Chicken shawarma, ready for its crown of arugula.Photo: Spice Brothers
New York isn’t necessarily a hot spot for high-quality shawarma. For the good stuff — tender and juicy but still caramelized on the outside, smacking with the spice of cumin and cinnamon — the best spots tend to be in Astoria (Duzan, Zyara) or Bay Ridge (Al-Sham, Karam, so on). Manhattan? It’s a land of poorly spiced chicken, sometimes retroactively dubbed “shawarma.” Aficionados remain unimpressed. My friend Alfi Bridi, who has family roots in Beirut, calls the current scene “underwhelming,” which in his estimation is a big problem since shawarma quality is “basically the only metric for a city’s success.”
So, what’s a shawarma lover to do? For Lior Lev Sercarz, the answer was simple: open his own shop, Spice Brothers on St. Marks Place. Lev Sercarz runs the spice company La Boîte, with The New York Times Magazine once noting that chef Eric Ripert had “all but forsworn spices from other sources.” Now, Lev Sercarz is vertically integrating, seasoning his own food with his own spice blends.
The restaurant is a partnership with Bar Lab Hospitality and David Malbequi, a chef and old friend whom Lev Sercarz worked with at Daniel. These days, Malbequi runs David’s Cafe, which is right next door to Spice Brothers. The two had half-seriously talked about going into business together. When the space became available, Lev Sercarz says he had one condition: “I, without thinking too much, said, ‘The only I’d ever consider doing is shawarma’ — I’m from the Middle East, and I’m very passionate about it, and very selfishly wanted to have good shawarma.”
At Spice Brothers, the beef-and-lamb shawarma (“Shawarma East” on the menu) is seasoned with a Turkish-style spice blend heavy on warm spices like cumin, cinnamon, and a bright flash of rose petals before it’s dressed with herbed labneh sauce. The other option, chicken, is the Shawarma West, spiced with pimentón and turmeric and packing the heat of harissa. The sandwiches are $15 (chicken) and $17 (beef-lamb), made with Lev Sercarz’s spices and Pat LaFrieda meat. Each comes with tahini, a salty rendition of the mango-pickle amba, cilantro, and an unconventional crown of arugula. (It’s peppery and fresh; it works.) The pita, from New Jersey’s Angel Bakeries, is fluffy and holds its own against all the sauce and meat juice.
Of course, there’s a little more to the menu, as well, like falafel with zhuoug and tahina; the Israeli egg-and-eggplant sandwich sabich; spiced fries; and hummus. It’s a tight menu for a tight space. There are a few tables inside, and one that barely fits outside.
Most of the construction effort, it seems, went into the spit. “Most people don’t think about it,” says Lev Sercarz. “Oh, what, how complicated can it be? It’s a metal disk, a spit in the middle, and you just pile on the meat — it doesn’t work like that.” Malbequi spent months tinkering with theirs so that they can “make sure that each layer has exactly the right amount of meat and seasoning, and that everything cooks and slices evenly.”
Sercarz says the only way to achieve the even cooking is to do it yourself, to become an expert in “the art of building the perfect spit.” By knowing its particulars, Spice Brothers can customize the shawarma to their customers’ preferences: “There are people who prefer the meat more crunchy and roasty and caramelized. There are those who prefer it a bit more tender,” Sercarz points out. “Then I have some customers who will ask if they can have a bit more fat from the top, and we’ll gladly slice it off for them.”