Could this Mediterranean takeout brand named for an Arabic Israeli TV show be the restaurant of the future?
July 24, 2020
(JTA) - As a child in Israel, Amir Nathan dined at Sami VeSusu, an innovative restaurant in Beersheba named after a popular children's television show from the 1960s and '70s.
So when it came time for Nathan, now a restaurateur in New York City, to name his latest venture, he replicated the name - and an atypical approach to serving food.
Sami and Susu opened two weeks ago as a takeout and delivery service operating out of a Brooklyn bar. Nathan and his executive chef and business partner, Jordan Anderson, sling Jewish-influenced Mediterranean food in a model designed to keep locals well-fed even as the coronavirus pandemic seems likely to make traditional restaurant dining impossible for some time.
The menu in some ways is an homage to the restaurant's television namesake. The show, which has been called an "Arabic cross between 'Mr. Rogers' and 'Sesame Street,'" involved both Arab and Israeli actors and was broadcast in Arabic with Hebrew subtitles. It was popular among both Arabs and Jews, and Nathan - an outspoken critic of the current Israeli government - says it is a time capsule from an era when Israelis and Palestinians were much more hopeful about peace than they are now.
"The Ottoman Empire cuisine that we worked with, it spread through the entire Middle East. Some of our recipes are also from Lebanon, from Palestine - so the food itself symbolizes unity. I wanted to have a name that kind of symbolizes the idea," Nathan told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. (He's not the first in the U.S. to have the idea: A kosher restaurant by the same name in Miami closed late last year.)
Sami and Susu is a far cry from the Israeli restaurant Nathan opened in New York five years ago, well into the decade-long Israeli food boom resonating across the U.S. Timna was popular and well reviewed, if a bit over the top. A New York Times article described some of its elaborate dishes: "cured tuna is laid over black-quinoa tabbouleh," and "quenelles of steak tartare, separated by tiny wobbles of eggplant purée."
It closed four years later, in early 2019. Nathan explained that even in years before the coronavirus pandemic, many New York restaurants that seemed to be performing well on the outside were actually straining under a precarious labor-cost-to-revenue-ratio and rising urban rents. Now COVID-19 has derailed all of them, shrinking their dining rooms to sidewalks for now, and forcing them to adapt their menus for the world of takeout and delivery.
As the renowned chef Gabrielle Hamilton put it in a New York Times Magazine essay about her New York restaurant Prune: "Does the world need it anymore?" Her thesis: The upscale restaurant as we know it, especially in New York City (Israeli and other Jewish ones included) could be a thing of the past.
With that in mind, Nathan developed a model that could be the restaurant of the future: There are no traditional restaurant accoutrements, like menus or indoor tables or silverware. Even patrons who sit at outdoor tables with drinks from the bar have to order Sami and Susu food on their phones to have it delivered from inside. There is also plenty of longer distance ordering happening though, through services like Seamless, GrubHub and Caviar.
The food is influenced by what Ladino-speaking Jewish communities in Spain, Turkey, Greece, Italy and North Africa ate after the Spanish Inquisition, during the time of the Ottoman Empire. Half of Nathan's family are Turkish Jews, and he developed the Sami and Susu culinary framework from books on Sephardic culinary history.
But Anderson brought along some of his American Askenazi Jewish mother's recipes and blended them into the idea. The result is a menu that includes bourekas, pita sandwiches, stuffed peppers, tabbouleh with corn, baba ganoush and harissa-spiced carrots - but also cauliflower rubbed with pastrami seasoning, as well as a matzah ball soup that the pair refer to as a kind of Jewish ramen because of its rich broth and inclusion of yakisoba noodles.
Anderson's mom used to put Polish kluski noodles, akin to egg noodles, in her soup. He said he took his mom's recipe and tried to intensify the flavors.
"I told Amir that the other night, instead of having a beer, I drank a pint of the soup. It was awesome," Anderson said. "At 10 o'clock it was so comforting. Then I just went to bed."
Eventually Nathan, 34, and Anderson, 28, want to have their own brick-and-mortar space, which they envision as a store, takeout counter and casual cafe spot where a few customers can sit and eat or drink a glass of wine. But the current reality has refined their takeout business model and influenced the menu - every decision they make about what to include is based on whether it can survive at least 45 minutes of transit time.
"Amir and I always say, 'Is it gonna be hot when it gets there? Is the bread gonna be too mushy?'" Anderson said. "If I serve this pita in a menu, I would add more of the sauce to it, whereas I now say 'OK, this is gonna be 45 minutes and this bread is gonna take a lot of the sauce in, so let's kick it down a little.'"
They also have pivoted away from the more specific highbrow concept that Nathan had originally imagined (he calls it "geeky") to thinking about what people want to eat right now. That includes Jewish and Middle Eastern comfort food, and preferably comfort food that can be taken to a socially distanced picnic, last in a fridge for days and taste good after being reheated in a microwave.
"You cook food for your whole career that you don't cook at home for yourself," Anderson said. "You cook this really beautiful food for strangers in a restaurant who are paying an exorbitant amount of money for it, and you know there definitely is some incentive to do it, you love it, and you're kind of told to want to do that.
"But at the same time, you go home at midnight and that's not what you want to eat, that's not what you want to cook," Anderson said. "No one's gonna go home and say 'I wanna whip up some Bernardin food right now.'"
Anderson, who is from Monmouth Beach, New Jersey, wasn't sure he would stay a chef after the pandemic hit and nearly obliterated the service industry. He also never imagined himself cooking this type of food.
"I didn't think I would be cooking stuffed peppers or matzah ball soup, but in a weird way it kind of feels right," he said. "After cooking French and Italian food, all these types of food, it's kind of a breath of fresh air to cook some home company food. It kind of feels like I'm cooking at home."