Lebanese cuisine has long enjoyed a fairly high profile stateside, which Philippe Massoud, executive chef and CEO of ilili in New York, attributes to widespread Lebanese diaspora, resulting both from catastrophe and exploration. The 19th century saw especially strong concentrations of Lebanese people migrating to North and South America.
Lebanon was under control of the Ottoman Empire until World War I, after which it was colonized by the French and saw American troops in the 1950s and ’80s, though it’s been formally independent since 1943.
To understand Lebanese cuisine, one has to understand, beyond the nation’s contentious political and cultural history, its geography and agriculture. Lebanon is one of the few countries in the region that has four seasons, abundant water, and a multitude of microclimates. “Things are greener and there’s a lot of citrus, so flavors and ingredients are allowed to have their natural presence on plate rather than being over-seasoned or over-pickled,” Massoud says. Wealthy families might slaughter a goat once a month, but the majority of people eat primarily vegetarian—vegetable stews and a variety of hot and cold mezze.
Massoud opened fine-dining ilili in Manhattan’s Flatiron district in 2008 as an answer to the success of high-end Japanese spots Nobu and Zuma. “What they did to Asian cuisine, we hope to achieve with Levantine cuisine,” he says.
Ilili’s herbaceous, lightly dressed tabbouleh reflects the region’s abundance, while the hummus is almost theological in its ratios: “Just soft enough to maintain the integrity of the chickpea, just nutty enough to give the flavor of tahini, and just lemony enough for a hint of acidity when you drizzle it with olive oil and scoop it up with pita,” Massoud says. “It took a while for people to appreciate what we consider the real deal.”
What’s pervasive across the menu is a purposeful lightness to entice people to come back, which Massoud achieved through reducing the fat, oil, and salt. “I wanted people to come and have an orgy of food and still be able to go dancing,” he says.
About half of the country’s Iranian population lives in Los Angeles, according to U.S. Census data. The region’s diaspora has been lovingly dubbed Tehrangeles. Yet for a long time, residents’ exposure to the cuisine was largely via sandwich shops and kebab houses, like shoebox-sized Attari and beloved strip-mall storefront It’s All Good House of Kabob.
“These days, more people are realizing that Persian food is simple, healthy, and delicious,” says Shawn Saloot, partner of stalwart Darya Restaurant in Orange County and West Los Angeles. “I think that is why it is becoming popular.”
Iran is home to one of the world’s oldest continuous major civilizations, with historical and urban settlements dating back to 7,000 B.C. Once a major empire, the country has endured invasions by the Greeks, Arabs, Turks, and Mongols—though it’s reasserted its national identity throughout the centuries. Historical interactions with neighboring regions have undoubtedly affected the cuisine, though, with Caucasian, Levantine, Greek, Central Asian, Russian, and Turkish gastronomy all leaving their mark.
“Persian food originated from different parts of Iran, each with their own specific and unique culture and geography, such as the Caspian Sea whitefish with herb rice,” Saloot says. “But let me tell you something, Persian food is not spicy at all.” Rather, he says, it’s more often tinged with aromatic saffron, turmeric, and cinnamon. Grilled meat is often the centerpiece, with rice and bread being staples of every Persian table.
Saloot opened Darya with his brother Ali Saloot in 1985, opting for old-school elegance via chandeliers, Victorian décor, and an ambitious menu of traditional Persian meats, stews, and rice dishes. They opened a second outpost in Santa Monica 10 years later.
The Saloots draw from Southern California’s agricultural abundance to faithfully re-create classic dishes, such as kashke bademjan, with sauteed eggplant mixed with yogurt, fried garlic, turmeric, fried onion, and topped with sautéed mint, garlic, and kashk (whey sauce). Their famous tahdig, or crispy rice from the bottom of the pot, is heaped with Fesenjan stew, made from slow-boiled chicken in a sauce of even-slower-cooked pomegranate and ground walnuts. Homespun touches permeate Juicy Chicken—a kebab made from chicken-breast medallions marinated overnight in lemon juice, saffron, corn oil, salt, and pepper, then charbroiled—which was so named by Saloot’s then-7-year-old son.
Yet even as the landscape has grown more crowded with spots like stylish Flame and Iranian-American Cafe Glacé doling out lamb tahchin—saffron rice cakes—and Persian gyros, Darya remains true to the Saloot’s Iran for 33 years and counting.
“I cannot change the traditional Iranian food,” Saloot says. “We have only tried to keep its standard the highest possible by using fresh and quality ingredients.”