Middle Eastern Marvels at Levant

An Ancient Tradition Finds a New Setting

Moe Ahmed is the perfect front man for Levant, his family’s new restaurant in Coral Gables. He is not only enthusiastic and articulate about the kind of food you would eat in his native Iraq, he is also beamingly proud that the food here is not fusion, but truly from the Middle Eastern region known as “The Levant.”

“When we say the cuisine that you’ll be eating is Arabic, it is 100 percent the same Arabic flavors that you would have in the Middle East,” says Ahmed. “We’re not ‘Arabesque.’ We don’t make our flavor profile more Americanized; we don’t make our flavors more Latin. We make it the same way you would have it if you went to my grandmother’s house…. It comes down to something as simple as our hot sauce. We use a type of pepper that’s called Aleppo pepper. In the United States, you can’t get it fresh. I had to practically smuggle it in to get that pepper here and grow it in Homestead.”

The bustling levant is family-owned, run by the Ahmeds. Pictured: Moe Ahmed behind the bar (left) and the interior of the restaurant with the mural of famous people on display (right).

Levant is now just four months old, but already garnishing a growing clientele who find the food authentic and the setting surprisingly comfortable — surprisingly, because Levant occupies the same space that Crudos Fusion Art surrendered earlier this year. Many of the same design elements remain, including the Mondrian-style color panels and the boa-feathered chandeliers. Even the huge mural of famous people remains, albeit with the addition of Lionel Messi to the mix.

“We also added [soccer greats] Ronaldo and David Beckham because we didn’t want to offend. Then the queen, because she passed, and Mohammed Ali,” Ahmed says, the latter presumably for its namesake.

We started our meal with the Trio Mezze ($39), three dips for the table that came with hot pita bread right from the oven. The dips were all freshly made, with a light taste impossible to get store-bought. The first was a Cretan Feta, a whipped sheep’s milk cheese with dill, parsley, and walnuts. The second was a standard hummus, with olive oil and tarbile sauce, so fresh that it resembled our previous experiences of hummus in name only. The last was a Muhammara, which is a whip of roasted red pepper, walnut, and pomegranate molasses. A touch of sweetness and a touch of heat, perfectly balanced.

Freshly made hummus served with hot pita bread straight from the oven (left) and the crunch Iraqi salad (right).

Next came the Kibbeh, small footballs of ground beef in a skin of bulgur and pine nuts with cucumber yogurt for a dip ($19; pictured in our feature image at the top). “In the Middle East, we have a thousand types of Kibbeh, but one of my favorites is [this] Iraqi Kibbeh. It’s a take on a traditional recipe from home, so it’s my Baghdadi-slash-Iraqi Kibbeh,” says Ahmed. Among other things, Levant’s does not mix wheat with the meat, as in Lebanon, but keeps the wheat on the outside to create the texture and shape. The result: a nice bite with a juicy inside.

We also tried the fresh and crunchy Iraqi salad, which consists of eggplant, red and green peppers, olive oil, and pomegranate molasses ($17). Ahmed says you won’t find this in many Iraqi restaurants, since it is a reminder of the long war with Iran. During that time, greens were hard to come by, but eggplant and peppers from Turkey were abundant.

Lamb shank cooked moroccan style with middle eastern spices (left) and the Levant kabob of ground lamb on a soft white flat bread (right).

Next came the skewer platters, where kabobs are taken off their skewers and arrayed on a soft, flat bread. We tried the basics: beef ($28), chicken ($28), and the Levant Kabab ($32). The beef and the chicken were tasty, soft, and succulent (the beef is locally-sourced and grass-fed, and the chicken uses only moist thigh meat), but the Levant was stunningly good, with ground lamb mixed with pistachio, red pepper, and a blend of Middle Eastern spices.

For entrées, we went with the Ouzi ($55), a lamb shank cooked Moroccan-style with cumin, coriander, and turmeric, a fall-off-the- bone delight, and then the Grandma Vegetable Pot ($45), which may have been the best dish of the evening. This arrives tableside in a clay pot with a pastry lid. The server cuts off the lid, which he (or she) puts in a serving platter, then pours the contents over it: eggplant and red peppers slow-cooked in a sauce of tomato, onion, garlic, and pomegranate molasses. The results made us want to buy a supply of pomegranate molasses; the veggies were soft and sweet in a creamy sauce. Just fantastic.

In retrospect, we wished we had tried a side of the Moroccan spiced carrots, but there is always next time. We did indulge with a trio of desserts, all interesting, but the winner was the baklava — pistachios and honey in pastry. And don’t forget the Turkish coffee, thick and sweet, which comes in a glass cup encased in a patterned steel sleeve with a tiny helmet on top.

Levant is the real deal, deserving of a place in the pantheon of Gables global cuisine.

INSTAGRAM: Watch as we dive into their Iraqi-inspired cuisine.

2415 Ponce de Leon