Words Krishna Kulkarni
Photos Nousha Salimi & Ruby Yeh

A Slice of Beirut on Bleecker Street

Aug 15, 2016

“Holy shit, I’m craving a manousheh right now,” was how Ziyad Hermez described his inspiration to bring the flavors of Beirut’s streets to the heart of Greenwich Village. From a temporary pop-up in Bowery to a brick-and-mortar establishment on Bleecker Street, Hermez has capitalized on a modest Lebanese flatbread to shake up New York’s food scene.

Emblazoned with “A Real Taste of Beirut” on its elegant glass façade, Hermez’s bakery, aptly named Manousheh after the Lebanese flatbread, is a must-visit. The elegant eatery invites hungry pedestrians to poke their heads in and catch a hint of za’atar (a sumptuous spice blend of thyme, sesame, and sumac) wafting through the air. “Manousheh was one of the foods I grew up on, it was our breakfast all the time,” Hermez recounted. “I remember it as something you got at school, or on the way to work, like a bagel.” Ranging from roughly 500-3000 lira ($0.25-2.00) in Lebanon, manousheh can be everything from an on-the-go breakfast to a cheap feast for dinner.

While some staples of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine (like falafel and hummus) have become hugely popular around New York, Hermez was sorely disappointed by the lack of authentic Lebanese fare available, finding that it had been largely relegated to bodega freezers or overpriced restaurants. Worst of all, manousheh itself was largely unknown. “The fact that nobody knew what it was upset me more than the fact that I couldn’t find it, which meant people weren’t even trying to bring it to the city,” he said.

Hermez wants his customers to come in and “feel like they’ve stepped back in time, or stepped back into Lebanon, or if they haven’t been to Lebanon, at least feel like they’re there.”

After experimenting with cooking the flatbread at home, Hermez decided to take his interest a step further and intern at a bakery in Lebanon. His first takeaway from the experience? “I realized that one of the things I wanted to recreate was the baker himself, who seemed to be friends with every customer!” Hermez wants his customers to come in and “feel like they’ve stepped back in time, or stepped back into Lebanon, or if they haven’t been to Lebanon, at least feel like they’re there.”

The attention devoted to experience is apparent at Manousheh; stepping inside, you’re greeted by a team of amiable bakers rolling dough beside the saj oven Hermez brought from Lebanon. The brick walls, decorated with photographs of Lebanon and street signs in Arabic, lend Manousheh a familiar New York vibe juxtaposed with Lebanese bric-a-brac. Hermez says he “tried to merge the feeling of a New York restaurant with Lebanon, so the cultural exchange goes both ways.”

Although the promise of ‘authentic’ cuisine has become a common lure for the uninitiated foodie, Hermez tries to balance this idea’s complications with rigid simplicity. “We kept the menu items true to what they are, that’s why if you went to a place in Lebanon after eating here, you’d order the exact same things. We’re not trying to follow or create a trend, but to do something that’s proven, done right, and unavailable here.”

Manousheh offers a compact yet diverse array of flatbread choices: a great place to start is the popular ‘Cocktail’ manousheh, a blend of za’atar with akkawi cheese that seamlessly melts together. Another classic Lebanese option is the kishek, dried yogurt that pairs beautifully with the mixed in tomatoes, onions, sesame, and potato. Other blends like the lahem bi ajine (beef, tomatoes, and onion served with lemon and zesty Aleppo pepper) and fatayer (spinach, tomatoes, and onion) round out the permanent fixtures on the menu.

Hermez sees Manousheh’s distinctiveness in the uncommon flavors it brings to New Yorkers. “Say you’re walking down the street, you’re not going to find labneh or za’atar at most other places here,” he explained, “or take something like cheese, which you have everywhere, but you don’t have akkawi cheese. Akkawi cheese is the salty, briny cheese that melts like mozzarella but tastes more like a feta.” Hermez hasn’t been afraid to improvise on these conventional choices either, with the Avocado + za’atar item unique to his bakery. “We’re not importing anything—we’re buying everything from here, and it tastes great,” he added. “No preservatives— there’s nothing in here you wouldn’t use at home.”

The ingredients at the heart of Manousheh’s menu are not exclusive to Lebanese recipes by any means. “Nobody even knows the origins of half these dishes” laughed Hermez, “but they still fight about it. Turks and Armenians both claim to have invented lahem bi ajine, and in Israel some people believe they invented hummus. The whole region is influenced by itself; that’s why when people asked us to do chicken, we did chicken musakhan, which is a Palestinian dish. You’ll never find it in a bakery in Lebanon, but it’s still true to the region, it’s still got flavors like sumac.”

"You should come visit Lebanon; it isn’t more dangerous than any other place in the world.”

The joy of discovering new flavors in Hermez’s flatbreads is part and parcel of his desire to open a window for Americans to see another side of Lebanon. He described to me how he was advised to remove the slogan, “A Real Taste of Beirut” from his bakery window, under the assumption that people don’t associate Beirut with happiness. “But that’s the whole point! We’re trying to get people not to think that way anymore,” he argues.

Lebanon, steeped in a brutal civil war from 1975-1990, has gained a reputation for violence and instability that persists even today in the US. Hermez is determined to change that: “Anytime I tell someone I’m from Lebanon they say, ‘Oh, we always wanted to go there but it’s not a good time.’ Well, it’s never a ‘good’ time; it’s sad, but it’s true. The thing is, I would always tell people it doesn’t matter what’s going on there, because I’m there twice a year and I never see that kind of stuff. There’s that negative connotation which I want people to get over. You should come visit Lebanon; it isn’t more dangerous than any other place in the world.”

Whether or not you find yourself on a plane to Beirut anytime soon, Ziyad Hermez will ensure you fall in love with the snack that rules its streets. Next time you’re thinking about getting the usual bagel with cream cheese, spoil yourself a bit and grab a manousheh instead.