Lemon and garlic; mint and yogurt; lamb, spices and smoke: a rich medley of foods and flavors shapes the cuisine of the region known historically as the Levant, whose geographical center is that beautiful, much-loved and long-suffering land, Lebanon. Perfumed with the tantalizing scents of lavish seasoning mixes, Lebanese dining specializes in grilled meats and meze dishes, the tapas of the eastern Mediterranean.
These are dishes that cross borders. Take kibbeh, for instance. The blimp-shaped patties of lamb, ground up with onions, bulgur and spices, are popular in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, but also in Egypt, Iran, Armenia, Turkey and in Israel as well -- where many favorite dishes, including falafel, hummus, couscous and shawarma, are Arab foods.
George Noujaim, chef-owner of Noujaim’s Bistro in downtown Winsted, is himself a border crosser. As a boy in Lebanon, he loved hanging out in his mother’s kitchen while she cooked, and after imigrating to the US at 20 in 1983, he followed this love of food into the catering business, first in Massachusetts and then in Torrington. Looking for a bigger catering kitchen, he found it at 436 Main St in Winsted, where he relocated in 2016 and opened his restaurant. Recently Noujaim purchased the adjacent building at 430 Main, a 5000 sq ft former department store that he is using to ramp up a wholesale food business, purveying products to restaurants, specialty markets, delis, and grocery stores throughout the region and beyond.
Noujaim’s Bistro is casual but stylish, a light and airy space with rustic oak tables and floorboards, a gold-painted tin-pressed ceiling, and walls crowded with colorful eclectic art work. “Home of the Lebanese Feast & the Best Hummus Ever!”, blares the front of the menu. And indeed the hummus was exceptional -- smooth and creamy, pooled amply with premium olive oil and served with toasted, garlic-blasted pita chips. Almost as opulent was a portion of velvety, lemony baba ghanoush, eggplant that is roasted, peeled, and chopped, then like hummus is combined with tahini, the tasty sesame seed paste, in spreadable form. And the secret to the best hummus ever? “Simplicity,” George Noujaim told me. “No fillers or preservatives. The best tahini. Cook the chickpeas right.”
A friend and I shared several other snackable delights. The kibbeh turned out to be a highlight – almost like a sandwich, cut on the diagonal, with whipped feta to spread on it. I’m also a big fan of grilled halloumi, the mild, brined, semi-hard cheese made of mixed goat and sheep’s milk. With its springy consistency halloumi doesn’t melt easily, which makes it amenable to frying and grilling, and as such an excellent meat substitute. Noujaim serves it browned and with a tangy, colorful complement of roasted tomatoes, surrounded by swirls of bright green chimichurri.
Among main courses a steak kebab was a bit on the tough side, and a shrimp pasta dish filling but routine. But the chicken kebab was tender and succulent, chunks of meat marinated and grilled, served with an opulent garlic aioli. The plate was completed by green beans and a Fattoush salad, mixed greens, tomatoes and veggies interspersed with chunks of fried flatbread and given a citrusy dressing accented with sumac.
Noujaim’s menu contains some items off the Eastern Mediterranean path -- that chimichurri, for instance, or fettucine with a garlic-Chardonnay cream sauce, as well as escargot and mussels. As the chef notes, Lebanese cooking goes way beyond falafel and hummus, reflecting the historical influence first of the Turkish Ottoman empire, then of France, which held it as a colony. “Modern Lebanese cooking comes from many dishes from France,” Noujaim notes. “They are sauce-based dishes, with a lot of ingredients – zucchini, fava beans, peas -- derived from French cooking.”
Similarly, an artfully chosen, bargain-filled wine list offers about three dozen wines – some French, others French-themed varieties from Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, like the red wines of Chateau Ksara, styled after Rhone and Bordeaux blends, or the Blanc de l’Observatoire, a springlike mix of sauvignon blanc, muscat and clairette blanche. Noujaim’s brother Ghassan runs the St. Michael Winery in Lebanon, whose wines include one named for his mother – Vin Marie, a Rhone red blend. The winery also makes its own arak, an aniseed-flavored spirit similar to ouzo, for those who want to finish their meal with a flourish.
George Noujaim is an active and much appreciated presence in the community. He won praise for helping feed people during the COVID pandemic, serving meals for residents of shelters. And Winsted’s civic leaders laud him for bringing new energy and life to downtown, helping spur others to do likewise. “George is a driving factor on why these last few years many more businesses are willing to give Winsted another look and open a business on Main Street,” Mayor Todd Arcelaschi told the Hartford Courant in August. “Businesses see that Noujaim’s is successful and expanding, so they take a shot on us.”
Winsted’s Middle Eastern food impresario leads a busy life, what with catering, cooking classes, and his ever-expanding wholesale business. A few years ago he helped Ralph Nader with a cookbook, The Ralph Nader and Family Cookbook: Classic Recipes from Lebanon and Beyond, which is on sale in the restaurant. But the core of all this action remains the hospitality offered in the bistro, formed by the memory of childhood meals. To Noujaim it is a personal tribute to his mother, who died twenty-five years ago.
“I loved the flavor, the aroma, the taste and the elegance of my mother’s cooking,” he says. “The only way for me to replicate that is to cook it myself.”
Rand Richards Cooper is a long- time food writerand restaurant critic for Bon Appétit, the New York Times and the Hartford Courant.