The New York City ‘fusion’ scene can be embarrassing. Restaurants are fully aware of diners’ cosmopolitan breadth of ethnic eating options, and some take this as an excuse to offer it all. I can’t think of any other reason for the existence of the “French Steakhouse Sushi Bar” and the Chinese/Thai/Malaysian/Japanese takeout counter that I pass on my walk home everyday. There’s a reason I never go in.
At Arabesque, the fusion is legitimized with something like two millennia of actual interaction between North Africa, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean. Named for the ornamental, intertwining flowing and geometric design that also was born of these cultural exchanges, Arabesque is a restaurant that offers a tradition of fusion, carefully curated for modern palates.
Omar Balouma and Abdellah Ksiyer know this game, or, more accurately, have learned it. They open Arabesque following on the success of Barbes, named for the Parisian neighborhood of Moroccan, Algerian, and Tunisian cuisine and music, and on the failure of a Moroccan/sushi fusion concept. With Arabesque, the long-time restaurant partners decided to stick with geography-based fusion–it just works. But Arabesque isn’t a second Barbes. In their first month of operations, the restaurant is quickly distinguishing itself as a sexier, wilder little sister.
It’s the after-work spot to grab a strong drink and fill your table with a mosaic of small plates and exotic flavors. Abdellah Ksiyer, a chef with more than 20 years experience, doesn’t push any one dish too far. He lets the small tastings playfully complement each other. The rich hummus and grilled pita are staples done right. The skate marinated in Charmoula sauce (olive oil, cumin, paprika, and cayenne) is a light and inviting immersion in less standard Moroccan fare, falling in tender chunks over a bed of marinated white beans and spring greens dressed in olive oil, ginger, and a squeeze of orange. The chicken apricot cigars deliver the signature Moroccan blend of meat, fruit, and spice, in a light phylo spring roll. Crostini are topped with an inventive and irresistible blend of fava beans and avocado, classic Mediterranean ingredients whipped into a new food altogether. Arabesque’s cuisine follows Morocco’s culture of fusion, guided by what the region has deemed delicious, but not getting caught up replicating what has already been done. Yeah, Moroccan sushi was too much, but no one here is demanding traditionalism.
The restaurant’s festive décor–heavy gold door, mosaic sidings, thick cushions upholstered in deep purple, vibrant orange, and wine-red silk–is mirrored in the presentation of the dishes. Instead of served in a bowl, the hummus is artfully composed on a white plate, with arugula, olives, and a drizzle of balsamic. The kefta brochette (meatballs) is served on a skewer. The hot, charcoal-grilled pita is piled in delicate woven baskets.
Arabesque is well on its way to matching, if not surpassing, its big sister’s crowd. From the Moorish arches and tiling to the ménage of flavors, it’s quickly distinguishing itself as an exotic hotspot in an otherwise bland neighborhood. Good for after-work snack, meeting friends for dinner, or taking a date, it’s fusion you can unabashedly get behind.
Mediterranean, Moroccan, Small Plates $9-18, Entrees $19-28, Phone: (212) 532-2210. Daily: 11am-12am, accepts credit cards, Nearest Subway: Grand Central.