With the recent closure of Mavi Bistro in Hudson, NH I’ve come to a few conclusions. First, when I hear about a great “ethnic” place that has recently opened in New Hampshire I MUST get there within the first six months because one of two things may happen, either they will Americanize their menu (in one of a few different ways) or they will close. Also, most eateries that offer anything perceived as different (and I’m not talking cupcakes, Thai, gourmet burgers or marshmallows) will probably not make it in NH unless they can draw customers from “away.”
Typical signs a restaurant is in trouble include cutting back on heat in the winter and AC in the summer, portion sizes get smaller, quality of food diminishes and offerings expand such as signs stating “Now offering brunch!” or “Now serving ice cream!” when their concept has nothing to do with such things.
To keep this relatively short I’m going to discuss “Mediterranean” or Middle Eastern restaurants in NH.
My first taste of the Middle East in NH was Pauly's Pockets in Durham. That was seven years ago and I haven’t been back since. Pauly’s is beloved by all of the locals because most of the locals went to UNH and if it wasn’t cheap crappy pizza or wings you were eating, it was Pauly’s pita pockets. I recall the sandwich was good, but lacked certain aspects found in most falafel/kebab joints. Pickles were added, sauces were modified, etc. When I inquired about this to the owner he replied, “Yes, yes, but the kids wanted something more familiar, so I made changes.” So, in essence, Pauly was able to adapt and, although he serves nothing like you would find anywhere in the Middle East, he survives and thrives.
A few years later I heard about a lady in Somersworth NH serving Lebanese food out of a gas station called “Quick to Go.” The wonderful lady who cooks and runs the place, Michelle, is from Beirut and she is a great cook indeed. The first time I went my experience was not great, however, and I actually said so here on Chowhound in the old New England section. At that time, Michelle would prepare her food once a week on Fridays and, when I tried it, the food was reheated in a microwave by one of her daughters and wasn’t fresh. Now, everything is made fresh and Michelle is there all the time as business has picked up after they were featured on NH Chronicle. That being said, the place struggles and my guess it if it weren’t for the gas station/convenience store keeping it afloat, it would have closed long before now. I inquired to Michelle why she didn’t have a doner grill (vertical spit) to cook her shawarma and she explained you must be busy enough to have meat standing out unrefridgereated and she wasn’t at that level yet. This was three years ago and she’s still not at that level.
The concept of doner grill is important in Middle Eastern cuisine. It’s what makes doner kebabs in Turkey, shawarma in Lebanon and throughout the MIddle East and Gyros in Greece. Without this grill, the meat cannot be browned or caramelized and give it that unique flavor. Cooking the meat on a hot griddle just doesn’t cut it. So, although Michelle’s shawarma is tasty, it’s not as good as it could be because she’s not busy enough. Her falafel and hummus is outstanding however.
Another local Middle Eastern take out place (in this case Turkish) is located in Newmarket, NH and is called Jay's Newmarket Convenience & Turkish Kebabs. Jay’s has been round for a few years and he serves authentic falafel, Adana kebabs, doner kebabs and shish kebabs. And, he actually HAS a doner grill! Now for the bad news, the food is not as good as when he first opened, he now has partnered with another guy to do Italian food and the whole operation is for sale. The triple whammy: he’s not busy enough in Newmarket, his food quality has diminished as a result, he brings in another more “recognized” menu items and he’s looking to get out. Go now!
Last year a new place opened in Portsmouth called Zahtar Mediterranean Sandwiches. Run by an affable, local corporate chef, this place offers fresh made falafel, hummus, gyros, shawarma and soup. None of it authentic, most of it would be shunned in places such as Boston, NYC, heck, anywhere outside of NH, because he's not serving what his menu purports. The gyro is more like a meatloaf, the shawarma is flavorless roasted chicken. Still, the locals love the place because it’s “exotic” without being too daring culinarily speaking. Chocolate hummus anyone??
Cafe Nostimo Deliciously Greek also in Portsmouth was excellent when they first opened, but the souvlaki now lacks flavor, the gyros are frozen processed strips typically found in NJ diners (not cooked on a doner grill) and it’s overpriced for what you get. Yet, it’s the only Greek restaurant in the Seacoast, so they do a brisk business. But don’t hold your breath if you’ve ever been to Greece or have eaten Greek food elsewhere because this place is toned down for local tastes.
I went to Cedars Cafe in Nashua last week based on online reviews and the fact that Mavi closed and I wanted to try a new place for kebabs. Cedars is run by a family (I think Lebanese) a fellow and his lovely, elderly mother. We tried the hummus (fantastic), tahini (good) falafel (nice) and the tabuleh was good, but they gave too much of it and it didn’t have enough bulgar in it. Now the bad news: the chicken kebab was a just grilled chicken breast with NO spice or marinade and the lamb kebab was also muted flavor wise. For this alone, I would never go back. It just wasn’t worth it. And they don’t serve shawarma as some of their online reviews report. Half of their menu is subs, so my guess is that that's what they serve most.
And last, but not least, we have the Spice Center in Manchester, NH. Located next door to the former location of our beloved long gone Gil’s. This is a cafe with a a few seats that serves the most authentic pan-Middle Eastern food in New Hampshire. Get there early (11-12) when the food is freshest, after 1:30 the place is dead and everything sits. They do have doner grills, but they’re not spinning after lunch. They also have Kushari, an Egyptian dish of rice, lentils, chickpeas and macaroni topped with tomato sauce and fried onion, which you don’t see everyday. The place is disorganized, but it’s worth it. NO burgers or subs, pizza or fried fish options on the menu here, it's the real deal for now.
In conclusion, I think the problem in New Hampshire is the locals focus too much on pizza, ice cream, burgers and the local Dipsy Doodle. It’s what they grew up with. There has been a recent influx of foreigners throughout the Granite State, yet not enough to make any impact with regards to food. Portsmouth is all money and pretension without the attendant cultural amenities and Manchester is a run down city that most people don’t wish to visit. Concord is ok, yet too white bread and though Nashua shows promise, it still lacks the culinary sophistication of most of Boston’s suburbs. One just has to see Nashua’s high turnover of ethnic restaurants to realize this is true.