Middle Eastern cuisines overlap in part, but certain dishes are exclusive to Syria, say, or Egypt. For a newcomer to know which foods distinguish a nation’s culinary output, the best approach is to go to a restaurant founded by immigrants from a particular country and ask what is unique. That is just what a friend and I did at Qanoon on Ninth Avenue recently, sitting happily outdoors in a flower-fringed plywood box as the sun set behind a row of Chelsea tenements and townhouses.
Qanoon (a creative spelling of kanoon, meaning grill) is one of the city’s few Palestinian restaurants. (Others include Tanoreen, King of Falafel, Oasis, and Duzan.) It was founded a year ago by chef and owner Tarek Daka, who grew up as one of nine children on a farm in a Palestinian town on the West Bank. On the restaurant’s website, he credits his mother’s farmhouse cooking as inspiration for the menu; he worked previously at two Italian restaurants, Eolo and Pastai, but his food here is very different. Qanoon’s corner townhouse location seats nearly 30 outdoors, and the menu encompasses 20 dishes, divided into specials, dips, appetizers, main courses, and one or two desserts per evening.
Dishes tend to be lush with vegetables. Take the entree special of makloubeh ($32). This rice casserole arrives shaped like a truncated cylinder, as if molded by a tarboosh. Yogurt flecked with flat-leaf parsley flows across the upper surface and cascades down the sides, and miniature radish matchsticks — fiery red at their tips — are scattered on top. Excavate and find square chunks of lamb and hefty slabs of eggplant, as well as cauliflower, tomatoes, and carrots. Its flavor remains meaty, despite the tartness of the inundating yogurt.
The name means “upside down” in Arabic, and that’s just how the makloubeh is plated, with the meat on the bottom, as if it had once been on top and the dish had been flipped. While it’s not unique to the cuisine, in the Palestinian version eggplant usually dominates, as it does at Qanoon. The serving is plenty for two, though then you’d miss tomorrow’s luncheon leftovers.
Even more distinctly Palestinian, and my favorite dish at Qanoon, is musakhan ($29), sometimes known as sumac chicken. It’s a specialty of Bay Ridge’s Tanoreen, too. As with the makloubeh, the architecture is important. The sumac-coated bird rests upon a pita foundation, the better to soak up its juices, and builds skyward from there. Above the succulent chicken, find a tangled nest of sweet red onions and parsley further sprinkled with almonds, all of which mellow the sumac’s sharpness. The dish’s plainish ingredients suggest this is an everyday, homestyle meal back on the West Bank, and we felt privileged to be eating it at a restaurant on a warm evening in Chelsea.
Even though kofta — skinless sausages of ground lamb — are ubiquitous in the Middle East, the presentation here is different than the usual. At Israeli Druze restaurant Gazala’s, for example, where they are a specialty of the house, they’re simply grilled and offered with a garnish. At Qanoon, one must fish around for them in a saucy lake of onions, tomatoes, and cauliflower, only to find them larger than usual (though I wished for more than two).
A vegetarian entree called “mahshi of the day” recently included a red bell pepper and a zucchini, both from the Union Square Greenmarket, according to our waiter, stuffed with more rice than you might have thought possible. They each flounder in a simple tomato sauce profuse enough that pitas should be called for to sop it up. Also in a vegetarian vein are a handful of bread dips found in every Middle Eastern restaurant ($8 each). The hummus may be similar to others you’ve tasted before, but comes laked with a surreal amount of olive oil.
The quantity of oil reminded me of a comment from the chef on the restaurant’s Facebook page: “My family used to own a lot of land filled with olive trees.” Further on he mentions that he doesn’t serve falafel or shawarma at the restaurant because he never ate it at home. Both are street foods. Thus does Qanoon give a very good sketch of the flavors and recipes that might be encountered in a Palestinian home.
Although less architectural than the entrees, Qanoon’s smaller dishes tend to excel. Muhammara, a paste of walnuts and sun-dried red peppers with pomegranate syrup, packs a zing, while tasting nutty and sweet. A plate of yellowish cauliflower fritters comes sided with a yogurt and dill sauce. The kibbe ($14), a cracked wheat shell stuffed with ground meat and pine nuts, is also well worth ordering.
On two visits, the only dessert on offer was knafeh ($13), though sometimes a tahini gelato is available. This pastry is the focus of Palestinian bakery Nablus, with branches in Bay Ridge and Paterson, where the pie is of large circumference, orange and gooey with cheese. At Qanoon a smaller but still circular individual serving comes topped with shredded wheat and pomegranate seeds, finished at the table with a fragrant syrup of rosewater and orange, making a crunchy and squishy delight.
The wine list isn’t long, but presents some interesting selections. While it’s strong in Lebanese reds, the wine I picked one evening was a West Bank white. Cremisan’s Star of Bethlehem ($13 glass/$50 bottle) is rare on the city’s wine lists, a blend of hamdani and jandali, two local grapes. The flavor is dry and underplayed, reminding me of a white Bordeaux. And if you believe in terroir, it will summon forth a landscape of arid rolling hills near Jerusalem cultivated since Biblical times.