Feasting on a Middle Eastern Medley at Nouri Café in Paterson

At this restaurant specializing in Lebanese fare, even a small feast will leave you feeling satisfied but light.

A small feast at Nouri Café. Photo by Emily Bell

My Lebanese grandfather used to stop in Paterson on his way to visit us in North Jersey. He’d bring za’atar flatbreads and sticky baklava, plump stuffed grape leaves and string cheese studded with black pepper, everything within reason (and then some) drenched in olive oil. I found myself craving these flavors recently, so I called my half-Lebanese mother and we headed to my grandfather’s old stomping grounds.

Our destination was Nouri Café, a Middle Eastern restaurant on Main Street in Paterson that is part of the Nouri Brothers Market, which started as a pita company in 1978. It now engulfs the better part of a city block. The whole area is a micro-city within a city, thrumming with Middle Eastern commerce: halal butcher shops with meaty calves brains and butchered lamb; olive and spice bars that sell ground sumac and wrinkled black olives by the pound; random electronics and glittering hookah sold next door to sugar-lacquered pistachio cookies and fig-stuffed ma’amoul. It’s pleasantly overwhelming.

Appetizer sampler with tabboule, baba ghanouj, and vegetarian grape leaves. Photo by Emily Bell

Even on a Sunday, the café itself was quieter than the neighborhood, with a bare interior drenched in sunlight when we visited. But the real beauty of Nouri, and Lebanese fast-casual in general, is that when it’s done well, it’s the steal of the century. (We feasted for $36, plus tip.) Not to mention the menu here is perfect for mixed company. You get authentic hummus and flavorful, thin pita, and more experienced eaters have options like soujouk (spicy Middle Eastern sausage) and fried lambs’ liver—my grandpa’s favorite. I skipped it.

We ate meze-style, with lots of plates (a nightmare for non-sharers). The appetizer platter offers a sampling of three choices for $10, including falafel, labneh, hummus and spinach pie. We opted for a parsley-heavy tabboule, creamy and smoky baba ghanouj, and oddly sweet vegetarian grape leaves, which I wouldn’t reorder.

Kibbe naye. Photo by Emily Bell

We also tried basturma, an Armenian-style seasoned cured meat laced with ground fenugreek. My favorite, though, was a full plate of kibbe naye, raw ground lamb mixed with bulgur. Served with a drizzle of olive oil, it ate like butter—rich but delicate, and not at all gamey.

The small brick oven behind the counter at Nouri Café is where the pita business started 40 years ago. Today, they still crank out flatbreads of all kinds, including my favorite, lahmajun (or lahmacun). Sometimes referred to as Lebanese (or Armenian, or Syrian, or Turkish) “pizza,” lahmajun are chewy, oven-blistered flatbread thinly smeared with seasoned meat or toppings. (Rule of thumb: you should see some of the dough beneath.) Priced between $2 and $3, you can afford to eat about seven. We got one, Pomegranate, with minced beef, sweet-tart pomegranate molasses and pine nuts. We also got a flatbread (man’ooshe) with kishk, a fermented mixture of cracked bulgur and yogurt, nutrient-dense with a super-subtle cereal tang balanced by brick-oven char. It was my first taste of kishk—my mother’s favorite.

Kishk man’ooshe (flatbread) and Pomegranate lahmajun. Photo by Emily Bell

If you’re looking for staples, fear not, Nouri also makes gyro and kabob. You can fill up or snack, dine in or take out. The whole vibe is relaxed, which is exactly how we felt when we left, satisfied but light (another secret of good Lebanese food), ambling down Main Street in search of a bakery. It was time for coffee and baklava.

 

Nouri Café is located at 1003 Main Street, Paterson; 973-881-8819. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, daily.

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