Middle Eastern food gets a contemporary makeover at Dune
By Richard Foss
Middle Eastern restaurant décor in California tends toward two styles: neat but sparsely decorated at the lower price levels, desert fantasy at the pricey end. The ones that buy tourist-quality Turkish carpets by the yard are tapping into a mystique that goes back to the days when flappers donned harem pants and “The Sheik of Araby” was a popular hit. It is therefore a slight surprise when an eatery that specializes in Arabic food looks like any other contemporary restaurant.
The people who opened Dune in Venice didn’t feel the need to hang any pictures of camels and pyramids, and the place looks almost precisely as it did a few months ago when this was Dudley Market. The lights over the wooden tables are low, and from the long wine bar you can see the kitchen behind a wall of glass panels. It’s a little retro, a little industrial and somehow cozy — a relaxing place to chill out.
Most of the menu items are standards (falafel, grilled meats and suchlike), but there are a few oddities. Avocado toast makes an appearance, making one suspect there’s some local law that says all new establishments must serve it, and they offer the Spanish anchovy filets boquerones style with preserved lemon and olives.
The more questionable item is Fried Chicken ‘Shawarma,’ which is a contradiction in terms. Shawarma is slow-roasted and sliced from a vertical skewer, not fried, so it couldn’t be what it said it was. The fellow behind the counter informed us that it was really fried chicken, and he didn’t know why they call it anything else. He also recommended it, so we ordered it in a sandwich.
First, though, we had an order of tabouleh, a plate of house-made pickles, and an order of fries coated with sea salt and the Arabic condiment called za’atar. Za’atar is based on sumac powder, sesame seeds and an herb called hyssop that tastes slightly like bitter mint, and the spice combination is usually sprinkled on pita bread or yogurt. It turns out that it’s also great on french fries, and we made short work of ours.
There was a dusting of sumac on the pickled vegetables too, and it added a lemony herbal counterpoint to the tart pickled beets, cucumbers, turnip and peppers. There was a wide range of flavors here, from the sweet and sour beets to hot green peppers to aggressively sour cucumbers, and cumulatively they were bracing. Some toasted crusty bread and fresh arugula on the side gave relief when the vinegary bite got too strong.
The tabouleh took Arabic ideas in an unusual direction, substituting white quinoa for the cracked wheat usually mixed with parsley and mint as the base of this salad. The gluten-free and high protein quinoa is a health-conscious choice but lacks the slightly nutty flavor of the wheat, so it’s a bit more one-dimensional. It wasn’t bad, but I wouldn’t order it again.
For our main items we selected the Fried Chicken ‘Shawarma’ sandwich, a grilled tilapia sandwich cleverly called the Fishtanbul, a fried eggplant and egg sandwich called sabich, and a meze plate with falafel and lamb.
I hadn’t encountered sabich before but found that the mix of eggplant and egg with cucumber, hummus, pickles and tahini is a popular item in Israel. It could catch on here too, as it’s a hearty vegetarian meal with plenty of complementary textures and flavors. It was exuberantly sauced and a bit messy, as are most items here. If you like to taste things with and without or are concerned about wearing part of your dinner, you might ask for sauce on the side.
The chicken was a breast that had been pounded, breaded and fried then put over salad in a pita and topped with a spicy Moroccan charmoula sauce. That lemony sauce with notes of garlic, paprika and cumin elevated what would have otherwise been an average item, and I used some leftover bread to dab up the last drops. The Fishtanbul sandwich had a similar balance of pickled, citrusy and peppery flavors, and it too was a complete success.
The star of the main courses, though, was the lamb and falafel meze plate. Meze is the traditional name for a meal of many small courses, and its meaning has been extended to multi-item combination plates like the one here. In addition to falafel and lamb meatballs we received pickled onions and turnips, peppers, olives, cabbage salad, hummus, grilled pita topped with za’atar, and hummus topped with garbanzo beans and olives. It was a very full meal with plenty of variety, and as with the other items the flavors were vivid. The falafels, strongly flavored with green herbs, and the lamb meatballs with pine nuts were both excellent, but I would have rather had the sauce for both on the side. That quibble aside, if you want to get a good idea of the flavors offered at Dune, this is what to get on your first visit.
Our dinner for four — and since we took so much food home, it could have been a dinner for at least five — ran $110, a reasonable price for uncommonly good Arabic food. For contemporary Middle Eastern cuisine, head for this oasis by the beach.
Dune, 9 Dudley Ave., Venice (424) 744-8060, dune.kitchen