST get there within the first six months because one of two things may happen, either they will Americanize their menu (in one of a few different ways) or they will close. Also, most eateries that offer anything perceived as different (and I’m not talking cupcakes, Thai, gourmet burgers or marshmallows) will probably not make it in NH unless they can draw customers from “away.”
Typical signs a restaurant is in trouble include cutting back on heat in the winter and AC in the summer, portion sizes get smaller, quality of food diminishes and offerings expand such as signs stating “Now offering brunch!” or “Now serving ice cream!” when their concept has nothing to do with such things.
To keep this relatively short I’m going to discuss “Mediterranean” or Middle Eastern restaurants in NH.
My first taste of the Middle East in NH was Pauly's Pockets in Durham. That was seven years ago and I haven’t been back since. Pauly’s is beloved by all of the locals because most of the locals went to UNH and if it wasn’t cheap crappy pizza or wings you were eating, it was Pauly’s pita pockets. I recall the sandwich was good, but lacked certain aspects found in most falafel/kebab joints. Pickles were added, sauces were modified, etc. When I inquired about this to the owner he replied, “Yes, yes, but the kids wanted something more familiar, so I made changes.” So, in essence, Pauly was able to adapt and, although he serves nothing like you would find anywhere in the Middle East, he survives and thrives.
A few years later I heard about a lady in Somersworth NH serving Lebanese food out of a gas station called “Quick to Go.” The wonderful lady who cooks and runs the place, Michelle, is from Beirut and she is a great cook indeed. The first time I went my experience was not great, however, and I actually said so here on Chowhound in the old New England section. At that time, Michelle would prepare her food once a week on Fridays and, when I tried it, the food was reheated in a microwave by one of her daughters and wasn’t fresh. Now, everything is made fresh and Michelle is there all the time as business has picked up after they were featured on NH Chronicle. That being said, the place struggles and my guess it if it weren’t for the gas station/convenience store keeping it afloat, it would have closed long before now. I inquired to Michelle why she didn’t have a doner grill (vertical spit) to cook her shawarma and she explained you must be busy enough to have meat standing out unrefridgereated and she wasn’t at that level yet. This was three years ago and she’s still not at that level.
The concept of doner grill is important in Middle Eastern cuisine. It’s what makes doner kebabs in Turkey, shawarma in Lebanon and throughout the MIddle East and Gyros in Greece. Without this grill, the meat cannot be browned or caramelized and give it that unique flavor. Cooking the meat on a hot griddle just doesn’t cut it. So, although Michelle’s shawarma is tasty, it’s not as good as it could be because she’s not busy enough. Her falafel and hummus is outstanding however.
Another local Middle Eastern take out place (in this case Turkish) is located in Newmarket, NH and is called Jay's Newmarket Convenience & Turkish Kebabs. Jay’s has been round for a few years and he serves authentic falafel, Adana kebabs, doner kebabs and shish kebabs. And, he actually HAS a doner grill! Now for the bad news, the food is not as good as when he first opened, he now has partnered with another guy to do Italian food and the whole operation is for sale. The triple whammy: he’s not busy enough in Newmarket, his food quality has diminished as a result, he brings in another more “recognized” menu items and he’s looking to get out. Go now!
Last year a new place opened in Portsmouth called Zahtar Mediterranean Sandwiches. Run by an affable, local corporate chef, this place offers fresh made falafel, hummus, gyros, shawarma and soup. None of it authentic, most of it would be shunned in places such as Boston, NYC, heck, anywhere outside of NH, because he's not serving what his menu purports. The gyro is more like a meatloaf, the shawarma is flavorless roasted chicken. Still, the locals love the place because it’s “exotic” without being too daring culinarily speaking. Chocolate hummus anyone??
Cafe Nostimo Deliciously Greek also in Portsmouth was excellent when they first opened, but the souvlaki now lacks flavor, the gyros are frozen processed strips typically found in NJ diners (not cooked on a doner grill) and it’s overpriced for what you get. Yet, it’s the only Greek restaurant in the Seacoast, so they do a brisk business. But don’t hold your breath if you’ve ever been to Greece or have eaten Greek food elsewhere because this place is toned down for local tastes.
