Norman Alsaidi thought he’d be a dentist. Four years ago, he was wrapping up a semester at Queen’s College shortly before the birth of his third child. Between the responsibility of parenthood and an awakened love for cooking, he started getting the itch to open a restaurant instead. A friend hunted down a lead about a restaurant space in Astoria, but he was less impressed by the $12,000/month asking price. Several years, odd jobs, and some serendipity would pass before a chance encounter would eventually lead him to Semkeh.
“I called my friend A.J., our silent partner, and asked if he finally wanted to open that restaurant,” Alsaidi recalled. “And he told me that he knew a guy that was selling his Ramen shop. Everything just fell into place from there.”
The hurried restaurant deal took place in the spring of 2019. It would take another nine months for Alsaidi and his partners to renovate, purchase inventory, and hire staff. It was February 7th of last year when Semkeh debuted on Morgan Avenue. But even then there were whispers of what the coming pandemic might mean and Alsaidi could feel a chill creeping into the already cold winter air.
Semkeh would stay open for just a month before it shuttered amid stay-at-home orders. “We were completely closed from late March to early July,” Alsaidi told Bushwick Daily. And when they reopened shortly before July 4th, they didn’t yet know the unusually cold and inclement winter on the horizon. “During this past winter, about 80% of our business was delivery,” he said. “We built this vestibule for ordering at the window and installed heaters so customers wouldn’t be so cold — it didn’t even make a dent. This winter was tough.”
Mediterranean food — especially the Levantine variety — lends itself naturally to vegan and vegetarian diets. Dishes such as hummus, babaganoush, labne, and falafel all situate themselves on the familiar “mezze” side of the menu. But among all the recognizable, Alsaidi urged me towards something of his own invention.
“We call it Fauli-Flower,” he says. At some point, Alsaidi became uncomfortable with the amount of food waste that a fried cauliflower appetizer was creating. He had the ingenious idea of combining the unused cauliflower stems with falafel. When they arrived at the table, the crust was a deep maroon color, almost the same rich hue as a well-aged cabernet. Upon breaking open one of the croquettes, you are first struck by the impossible greenness of its filling; this is a universal sign of great falafel, as it indicates the parsley is fresh. The ball is unbelievably moist. Cauliflower holds moisture naturally and, as it fries, it releases its own steam, hydrating the already delicious filling. It’s the best falafel that I’ve ever eaten.
Elsewhere is the sujuk pita. Sujuk is a taut, bright red beef sausage that is often chargrilled and comparable to merguez. On a pita, it’s paired with the usual suspects: lettuce, tomato, pickles, and pickled turnips. The acid from the pickles and turnips cuts the meat and marries the smoky, tangy, and fatty textures perfectly. As a side, I recommend the batata harra, a spicy, garlicky, oily, crispy take on pan-roasted potatoes. Drizzle both of these with Semkeh’s housemade tahini and their tomato-based hot sauce, a delicious combination.
The Tripoli cooking at Semkeh differs slightly from the more common Beirut style that crops up in Lebanese spots around New York. A northern port metropolis in Lebanon, and that shares its name with Libya’s capital, it’s known for its fish.
The other week, Eater recently threw Semkeh’s samke pita into a sandwich listicle; it’s albacore tuna mixed with the singularly Lebanese classic toum, a garlic whip that will forever diminish any other mayonnaise or aioli you might encounter. From what Alsaidi says, the write-up has already started attracting people. “Yesterday we had two different customers come in from the Eater article wanting to try the sandwich. It’s great because when we first started I thought that would be our best seller. But not everyone likes seafood.”
Alsaidi hopes to franchise the restaurant and have at least three or four more locations, he says. But he’s content to dole out delicious northern Lebanese out of their 350 square foot flagship for now. To have survived a pandemic in the gestational stage of your restaurant is no small feat. “I’m surprised we survived. A lot of big places like Sahara closed, but we survived,” he said. “But it was because of our persistence – we didn’t give up.”
Top photo credit: Google Maps
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