Naya is an ancient, flute-like instrument with a very beautiful sound. It is made of hollow wood or bamboo and is used during ceremonies to this day in the land of the Levant. The Levant has a remarkable history that dates back to prehistoric times. It stretches along the Mediterranean Sea from Turkey, Cyprus, Egypt, Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, and Syria. Thus, it is rich with culture, history, languages, tradition, and beautiful topography: deserts, coastal mountains, valleys, and rivers. Hence there are abundant farming industries, fisheries, and cattle. These are reflected in the cuisine of the region.
Fortunately you don’t have to travel half way around the world to experience this because the long-awaited Lebanese restaurant, Naya, with its authentic food opened recently in the heart of Manhattan. Although small, this place is very chic and welcoming with its clever combination of conventional material and contemporary effects, which are intriguing, fascinating, and serve to illustrate a modern approach to tradition. The interior design is imbued with a contemporary character that includes walnut wood tables and backlit metal panel walls perforated with white triangular Phoenician patterns.
The young, ambitious owner, Hady Kfoury (Daniel; Payard; Cocteau; White; Eight in Beirut, Lebanon), has much pride in his ability to blend the old with the new. He told me that they use a pure, traditional cooking style mixed with innovative techniques and recipes of past generations, and that his reputable executive chef, Rafic Nehme, trained for two months with two 80-something-year-old ladies in Lebanon to master the traditional techniques and skills of Lebanese cooking.
Lebanese food is very complex with an emphases placed on texture, color, and taste, incorporating a variety of spices, vegetables, meats, grains, dried fruits, and nuts with unlimited natural and green herbs. It is hearty, solid, and at the same time, very healthy—a reflection of Lebanese nature and culture.
Here at Naya you will be greeted with warm smiles and a beautiful array of eclectic and exotic dishes with colorful presentations and delicious aromas. Hady informed me that all of the ingredients come from Lebanon.
We were served a variety of savory dishes; one that peaked my friend’s and my curiosity was the kibbe stuffed with Baba Ghannouj (baked and mashed eggplant mixed with tahini) and pine nuts. As you may know, kibbe is made in different styles and forms in the Middle East, but this was new to me, very unique and tasty. Kibbe is one of my favorite dishes and is prepared in different ways. Here two other varieties of kibbe were served that tasted almost as good as the one my mother used to make. The traditional kibbe stuffed with meat and pine nuts and kibbe stuffed with cumin and meat with pine nuts.
Vegetarians have no need to worry, for they will be treated to a feast here as well. There is a wide array of delicious and healthy vegetarian dishes that will satiate your hunger. The famous Lebanese tabboulé, a blend of chopped fresh parsley, tomatoes, and scallions mixed with bulgur and fresh lemon juice and a hummus wrap topped with cucumber pickles. We also had the falafel and stuffed grape leaves with rice and vegetables—this one is a must.
Meat lovers should not worry; there is plenty for you, too. The chef prepares Lebanese sausage, makanek, sautéed with olive oil and lemon; Kebbé Naya, Lebanese-style steak tartar made with bulgur, onion, and mint; plus another favorite of mine, lahm bi ajin, baked dough topped with beef, tomato, onion, and pine kernels.
These are only some of the mezze served at Naya.
The main courses combine authentic Lebanese and Mediterranean flavors including beef and chicken shawarma—roasted on skewers and served with tasty tahini and garlic sauces; as well as charbroiled beef kebab. There is a lot more to select from the menu, including desserts such as ashta served with warm syrup and topped with banana.
THE VERDICT: I will quote my friend: “It feels like food from heaven.” A casual place to enjoy a great meal.
Prices range between $6 to $19 per plate. Naya offers prix-fixe options, including Naya’s Mini Tasting ($28), a choice of three mini mezze and choice of entree; and Naya for Lunch ($14), two mini mezze and choice of gourmet sandwich. Almost all of Naya Mezze & Grill’s traditional entrees are available during lunch as gourmet Lebanese sandwiches.
Naya Mezze & Grill is open Monday through Saturday for dinner. It will open for lunch very soon. More locations are anticipated in the near future. For more information, logon to www.nayarestaurants.com or call (212) 319-7777.