Bezar from Arabia, zhoug from Yemen, baharat from the Levant. You’ve probably barely heard of these exotic, perfumed spices. Who would be creative enough to use them all wisely on a single menu?
Imagine Mary Poppins with an infectious laugh and an impish sense of humor, and you’ve got Miranda Kaiser. See her just before the dinner rush begins, darting from sous-chef to waiter to baker. “Be sure that dressing has all the spices, I don’t remember them, check the recipe,” she calls to one chef as she hurries by. “But you created the recipe!” Indeed, she did. She created the many recipes used at Laffa. “I never copy the traditional recipe,” she explains. “I always add something, make it modern, give it a twist.” The 14 years she spent in Israel give her the right to do so.
Growing up in Britain, she went to culinary school “so I could get out of England,” she says. Kaiser hit the road at 18, a common rite of passage for young Europeans. Hitching around Europe, six months living on a sunny beach by the Mediterranean, a quick detour to Israel. That’s what she planned. And then one starry December night on a kibbutz in northern Israel, a tall, handsome American walked into her life. Within five years, she and Phil Kaiser were married. They stayed in Israel.
But Phil has deep roots in Tulsa, and eventually the couple decided to come home. They had run restaurants in Jerusalem, and they ran Cosmo Café in south Tulsa, and later relocated it to Brookside. The career choice initially taken to make money had become a well-loved way of life. Now, with Laffa, Kaiser wants to bring the richness and beauty of life in Arabian lands back to Tulsa. This beauty is often entwined with eating. “Food is communal eating,” she explains. “In most of the world, people eat from a communal pot. They talk, they enjoy, everyone is more relaxed.” There won’t be communal pots in Laffa, but diners are encouraged to share the lavish spread of appetizers, called mezze.
“When you think of the Middle East,” says Kaiser, “you think of hospitality. I’ve visited Palestinian homes where I, a stranger, was treated like a queen. That’s how we want you to feel when you eat with us here.” She gestures toward one of the large dining spaces and the long wall that dominates it. It’s a long, tall wall built of square and roughly chiseled stones glowing with a muted but varied palette of a hundred hues of brown, the sort of wall you’d see on houses in an Arabian village that’s been lightly touched by the passing centuries. Little bronze hands stick out from the wall, carrying glowing sconces. Kaiser designed all that. In fact, she designed every detail of the quirky, whimsical decor. Above the dining area, the lamps are puffy, billowing balloons. “They’re made in England by a girl I know there. She uses recycled plastic soda bottles.” Behind the bar is a cozy, private area ideal for private dinners. It features a long, black wall speckled with niches glowing from concealed lamps. “That’s inspired by the cave dwellings of Cappadocia.” Nearby is a mysterious black iron door with a sign that reads, “Page and Pinkerton Detective Agency.” It leads to a parking lot.
You don’t need a detective to find good food. Vibrant entrees bring the sparkle of the Mediterranean to the table. There’s tagine from Morocco, beef simmered for hours in a clay pot with dates, honey, molasses, tomatoes and wine. Shakshuka, a hearty dish of eggs poached with tomatoes, peppers and cumin, hails from Tunisia. Kushary, which features layers of rice, lentils, macaroni and onions topped with a tomato harissa sauce, is Egypt’s most popular dish. Or you can get lamb kebabs, or large shrimp tossed with tomatoes, mint and cilantro, or even a simple burger. If you show up in the wee hours of the morning, there’s something for you: a take-out window selling falafel wrapped in bread. And whatever you do, sample the laffa bread. You can see it being baked in a taboon, a clay-lined barrel-shaped oven just to the left of the bar, and it’s a joy to watch the grace of the workers kneading the dough and slapping it into the oven’s red-hot maw. “I’m so proud of the taboon crew,” says Kaiser. “They never did this before, and now they’re experts.” 111 N. Main St., Tulsa. www.laffatulsa.com