During a recent visit to Samesa in Williamsburg, two young, bearded Brooklyn men inhaled chicken shawarma beneath a flat-screen TV playing Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me on mute. It wasn’t long before their plates were cleaned, with only scraps of bright red cabbage and its magenta pickling liquid remaining. As one got up to leave, the other, a bespectacled Action Bronson lookalike (though with a much softer mien), doubled back to buy some house-made zhug, the fiery Yemenite hot sauce that here comes in vivid red and green varieties. Purchase completed, he turned again to enthusiastically mumble some parting words of praise: “Everything was really bomb.”
Sometimes I wish I could be as succinct, because in many ways that hirsute capsaicin fiend got it exactly right. Certainly the chicken thighs, marinated for two days in buttermilk and labneh by Samesa’s owners, Eli and Max Sussman — sibling chefs who’ve co-authored three cookbooks — qualify as “bomb.” Charred and coarsely chopped, the spit-roasted bird explodes with flavor, as do neon-pink pickled radishes and the filling $14 plate’s nutty, onion-laced mujadara pilaf, made from lentils, quinoa, and chewy wild rice, which practically roars with cumin. Splashed with tahini-buttermilk and grassy green zhug, the multicolored array is as inviting to look at as it is satisfying to savor and demolish.
Native Detroiters, the Sussmans grew up eating the foods of Michigan’s diverse immigrant communities, so when they looked to join forces after successful solo careers, those were the flavors of home that interested them most. Samesa, which pays tribute to the city’s Syrian, Iraqi, and Lebanese shawarma and falafel joints, began life as a series of pop-ups in 2015 along with Ed and Bev’s, the brothers’ ode to Greek diners famous for “coneys,” those gloriously messy onion-and-meat-sauce-topped hot dogs. They’re not the first white Americans to raid a global pantry, but to allay any concerns about cultural appropriation, they’ve penned a 600-plus-word letter of intent on their website acknowledging, among other things, their commitment to sustainable agriculture and reduction of food waste, as well as their whiteness and Ashkenazi Jewishness. If not exactly “woke,” it is at least earnestly aware, and they make a point to name-check some of their favorite Motor City haunts. Early on in its development, Samesa was almost going to be a full bar and restaurant on the Lower East Side. I’m so glad it’s not. Here, in the former Meat Hook Sandwich space on Lorimer Street in Williamsburg, a sliver of painted white brick and scant countertop seating, the Sussmans are cultivating a sense of community that stays true to their forebears in serving excellent, satisfying food for a moderate (in 2016 Williamsburg, at least) price. For instance, on Mondays, the kitchen offers spice-rubbed smoked half-chickens for five dollars to go with two-dollar Buds.
Two kinds of pita are baked fresh on-site, and both are essential to a meal here, though the compact rounds of dark and puffy pumpernickel are especially memorable. Eat them with tubes of spiced ground hake, breaded and fried into dense fish-stick meatballs called kofta. New Yorkers who love bagels and lox will surely appreciate the way the warm, deeply malty bread stands up to the fish and an accompanying slather of creamy, citrusy sumac remoulade. Larger, thinner, and stretchier, the lightly browned mixed-grain pitas make Samesa’s $10 shawarma and zucchini fritter sandwiches soar. And they’re a highlight of a deconstructed take on sabich, the famed Iraqi egg sandwich, in this case an improvised assortment of dips, pickles, sauces, and beet-pickled eggs affectionately called “A Sandwich Odyssey: 2025.”
The menu’s sleeper hit, however, might just be the braised lamb, shredded and cooked down with chickpeas and raisins until it’s all one sweet, saucy mess. Chicken wings, crunchy and caked in zaatar spice, are also shockingly good, and a more-than-fair deal at $8 for ten. Salads utilize vegetables in firmly New American fashion to exciting results, like the caesar salad riff with bitter radicchio, white anchovies, tahini-spiked dressing, and pita-chip croutons. And smoked eggplant, primed for baba ganoush, instead finds inspired use as a purée coating a jumble of raw yellow squash, zucchini, apples, and hazelnuts.
Samesa’s refrigerated case holds an impressive assortment of packaged goods for your takeout pleasure, including those killer sauces, and a soup of the day, which on a recent evening was creamy sunchoke, silky and suffused with thyme. Moist honey cake is tops as far as dessert’s concerned, besting a cocoa-tahini pudding that feels like a Nutella substitute on its own, but realizes its potential drizzled over a banana pudding sprinkled with cookie crumbles. A sweeter ending still might be to just steal away with some pumpernickel pita and one of the Sussmans’ insanely tasty dips — chunky lentil-pistachio embedded with pickled turnips, maybe, or velvety carrot romesco buzzing with sweet-smoky urfa biber pepper. Either route makes for a compelling pair, a theme that starts with the two brothers who founded this place.
495 Lorimer Street, Brooklyn; 718-599-1154
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 21, 2016