Housemade Harissa

Shannon Cooke

Most New Yorker foodies with a healthy appetite for Italian food know that Rosemary’s in the West Village is named after the grandmother of the proprietor, Carlos Suarez. But they may not know that its sister restaurant, Claudette, which serves Provençal (read: southeastern) French cuisine with North African and Mediterranean influences, is named after a 91-year-old mother of a restaurateur and hotelier in Northern France. The hospitality of Guy Sammut and his family impacted Suarez  so deeply that he wanted to name one of his Casa Nela properties after the family, in an act of homage. 

And so the spirit of Claudette seems to share elements with its namesake, a cozy charm and comfortability embodied in the rattan chairs, plush, spacious seating and outsanding hospitality. But the menu’s North African twists come courtesy of Claudette’s executive chef, Ari Bokovza, who started off his career as a busser at his dad’s restaurant in Sag Harbor — the same entry point as Casa Nela’s Head of Operations, Christine Brayton — before entering the kitchen at 18, beginning his long tenure with a stint at Union Square Cafe

After working at the now-closed Michelin-starred restaurant El Raco D’en Freixa in Spain, Bokovza moved on to Picholine (RIP), then The Lever House (also RIP), The Modern (which garnered three stars from The Times under his stewardship), The Standard Grill, The Harrison (another defunct gem), and finally, his current role at Claudette, where he’s spent the past five years perfecting recipes that would undoubtedly make his Tunisian grandmother proud. The most beloved of these is a sauce that turns the spot’s weekday breakfast into a thing of beauty, the Housemade Harissa. 

An aromatic and notoriously spicy chili paste found most commonly in Middle Eastern and North African cooking, Claudette’s recipe includes dried Guajillol chilis, Aleppo peppers, garlic, cumin, coriander, sun-dried tomatoes, olive oil, and salt. If you’re a fan of savory brunches, then Harissa is like a gift from the gods, even if it hasn’t really caught on in a big way in America… yet. When Popeye’s is putting out a chicken sandwich with Harissa in a year, well just remember where you read about it first.

Given their close proximity to NYU, opening for a Mediterranean buffet breakfast was an easy decision, an effective, easy way to utilize the space and get more customers in the door; the fact that this buffet is a delicious way to cure a hangover only makes their morning offering more sustainable in a city synonymous with late nights. For a standard $20 — including refillable brewed coffee — the Mediterranean Mezze spread features golden-melty six minute eggs, crisp and lemony avocado toast, watermelon and feta brochette (skewers dressed with rosemary-infused olive oil), plenty of freshly-made Tunisian hummus, pain Tunisien (similar to pita), labneh, honey, and jam, and a tomato almond gazpacho, among other things.

These dishes are all well and good in their own right, but with the addition of Harissa sauce — which it should be noted, can go on everything listed above — a weekday morning is elevated from mere fuel to something that feels fancy and decadent. A deep burgundy in color, sort of coarse and infinitely spicy, the sauce adds texture and sophistication to simple fare like soft boiled eggs. All of the above is vegetarian, and plenty of those elements work for a vegan too, but if you’re craving more protein in your morning meal, the menu includes Lamb Keftas (longer meatball-style meat skewers) that also pair wonderfully with Harissa.

The weekday breakfast is served Monday through Friday 8:30 AM to 11:30 AM, and there’s always plenty of Harissa to go around. So whether you’re wandering through Greenwich Village one early morning, nursing a hangover near Union Square, or taking an out-of-town friend to a special New York breakfast, the buffet at Claudette is an affordable and delicious option for starting the day. Just don’t get too much Harissa in any given bite — large portions of these peppers are not to be consumed lightly.

Casa Nela partnered with Cinnamon on a recent event in New York. We’re grateful for the partnership.

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