While visiting Amoun ended up being an experience filled with a feast of dishes and an ambient Mediterranean atmosphere, the true joy of Amoun were the people who run it. I stopped by with members of the Manhattan Sideways team only a month after the restaurant / lounge opened at its original Upper East Side location in the fall of 2015 and was given an extremely warm greeting by the owners, Nash Zanfal and Trinidad Salazar. Joining them was Ral Martin, who handles the public relations for the restaurant. The enthusiastic combination of the three was contagious.
The team met working at Horus, downtown, and has continued the Egyptian God theme by christening their newest venture “Amoun” after the king of the gods. Nash is Egyptian, but both Trinidad and Ral, who come from Mexico and the Philippines, respectively, describe themselves as “honorary Mediterraneans” because of the amount of time they have spent around the cuisine – and around Nash. Trinidad has even started speaking Arabic, which is impressive for a man who said he had run into difficulty learning how to speak English. But, as he confided in me, “If you want to learn something, you can learn it.” And then added smiling, “I’ve learned a lot here.”
The space itself, which used to be the Spanish restaurant Malaga, is perfectly suited to Amoun. Nash has added an intricately tiled back room with curved windows carved into the walls between the different spaces. On Fridays and Saturday evenings, they have belly dancers, but the men seemed to be most exuberant when showing us the hookahs or “narghile” set up on tables in the back lounge. They said that the Upper East Side does not have many places for those who wish to partake in narghile. They went on to say that while the restaurant had already taken off, people had yet to discover the night-life side of Amoun. They looked forward to welcoming a larger late-night crowd as they become more settled.
When we took a seat at the bar, Ral offered to make us a few drinks off of the cocktail list, which had been developed only two days prior. We tried the Santorini, made with St. Germain and vodka, served in a martini glass. Ral also served up a “Mediterranean Nights,” an elaborate affair made with Baileys and Butterscotch schnapps. The Sideways team members widened their eyes with glee as they sipped on the dessert-like drink. Ral also gave us a connoisseur’s description of the narghile, which the restaurant packs with fruit for smokers, and individual, sanitary mouth pieces. “We treat the narghile like it’s a work of art,” Ral explained, as Nash pointed out the intricate detail on the ornate hookahs, including a bright red one decorated with gold leaf.
The three men were giddy when speaking about the menu options in their restaurant. “It is the result of several cooks working together.” The chefs have a Mediterranean background, and Ral, Nash, and Trinidad have taste-tested each collaborative effort to ensure maximum quality, with a plan to rotate the menu seasonally. “We like to try something new to see what people prefer.” Together, they have a very hands-on approach to their restaurant, including delivering the food to the table, themselves. We were honored with this special treatment when all three men brought out a veritable feast for us to try: the Amoun Mezzas, which featured three different spreads to dip our falafel in, as well as a fresh tomato feta dish with olives. Olivia and Tom sampled the Makanek, Lebanese sausages with cucumber sauce, and a classic chicken shish kebab. Nash mentioned how proud he is that the food is healthy and low calorie, but still very tasty. “Everything is fresh and the meat is ‘halal,’ which, though more expensive, is worth it for the quality.” Ral also wanted to be sure that we knew that everything was house made “except the vegetables – we don’t grow them!” Otherwise Nash described the food to be, “As good as my grandma would make.”
After having been fed far too well already, we were surprised by an entire course of dessert, whipped up by an Egyptian woman named Najaw, Amoun’s pastry chef. The baklava was not too sweet, and full of a thick layer of nuts, while the rice puddings were delightfully smooth. Olivia, Tom and I were intrigued by Kunafa, a dessert none of us had had before. It was made with shredded filo, ricotta cheese, pistachios, and a generous drizzling of lemon-sugar syrup. Served warm, it was a terrific ending to the feast.
The food and the ambiance were wonderful, but it was these three men who stole the show. It was apparent immediately that they adore what they are doing, are so proud of what they have created, but, most importantly, they are passionate about one another and the community that they are serving. As Nash so eloquently stated, “We embrace all types – and, in turn, we want everyone to embrace the Mediterranean as home.”