I went to Cedars Cafe in Nashua last week based on online reviews and the fact that Mavi closed and I wanted to try a new place for kebabs. Cedars is run by a family (I think Lebanese) a fellow and his lovely, elderly mother. We tried the hummus (fantastic), tahini (good) falafel (nice) and the tabuleh was good, but they gave too much of it and it didn’t have enough bulgar in it. Now the bad news: the chicken kebab was a just grilled chicken breast with NO spice or marinade and the lamb kebab was also muted flavor wise. For this alone, I would never go back. It just wasn’t worth it. And they don’t serve shawarma as some of their online reviews report. Half of their menu is subs, so my guess is that that's what they serve most.
And last, but not least, we have the Spice Center in Manchester, NH. Located next door to the former location of our beloved long gone Gil’s. This is a cafe with a a few seats that serves the most authentic pan-Middle Eastern food in New Hampshire. Get there early (11-12) when the food is freshest, after 1:30 the place is dead and everything sits. They do have doner grills, but they’re not spinning after lunch. They also have Kushari, an Egyptian dish of rice, lentils, chickpeas and macaroni topped with tomato sauce and fried onion, which you don’t see everyday. The place is disorganized, but it’s worth it. NO burgers or subs, pizza or fried fish options on the menu here, it's the real deal for now.
In conclusion, I think the problem in New Hampshire is the locals focus too much on pizza, ice cream, burgers and the local Dipsy Doodle. It’s what they grew up with. There has been a recent influx of foreigners throughout the Granite State, yet not enough to make any impact with regards to food. Portsmouth is all money and pretension without the attendant cultural amenities and Manchester is a run down city that most people don’t wish to visit. Concord is ok, yet too white bread and though Nashua shows promise, it still lacks the culinary sophistication of most of Boston’s suburbs. One just has to see Nashua’s high turnover of ethnic restaurants to realize this is true.
I apologize for suggesting this spot that is somewhat "under the border", but while it's not truly an "eat-in" place (there are just a few tables), I've been very happy for years with the food at Korbani's bakery in Methuen. I really (really) love their za'atar bread and their tabouleh, but other items like mujadara are really nice.
Interestingly, the bakery (really a little imported goods/deli type shop plus bakery) is located in an increasingly Hispanic (mostly Dominican) section of Methuen that borders (I mean, throw a pebble and you'll hit it) Lawrence, and it seems to have a good foothold--it's been there forever. Worth a trip if you head south.
That said, the movement to "Meh" among taste preference is rampant. At my beloved Feast of the Three Saints in Lawrence, the food highlights for most folks when I was a kid 30 years ago included crispelli stuffed with anchovies and spicy sausage subs. Now the big sellers are crispelli dipped in sugar (fried dough, really) and really bland arancini, the deep fried rice balls with a few peas buried in the middle, doused in too sweet sauce.
I think this thread is on to something.
Bewley, that was a wonderful synopsis of the current, and historical state of Middle Eastern cuisine in NH. Very well-written, and I enjoyed reading it. A few things came to mind while reading it, and I hope you don't mind me expressing my opinion.... since you offered yours.
What if..... that the "problem" is that there simply aren't enough people in NH who are from the Middle East, who grew up on those specific food styles? And not, as you suggest, that the pallets of NH folks just don't know what they're missing? As NH boy who loves great food when I find it, I've patronized Seven Hills and Adria, and Mavi Bistro. All had what I would call reasonably decent food, and I think I've reviewed all of them over my years on CH. But truthfully, none blew me away. I love great examples of different food, as long as it's good. When in a bistro in Gatineau/Ottawa last year I feasted on a huge plate of rabbit kidneys and it was heavenly.
I offer for your possible consideration, as an explanation, that the problem isn't necessarily "white bread," but that Middle Eastern/Mediterranean food really, isn't all that special? In that, if you didn't grow up with it, it may not stand the ultimate flavor test. Yea.... I like hummus and falafel too..... but something to get excited about? Not for me at least.
