A Meeting in the Middle [restaurant review]
Nuna’s Mediterranean offers items from the far east and far west ends of the Mediterranean
Every time I see a sign for a new Mediterranean restaurant, I wonder what they really serve. Though elements like olive oil and beans are used all around that ocean, there are very few recipes that are served at dinner tables on every coast. To call a restaurant Mediterranean almost raises more questions than it answers, and most owners could call it Middle Eastern or North African and answer questions they know we’re going to ask.
One local restaurant has a pass on this, because they serve a very unlikely mix of food from the easternmost and westernmost parts of that region. Nuna’s Mediterranean Kitchen is a modest little place tucked in the northwest corner of King Harbor Plaza. They’ve been open since last October.
The owner and proprietor of Nuna’s is a friendly fellow named Armon who was born in Morocco. He named his restaurant after his daughter Nuna who is currently in college in Israel. That sums up what they do in a nutshell why Armon serves both Moroccan Jewish and Israeli dishes. That’s a fairly unusual combination to find in the same restaurant, because the two are very different. Moroccan cooking is subtly flavored and features a sauces made with raisins, pickled lemons, and other fruit, while Middle Eastern cooking uses robust amounts of pepper, garlic, sumac, and cumin. Where they do use the same technique, as with kebabs and vegetable salads, there’s a notable difference in style.
That can be hard to discern from the menu, which unfortunately doesn’t give first timers much information about what is happening here. Some items are clearly labeled as Israeli or Moroccan, but unless you already know the stylistic difference that doesn’t tell you much. If Armon is at the front counter, as he often is, he will often offer tastes of salads and other ready made items so you can learn for yourself. Your other option is to order whatever looks interesting, which I have done that when he wasn’t there.
Like many quickserve places, some items are offered wrapped in bread, over rice, or as a combo plate. Two breads are offered, pita and lafa. The pita is just what you expect, while the lafa is a thin flatbread that is much larger and holds more stuff. I happen to like the lafa better, but that’s a matter of taste.
They serve shawarma, the spit-roasted chicken that is sliced from a vertical skewer, and kebabs of lamb, chicken, and beef. I haven’t tried the lamb yet, but the meats I have had here were more the mild west Mediterranean style than the heavier, more garlicky east. If you want to taste the meats rather than the spices, this is probably just fine with you. There are a few sauces to zip things up, or if you like things a bit fiery you can skip the kabobs and order shakshuka. This dish of eggs basted in a very highly spiced tomato and bell pepper sauce proves that the kitchen can turn up the heat when it wants to. The combination of chili peppers and cumin in the thick sauce is reminiscent of an Indian curry and is strangely addictive.
Another Middle Eastern specialty is falafels, and the ones here taste like real home cooking. The garbanzos are coarsely ground and gently herbed before frying to crispness, and they’re served with a cool, smooth garlic sauce that accents them well.
The hot side dishes include steamed vegetables, saffron rice, French fries, and couscous. I’m not a fan of their fries and think the couscous is best, and apparently other people think so too because they sometimes run out. Cold sides include a creamy hummus that contains relatively little garlic, an unusual tabouleh that includes cilantro, and three Moroccan items: beet salad, carrots with cumin, honey, and peppers, and a roasted bell pepper and tomato salad called matbucha. That last item is more of a dip than a salad, and it’s almost like a chunkier, lightly tamer version of the sauce used in the shakshuka. The carrots with honey, pepper sauce, and cumin have a nice balance of sweetness and spice going on, and the beets with lemon juice, vinegar, and oil are a good example of simple flavors subtly enhanced.
Whatever you plan to order on arrival, check to see if there are any specials and be ready to change your plans. I had decided to try their eggplant salad but quickly abandoned that idea when told that today’s special was “meatballs of wisdom.” I have no idea why they’re called that, but was delighted with the spiced ground beef wrapped in seasonings and fried, then cooked with a sweet and sour sauce that included peas and celery. Armon said that he has no idea why these are called meatballs of wisdom (and yes, it was just as much fun to type that a second time), but they were his mother’s recipe. I don’t know whether I am any wiser, but I will certainly try any more of his mom’s recipes if they’re offered as specials.
A meal at Nuna’s isn’t always fast because they make many items from scratch – ask what is quick if you’re in a hurry. If you have the time, talk to Armon and his staff and let them guide you to a good meal at this quirky and delightful little café.
Nuna’s is at 715 N. Pacific Coast Hwy. in Redondo. Open daily except Sun., 10 a.m. – 9 p.m. Parking lot, wheelchair access okay. No alcohol served, many vegetarian options. Menu at NunasMediterranean.com, phone (424) 390-4032. ER
by Richard Foss