There is no shortage of excellent Middle Eastern restaurants in North Jersey, but Uncle Momo of Montclair still stands out as unique. The restaurant calls itself a Lebanese French bistro — Lebanese cuisine served in a chic bistro atmosphere. The menu, however, follows no strict script. There are mezzes and shawarmas, like in other no-frills Middle Eastern restaurants. But unique options are also plenty, taking inspiration from traditional Levantine delicacies and French bistro classics. Read on to learn all about Uncle Momo located at 702 Bloomfield Avenue.
A Fusion of a Different Kind
The “fusion” of different genres is the result of the owners’ cultural descent as well as culinary training. Ali and Narjis Lyoussi, the husband and wife team behind Uncle Momo, are of Morrocan descent, whose traditional food culture is heavily influenced by the French. Ali’s culinary training, nevertheless, was at a Lebanese restaurant in New York City, where he worked his way up years ago starting as a delivery staff. So it was no surprise that the couple’s own restaurant, opened in 2012, integrates elements of Moroccan, Lebanese, and French cuisine.
“Lebanese food is light and flavorful. Morrocan food is richer. And we also have (French) dishes such as steak frites,” Narjis said. The menu is a combination of simple Levantine delights (mezzes and kebabs), elaborate Morrocan dishes (tagine and couscous), and continental European classics with Middle Eastern twists, such as salmon crusted with pistachios. It is crowd-pleasing without being overwhelming.
Kick the meal off with creamy hummus, or to switch things up a little, the smokey and earthy moutabal beets, which is similar to babaganoush but uses beet instead of eggplant and is topped with swirls of pomegranate molasses. Dip the warm pita bread in the sauce, which is baked daily onsite. “We never use pre-package pita bread,” Narjis said.
Groups can also share a plate of za’atar bread, called “pitza” on the menu, a Levantine comfort food of thin and crusty flatbread topped with sesame, olive oil, and herbs. Ground meat or fresh cheese toppings are also available.
A great option for an entree is the rustic massaka. The zesty tomato sauce contrasts splendidly with the richness of the well-seasoned ground lamb, evenly tucked between layers of mellow eggplant slices. The casserole dish is unfussy but carefully seasoned, indulging but surprisingly light. It is simply delightful. The vegetarian option uses chickpeas instead of lamb.
“The ingredients [of Lebanese food] are fresh and healthy,” Narjis told The Montclair Girl. “It’s food that you can eat every day,”. But if you are looking for a more decadent Middle Eastern fare, there are also plenty to choose from. Get the tagine, a sweet-and-savory stew with lamb shanks braised with nuts, spices, and caramelized prunes. Brunch goers can also try the Tunisian egg, of over-easy eggs on a bed of thick, fragrant tomato pepper sauce.
Narjis said Uncle Momo has become “delivery focused” since the pandemic. The change is not intuitive, since the restaurant had been a “slow food establishment”, as Narjis calls it. “But luckily we were able to ride the wave,” she said, recalling that the restaurant was able to get the website set up two days after the lockdown was imposed.
Nowadays it also has a very affordable family-friendly “social distancing menu” in addition to the regular menu, offering full meals with soup/salad, main dish, and drink at no more than $15. It is a story that has been told repeatedly by restaurant owners, and Narjis, like everyone else, sounds firm and hopeful. “We try to be friendly to the times,” she said. Friendly, surely, is what everything tastes and feels like at Uncle Momo.