I have this discussion regularly with my Dominican friends and American expat friends who live in the Dominican Republic, about the cultural preferences toward food. For nearly 30 years I've been spending time in the Dominican Republic, lived there, and was married to a Dominican woman when I lived there (and she and I lived here in NH for 5 years). We were, almost literally, "worlds apart" of what constitutes "good food." My opinion was, and is, that Dominican food is mostly tasteless, bland crap unless it's fried; examples being pescado frito, chicharrones de cerdo (or pollo), or papas fritas. The stuff that nearly all native Dominicans go bazonkers over, such as habichuelas con dulce, truly makes me want to vomit. If you want to have the worst pizza in the world, go to the DR and have it on cassava with corn and ketchup (as the tomato sauce), yet the local's will go crazy for it. And if you want the toughest, driest, overcooked steaks on the planet, go to the DR. They could just as easily tell me I don't know what good food is.
<<I think the problem in New Hampshire is the locals focus too much on pizza, ice cream, burgers and the local Dipsy Doodle>>
So I'm not convinced the problem is with New Hampshire..... it may be that the substrate to support this Middle Eastern cuisine that IMO is just OK at best just may not just exist here, and IMO that's not a bad thing, all things considered. In other words, the problem may be with the food more than anything else.
On a note that may be of interest to you, I understand a new Greek place opened recently in Manchester if you can drag yourself there <<Manchester is a run down city that most people don’t wish to visit>> and reportedly they have the vertical spinning meat things that I've heard makes meat delicious when it's cooked that way. I think it is called G-Spot, and is on Elm St., so may be worth checking out.
re: Dave B
Maybe there's more people like my sister than I had realized. She always orders the same things because she knows she likes them. She won't try new dishes because she might not like them. My husband's relatives all prefer the same food they have always eaten and, for sure, it doesn't contain any unusual flavors nor, heavens forbid, spicy flavors.
But with the popularity of chains and convenience products, we are also losing some traditional flavors such as homemade baked beans and real mashed potatoes. Heck, most restaurants no longer serve a decent cole slaw. The Dipsy Doodle is our preferred 'go to' for a lobster roll (even if it's vacuum packed lobster) and fried clams if we can't travel to the coast.
I more curious as to why most restaurants can't make a decent salad or serve fresh vegetables.
re: Dave B
Dave I really appreciate your input and I agree with you. Your point is well made that there isn't enough ethnic multiculturalism in NH to sustain prospective eateries. I grew up in an area with huge Italian population (fishermen) and you don't know how I lament the loss of not having any decent Italian in the Seacoast area . . . I could go on and on. I just picked Middle Eastern food as an example, I could easily have chosen pizza or Italian or Portuguese, Spanish, etc.
I honestly thought my tastebuds had changed in the past 7 years I've spent here, God knows I have all sorts of new allergies and whatnot, so maybe my taste memory was off, but honestly, it's just not the case. I went to Florida this past year and ate at a restaurant that totally brought me back to why I love Greek food in the first place. If my introduction to Greek food was here in NH, I'd think, ‘It's ok, but it doesn't make me crave more.'
Also, the reasoning that it’s the “type” of food doesn’t hold true for me. I have eaten Dominican food in NYC (it’s just ok) and, well, just compare the number of Dominican cookbooks and those of Middle Eastern cuisine, there’s no comparison. It's like comparing Moroccan food with that of Uganda or comparing Mexican food with the DR. You know?
I DO agree that the Middle Eastern/Greek food is not that good here (New Hampshire), but it IS good elsewhere. That being said, I tried the Gyro Spot. Thank you for the rec. It's good, not great. THey use the vertical spits (good sign). They have pork and chicken gyros. The pork version is tasty and reminds me of what you'd find in Greece. The chicken, however, was nondescript and was only saved by it's spicy mayonaise mustard sauce. Their food was ok, but didn't leave me craving for more.
Dfrostnh, I agree about the popularity of chains and the loss of local cuisine and traditional flavors. It's sad and prevalent throughout the US.