Restaurant Review: B52 in Lawrenceville is a Levantine Lifter
Omar Abuhejleh taps deep into his roots at his vegan cafe that's focused on Levantine cuisine.
photos by laura petrilla
Middle Eastern cuisine is ascendant across North America. Restaurants such as Zahav in Philadelphia, Shaya in New Orleans and Fat Pasha in Toronto have earned accolades for chefs for digging into the roots of the foodways of the Levant, the geographical region that includes the people of Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan and other eastern Mediterranean nations.
In Pittsburgh, chef/owner Omar Abuhejleh, who also owns Allegro Hearth Bakery in Squirrel Hill, is making a mark with B52 in Upper Lawrenceville. The restaurant, which opened in January, is a pipeline to his Palestinian heritage.
Here’s the catch: Unlike those other restaurants, B52 is 100 percent vegan. Much like Apteka, another successful vegan restaurant that opened this year in Pittsburgh, B52 is a draw because of its deep connection to a particular cuisine, rather than simply being a catch-all, “meatfree” space.
B52’s open and breezy design is evocative of a casual, urban gathering spot. There’s a long, light-grey marble countertop surrounding a bustling coffee bar; my favorite place to sit in the restaurant is on the backside of the bar with a view of the sun shining in from Butler Street. In the back of the restaurant is a communal table perfect for group gatherings or for enjoying a meal with strangers. Diners who want a more intimate experience can sit in some of the semi-private, wood-framed tables.
There are moments when Abuhejleh taps into his heritage so deeply that it resonates from plant to palate. An iteration of za’atar flatbread I savored on one of my visits was a rousing symphony of herbal, earthy and nutty. Za’atar found in the United States commonly is a mix of thyme, oregano and other herbs that are meant to mimic the eponymous wild hyssop varietal. Abuhejleh has tapped into a (likely limited) homeland supply of the real-deal good stuff, though; when mixed with sesame seed and olive oil, it’s a deceptively simple stunner of a dish.
That za’atar also appears on the crisp and steamy fries, which are some of the best in Pittsburgh. Also up for “best of” accolades is Abuhejleh’s smoky, creamy and lusty baba ghanouj, one of six mezze offered at B52; sweet-savory fried tomatoes with garlic, zhoug and tahini sauce also is a standout, as is the very good hummus.
“It tastes like Israel,” a friend exclaimed while digging into a falafel salad composed of crisp falafel, pickled turnip, sweet and bitter greens, cabbage slaw and optional but must-get avocado. The salad also is available as a wrap, which is my preferred method for eating it. Either way you do it, be sure to get a bowl of lentil soup, which is a vibrant, warmly spiced and very satisfying warmer.
A couple of less-traditional items also are standouts, particularly during brunch service. Sourdough pancakes are a yeasty comfort, and they’re especially tasty when paired with almond milk and coconut oil “butter” and maple syrup. Kofta tofu scramble appeared to be a stark reminder that vegan cafes can’t match a meat-and-potatoes dinner for weekend breakfast, yet through an alchemical triumph of sulfured salt, turmeric and technique, Abuhejleh turns tofu into something that I now like just as much as scrambled chicken eggs. He then uses seitan to (nearly) mimic the savory spice of traditional kofta.
Some dishes cry out for a return to their animalistic roots. A vegan friend found B52’s moussaka satisfying, but I hungered for the fat and flavor found in lamb or beef. Labneh, a fermented cashew cheese, works fine as a light spread on pita but is overwhelmingly sour when used as the base for a sandwich. Another attempt at vegan dairy, almond-cashew yogurt, is grainy and tastes a bit like plastic. Skip it.
Service at B52 is extraordinarily friendly but also can be a bit too laid back. On a brunch visit, my friends and I — plus a cadre of other potential diners — loitered, confused, in the entryway, not knowing if there was a list to which we should add our name or if a host was going to ask us how many were in our party. Times between getting the menu and ordering also can linger, as with the time between finishing the meal and paying the bill. None of this — aside from the brunch confusion — really is a problem considering B52 straddles a line between cafe and restaurant. A little more attention to detail, though, could transform B52 from a solid dining experience into an excellent one.
B52 is a BYOB restaurant with an outstanding nonalcoholic beverage program. It takes the “cafe” part of its name seriously. Espresso is strong; nitro cold brew is a powerful, effervescent pick-me-up. Specialty drinks such as Cafe Rico, a vanilla, orange and cinnamon-spiced almond-milk latte, and Chic Roja, an earthy, rooty latte of rooibos tea, chicory root, vanilla bean and cocoa, are made for crisp winter mornings. House-made sodas, such as the refreshing blood orange, are a bubbly treat.
The deeper Abuhejleh explores his heritage, the better his menu gets. If year one is any indication, B52 is going to be a destination — and not just for vegan diners but for all Pittsburgh eaters — for quite a while.
5202 Butler St., Upper Lawrenceville; 412/408-3988, b52pgh.com
Chef/Owner | B52
What inspired B52?
Opening B52 was something I’d been thinking about for a long time. I wanted to create a space for food that wasn’t being offered in Pittsburgh. I couldn’t find Middle Eastern food that I grew up with. Things prepared from scratch using Old World techniques. It’s basically peasant food. I wanted to have that food available to me, and I thought that other people would also like it.
One of the things I enjoy about your restaurant is that it’s not just a “general vegan restaurant,” but it’s rooted in something very heartfelt and specific.
My primary flavor profile of anything that I make here is colored by my upbringing eating my mom’s cooking, which is Palestinian. That being said, I’ve moved around to a lot of places, so I’ve been exposed to a lot of different food. Generally, the way I cook onions, the way I cook garlic, all of that is very Palestinian. I like to look at things in their historical context. Where did they come from? Who was eating it? What are the traditional ways of making them? And that’s how I generally identify it.
Why open a vegan restaurant?
Purely out of a desire to move in a direction of less cruelty to animals. This is all based on animal welfare. I’ve been eating vegan at home for 11 years. Middle Eastern food really lends itself to that, too. My dad grew up eating very little meat, cheese or eggs. He was a peasant farmer, and that stuff was expensive. They would sometimes get goat milk, but there were no dairy cows in Palestine. It was something you’d eat very sparingly.
What made you decide to add a very in-depth coffee bar to the restaurant?
I ended up with this location because I couldn’t find space Downtown. When I signed the lease here, there were no coffee places past the cemetery. A number of places such as The Abbey, Caffè d'Amore, Butterwood Bake Consortium, have opened up since I signed the lease, and I think that’s great. I really like kombucha, coffee and tea, and since we don’t have an alcoholic beverage program, it was important to offer something else that people could enjoy. I also really like the idea of having a bar. So here someone can come in by themselves and pony up to the bar and have a falafel sandwich and coffee.