As a life-long New Yorker—and as a chef—I’m enthusiastic about giving subway directions and restaurant recommendations.
Let’s focus on the latter. I take pride in my ability to match any group with the perfect restaurant. Whether you’re dining with young children, elderly vegetarians, or a gluten-free roommate with a shellfish allergy, I’ll be able to send you somewhere delicious, fun, and memorable.
The only exception is if you haven’t planned ahead and it’s Saturday night. I hate trying to give advice under these circumstances, because New York City on a Saturday night can be a total circus if you want to go somewhere special but don’t have a reservation. A three-hour wait at very popular restaurants is, sadly, closer to normal than shocking.
Luckily, there are a handful of restaurants that remain accessible, accommodating, and enjoyable, even when the rest of the city feels like it’s bursting at the seams. Tanoreen, one of the most beloved restaurants in New York City, is just such a place.
Located almost at the end of the line of the R train in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, the travel time might discourage some New Yorkers from eating at Tanoreen. Many Brooklynites delight in this fact, however, because it means that they get to enjoy some of the best Middle Eastern food in New York without excruciating lines.
Tanoreen is ideal for groups that love to share food. The best way to enjoy this restaurant is by focusing on appetizers rather than entrees, which allows everyone to taste as many dishes as possible. The happiest tables are the ones bustling with action, with arms reaching out to dip crispy za’atar bread into baba ghanoush or house-made labneh, while platters of stuffed grape leaves and crispy halloumi cheese gets passed around for everyone to try.
The savory food at Tanoreen is truly praiseworthy. Their cooking is simple yet utterly flavorful, with bright, lemony acidity and pungent garlic punctuating the meal. As memorable as their savory food is, though, one of their desserts, the knafeh, might actually be the item that lingers most in your mind and tempts you to return again and again.
The brilliance of the knafeh is that it surprises and delights with its combination of savory and sweet elements: The sweetness comes from a crispy exterior of shredded phyllo dough, soaked in a combination of simple syrup, orange blossom water, and rose water, and garnished with crushed pistachios. The savory flavor comes from the interior, which is filled with warm, gooey melted cheese.
If the idea of gooey cheese in your dessert gives you pause, just remember that cannoli and cheesecake are mainstream success stories in the American culinary imagination, so please keep an open mind. The truth is, I would take a slice of knafeh over cheesecake or cannoli without hesitation.
A waiter serves the knafeh using a pizza wheel to slice it into portions and a spatula to serve it. He explains that the interior of the knafeh is a combination of “Arabic sweet cheese and ricotta.” As each portion gets lifted onto an individual’s plate, the cheese in the center will stretch and pull—reminiscent, for me, of warm mozzarella.
The textural contrasts of the crispy exterior and soft interior result in a deeply satisfying experience. And now that I’ve had it, I have no misgivings whatsoever about taking the R train deep into Bay Ridge. The journey is worth it.