The most exciting plate in the city right now is the duck borek at Zou Zou’s, which opened in November at the Manhattan West complex in the West 30s between Ninth and Tenth avenues. It’s on track to be the season’s crowd-pleasing, breakout dish, the way Le Pavillon’s oysters Vanderbilt and Carne Mare’s gorgonzola-marinated wagyu were in 2021.
Zou Zou’s comes from the Quality Branded team that’s behind the Smith & Wollensky chain and Quality Italian. Here, the restaurant group takes the Levantine route, tapping the culinary styles of Lebanon, Israel, Turkey, Egypt and Jordan. The house is packed every night with eaters of all ages who live or work at Manhattan West, which also boasts several other restaurants, an ice skating rink and a lemon grove art installation called Citrovia.
Chef Madeline Sperling told The Post that she and executive sous chef Juliana Latif set out to focus their Eastern Mediterranean menu on live-fire cooking and flavors with “an emphasis on fun and an element of surprise.” They’ve succeeded on both counts, especially with their playfully French-ified take on a borek — a savory, flaky-dough pastry that’s often thought of as Turkish but pops up in various shapes and sizes all over the Middle East.
Palate-, stomach- and soul-satisfying
I flipped for Zou Zou’s duck version the first time the waiter sliced the prodigious, 8-inch-diameter pie with the gleaming, curved blade known as a mezzaluna.
This is palate, stomach and soul-satisfying stuff on a bitter cold night. Duck that’s finely ground with seasonings and bread crumbs is piped into layers of phyllo-like yufka dough that are then shaped into a spiral. The sausage is cooked through until the dough turns crisp and golden. The pastry is then finished with l’orange glaze textured with Sicilian pistachios and cracked coriander seeds.
The sausage was as dreamily soft as baby food in the best way. The whole thing is a constellation of contrasts — now bitter, now sweet, soft here and crunchy there.
Offered as a “specialty” main course, it’s “big enough for two,” waiters told us on different nights. They lied: the $68 monster easily feeds three normal humans, who might choose it to start a meal or to serve as the climax.
Several other enticing dishes
Sharing comes easily in the comfy and convivial, blue- and green-tiled dining room designed by AvroKO. It feels larger than its 75 seats, thanks to generous spacing between tables and booths facing the flames-filled open kitchen.
Lighting from overhead wrought-iron fixtures brings a glow to the cavalcade of colorful breads, dips, salads, mezze plates and larger specialties.
The setting inside the Pendry Hotel feels sunny on the darkest night and is perfectly attuned to the menu. Several dishes are the duck borek’s near-equal. Black sea bass filet ($55 and also enough for at least two) is wrapped in brined grape leaves that have been grilled over embers. It reads on paper like dishes you find everywhere, but the reality is a revelation. The flaky, moist fish has a meaty heft and flavor depth worthy of the best French and Greek seafood kitchens. When unwrapped tableside, it emits a perfume of tomato vinaigrette, cured lemons, olives and Calabrian chili.
Familiar-sounding lamb tartare ($19) is also memorable, with traditional bulgur cooked to a puff for extra crunch. The raw meat is mildly sparked with candied ginger and pickled Thai chilies.
Zou Zou’s breads aren’t to be missed, but be careful: they’re so filling that you can fill up before you have anything else. My favorite was spiced honey-butter kubaneh inspired by Jewish Yemeni pull-apart rolls. You can get a trio of dips for $21, though it hardly needs them. Still, the accompaniments are awesome; my favorite was ricotta whipped to an ethereal airiness with saffron and apricots.
Of the three desserts on the menu, go with a tall parfait glass of lemon frozen yogurt sprinkled with shaved ice. Olive oil blunts the acidic edge. It’s yummy top to bottom and even more fun than the lemon grove outside.