Tuesday, August 07, 2007

From Frutti di Mare to Nomad and back again

August 7

I was a few minutes early for dinner at Nomad, a mostly North African restaurant in the East Village, with its owner, Mehenni Zebentout, so I was entertained and given a Moroccan Sauvignon Blanc blend by its manager, a Tunisian.
But Mehenni arrived soon enough and I learned all about him. He was a law student in his native Algeria before he got tired of that and moved to New York, where he was hired as a busboy at the now-shuttered Frutti di Mare by its Israeli owners.
He then went on to become manager of another restaurant of theirs, Cucina di Pesce, across the street. He eventually became that restaurant's owner and then, about a year-and-a-half ago, opened Nomad nearby, keeping his Israeli friends as part-owners.
Now it has all come full circle, as Mehenni has taken over the Frutti di Mare space and plans to open it in September as Belcourt.
Mehenni has been shopping for accoutrements for the place, including fancy wrought iron doors from a French post and telegraph office (he pointed out the telltale PTT on them). So the name and the door are French, but the food will come from all over the Mediterranean. That's his vision, at least. Scarcely a month before the intended opening, the search for a chef continues, although Mehenni says he has his eyes on a guy who currently is running the kitchen at a restaurant on the Lower East Side (I'd say which one, but it's not a done deal so it would be rude).
As we ate Nomad's house-made merguez, grilled octopus, brik, braised lamb shank with prunes, and b'steeya, followed by lightly sweetened tea made with Israeli mint (Mehenni says it's the best mint in the world), and assorted cookies and baklava, we discussed the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Algeria during the 1990s and continuing problems with democracy in the world, the differences between Moroccan, Algerian and Tunisian cuisines, good books to read on that subject, and the philosophical approach required to run a good restaurant.
We also were visited by the chef at Cacio e Vino, next door (he came by to borrow takeout containers), and Mehenni asked him when they were going to have the couscous cook-off they'd been talking about (one area on Sicily, Trapani, makes its own version of the stuff).
Later on designer Lucia Nenickova, who used to be a waitress at Nomad, stopped in.
As Mehenni observed, she's done better since she quit.

Coda: the fact that Nomad's manager was Tunisian reminded me of a friend from my Bangkok days, Daniel Eaton, a New Zealander who worked for that country's defense ministry (which Dan insisted wasn't as important as it sounded because New Zealand, being surrounded by a 3,000 kilometer moat and having as its closest neighbor, Australia, a close ally, has little need for defense) before coming to Bangkok.
Dan's dad is an Anglican bishop and so he spent many years overseas. In fact, Dan's passport says he was born in Carthage, which is in modern-day Tunisia.
Ancient Carthage is just ruins now, but Tunis, the manager explained to me, has several suburbs with Carthage in its name. He also drew for me a diagram of the ancient port, brilliantly designed by the Phoenicians for ease in traffic flow.
You learn something new every day.

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