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Restaurant review: Ambitious, modern Lebanese cooking at Sawa

Most meals at Sawa start with bread, a good portion of which comes with one of the restaurant’s selection of Middle Eastern dips: a bright spiral of labneh, thick and sour and sprinkled with olives and za’atar; a purple muhammara roll, sweet and smoky with roasted red peppers and walnuts; thick, garlicky hummus to which you can add a dizzyingly spicy pot of braised beef cheeks, the meat as velvety tender as the hummus itself. Sawa, which opened in April, is owned by a pair of Lebanese siblings: Samaya Boueri Ziade, a longtime Park Slope resident and self-taught chef who has occasionally run Levantine pop-ups, and George Boueri, an architect. Ziade developed Saw’s recipes; chef Soroosh Golbabae, formerly of Exceptional Persian Restaurants Sofreh and Eyval, manages the kitchen. The restaurant, which fills two connected storefronts, has an efficient and easy flow: around the bread station is a friendly open kitchen; a right turn takes you through a large door into an airy dining room. (A spacious backyard, not yet open, will more than double the restaurant’s capacity.)

The casually refined style of the restaurant – bare wooden tables, minimalist glassware – belies the carefully assembled cooking.

There are a lot of absolutely great Lebanese restaurants in this part of Brooklyn, although until now a hungry person who ventured here in search of something truly delicious would have better luck staying on the R train until they got to Bay Ridge, where they ate at the wonderful Le Sajj it is incomplete without a plate from the kitchen kibbeh nayyeh, a dish of raw ground lamb and bulgur wheat. Excitingly, Sawa brings a degree of precision and clarity to his cooking that befits the destination – a kibbeh nayyeh, too, which is served with crunchy pita crackers, for scooping. It’s fatty and rich, smelling of green onions and mint, the subtle play of meat bright with lemon thanks to the sumac. Batata hara— cubes of crispy fried potatoes — with an additional cart that’s it, fiery raw garlic whipped with oil and salt until it takes on the snowy appearance of marshmallow fluff. Almost as powerful, though in a greener, less face-melting sense, is the tabbouleh: my first bite of the finely minced parsley salad, tart and sharp with lemon juice and onion, was as invigorating as a slap. The female nayyeh– ribbons of cured fluke in a vermilion pool of blood orange juice with marjoram and sumac – looks like it should be just as strong, but it tastes smooth and clean, a soft, lightly sweetened showcase of the delicate flavor of the fish.

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«Sawa» is the Arabic word for «together,» and Ziade said she chose the restaurant’s name to evoke memories of Beirut and the vibrant, enduring meals she shares with loved ones there. Speaking of this philosophy, entrées at Sawa are sized for sharing; Dining with one other person, I was a little sad that the physical limits of both the table and our bodies meant we couldn’t sample more. Despite the refined casualness of the room—the bare wooden tables, the conversational style of the wait staff, the minimalist glass in which the cocktails (classic, nicely mixed) are served—the food has a grandeur, a poised, thoughtful formality that makes eating at Sawa feel like something special. Some of this is the inherent beauty of Levantine cuisine, with its array of meats and seafood and a dazzling rainbow of herbs and fruits. But Ziade and Golbabae’s food has a specificity, a hands-on display of elegance and precision that makes their interpretations of traditional food assertive and fresh.

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