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Business of the Month: Kubeh, 464 6th Avenue

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Cultural pluralism is a defining condition of the contemporary metropolis in these globalizing times. Some lament the political challenges that cultural difference can bring about. We, however, prefer to look beyond those and focus instead on the gastronomic surprises and delights that stem from cultural hybridity. And we know of no better example of this phenomenon that our May Business of the Month, Kubeh, at 464 Sixth Avenue (between 11th and 12th Streets), a Kurdish/Iraqi/Syrian restaurant with a Persian/Israeli twist, and perhaps the only kubeh-specialized restaurant in the country.

But what is a kubeh, you might ask? 

Fried meat kubeh; by Teddy Wolff

The ontology of the kubeh is a matter of dispute; so we’ll keep things general. And generally speaking, the kubeh or kubbeh or kibbeh or kubba is a family of dishes probably originating in Assyria, and specifically in Aleppo, characterized by an inside and an outside. Both components are often made of spiced beef and bulgur wheat, but not always. The outside can be crispy and flat, if baked, crispy and football-shaped, if fried, soft and ball shaped, if cooked in soup, or served raw, with herbs, lemon and onion. Beyond those basics, just about anything goes. The meat can be fish, goat, lamb, camel, or any of several vegetable or nut meat-alternatives. The soup can be beet soup (selek), or a lemony broth called hamousta, or many others. The dish varies by country, region, city (Aleppo alone is reputed to specialize in seventeen different types), and family. And, as it happens, several of the cultural influences that have shaped the kubeh’s multiple variations converge in the person of Melanie Shurka, the proprietor and chef of Kubeh.

Mushroom kubeh in selek broth; by Teddy Wolff

Melanie grew up in Great Neck with an Israeli father and Persian grandparents, and eating primarily Middle Eastern and especially Persian food at home. A fairly American concern with healthfulness, however, shaped the recipes of home-cooked meals, replacing traditional fattier meat ingredients with leaner substitutes. Furthermore, although Melanie did not grow up in a religious household, the influence of Jewish dietary laws long ago influenced the food preparation of typical dishes among the Persian Jewish community, separating meats from dairy and eliminating, for instance, butter in favor of oil. These practices shaped Melanie’s tastes, her early cooking education, and eventually her penchant for less heavy preparations of traditional dishes.

Melanie’s culinary disposition, however, developed well beyond her domestic background, taking a circuitous route through a relationship with an Iraqi boyfriend whose mother introduced her to kubeh in a broth and through her first encounters, while living in Israel, with kubeh restaurants — cafeteria-style establishments that serve a selection of this workingman’s dish. These experiences made Melanie reflect on the limited range of Middle Eastern restaurants in New York at the time and planted in her mind the idea of abandoning her burgeoning legal career and opening a kubeh restaurant back home.

Beef kubeh in hamousta; by Tanner Hoffarth

It did not take Malanie long to start pursuing her dream. Upon her return to the city, she worked for a few years at the long standing brasserie Balthazar, where she gained an appreciation for the discipline and rigor necessary to run a successful restaurant, and as a private chef, trying out for the first time her home recipes on the public. The feedback was encouraging. Melanie then returned to Israel for a stint, leaning on friends and relatives to connect her with good cooks from whom she might learn a trick or two. These cooks initially said no. One, the owner of a restaurant in the kitchen of which she hoped to work a few nights, accused or trying to steal the heart of his business. But most eventually relented; she learned a lot, and might have even emerged with a small piece of the heart that that restaurateur was so zealously guarding. Once back in New York, Melanie ran several pop ups, where she served to much success the dishes she had been developing. At the same time, she secured the financing and space for her new restaurant, Kubeh.

by Tanner Hoffarth

The initial iteration of Kubeh hewed closely to Melanie’s initial vision, serving several different styles of kubeh, and little else, on a fast casual basis. Customer and business feedback, however, soon led Melanie to expand her food selection and to offer a full restaurant experience. The kubeh remains the heart of the menu and is available fried, in broth, and raw. Several of the varieties show off Melanie’s Persian heritage, like a fried vegetarian kubeh that borrows from the ingredients of baghali polo (Perisan rice with dill and lima beans), and a raw kubeh, which is salmon-based and incorporates pomegranate. The rest of the substantial menu consists of Melanie’s take on comfort foods from Middle Eastern places less well represented in the city. Highlights include the tahdig (crunchy rice), the chicken schnitzel  (with matzo sesame breading), the chicken shawarma (served over pistachio and butternut squash puree), and the muhammara (roasted red pepper, walnut, and pomegranate spread).

Chicken schnitzel; by Tanner Hoffarth
Chicken shawarma; by Teddy Wolff

As a bonus, the drink menu features Back Home Beer, a beer that boasts Persian flavors and that is brewed by a first-generation, woman-owned business out of Brooklyn.

The “comfort” part of the comfort food that Melanie ennobles at her restaurant is only partly about the homemade quality of the food. It’s also about the feeling of being in someone’s home and partaking in a communal experience.

by Tanner Hoffarth

Kubeh’s small, shareable dishes and its layout, which includes a communal table, encourage that feeling. But beyond that, Melanie strives to turn her place into a paragon of Middle Eastern hospitality and conviviality. At no point is this effort more on display than during the holidays. For Passover, for instance, she breaks out a kiddush fountain, invites someone at the restaurant to bless the wine that the fountain will simultaneously pour, as if by magic, into twelve cups, and then serves a cup to everyone at the restaurant, regardless of religious persuasion. She then invites all guests to join in the singing of Dayenu, a song that Persian Jews typically intone on Passover while beating each other with scallions to commemorate the lashings suffered at the hands of the Egyptians (the restaurant provides the scallions; no need to bring your own). Seldom does Melanie hold such an event that customers don’t approach her afterwards to tell her how glad they are to have celebrated their holiday there.

For reinventing delicious comfort food from far away lands and for cultivating an atmosphere that makes us feel both at home and as if our home were in Aleppo, we’re thrilled to name Kubeh our May 2024 Business of the Month. 

by Cait Opperman

What special small business would you like to see featured next? Just click here to nominate our next one. Thank you! #shoplocalnyc

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