These Butchers Are Bringing Middle Eastern Whole-Animal Roasts to LA
Debbie Michail and Alex Jermasek's roving pop-up Logmeh encourages diners to eat with their hands, make new friends, and experience cuisines that are frequently undervalued in the West.
Photos by Pamela Garcia.
It's a balmy Thursday evening in Hollywood, and with the sun having finally set, it's begun to get dark, save the crackling fire pit that Debbie Michail is crouched in front of. She's quickly checking a pot of turmeric rice sitting atop the smoldering embers, grilling skewered chicken hearts, and balancing pans on varying makeshift cook surfaces over the flame while her partner, Alex Jermasek, breaks down birds, removing their backbones with quick knife strokes. Behind them, an array of other birds—from Cornish hens to ducks—are tied with rope to what looks like the structural remnants of a chain-link fence, held together by plywood, cinderblock, and bricks. The birds twist and sway in place from the heat of the fire, golden-skinned and glistening.
This is Logmeh, the pop-up that's bringing Middle Eastern whole-animal roasts cooked over large, open fires to LA.
Each dinner celebrates a single protein source, with this month's dinner focusing on birds, and not one part of the animal will be wasted. The chicken heart and pearl onion skewers go from the flame to a serving dish, and are then finished with a drizzle of smoked pomegranate sauce and a sprinkle of sumac for diners to snack on as they watch the fire and wait to be seated at the long, family-style tables within the intimate Lombardi House. The eager guests range from super-stylish twentysomethings clenching esoteric bottles of wine to older Persian couples (brought along by their in-the-know kids), along with chefs, restaurant industry folk, and everyone else in between. They finally head over to the wildflower and olive branch-covered table, making introductions and trading handshakes with their new dining partners for the evening.
Named after a Farsi word meaning "to savor in one bite," Logmeh's roving roasts are about the experience of every bite and being an interactive eater. "It's about eating with your hands, creating your experience with each mouthful," Michail explains. "No fancy plating or composed dishes. We urge people to eat with their instincts." And with the first rush of plates, people do just that.
Warm platters of sangaak, a large seeded flatbread cooked over pebbles, is eagerly torn apart by guests who use the bread as a vessel to scoop up morsels of kask o' bademjan, a dish of egglplant cooked over almond wood and finished with whey, burnt garlic, and mint; mohst o' mouseer, a thick yogurt with cucumber and za'atar; and a black garbanzo bean purée with tomato marmalade, savory, and Tellicherry peppercorn. Across the table, chef Chad Colby (formerly of LA's meat mecca ChiSPACCA) opens 4.5-liter Jeroboam of pinot and pours glasses for those sitting around him. "It's for sharing," he says. It quickly becomes apparent how easy it is the slip into the warm buzz of the communal dining experience when there's wine being passed among strangers and you're eating with your hands.
When it comes to menu planning, Michail is inspired by her Iranian heritage and the time she spent with Bedouins in Negev, the desert between Jordan and Egypt. "Our meals were served to us on these beautiful copper platters, which had turmeric rice, braised lamb, and some flat bread type of thing. We sat on the floor on these beautiful hand-woven carpets and ate with our hands, of course," she says. "It felt so familiar to be making logmehs with the Bedouins."
For dessert, Michail was served camel milk and kashk, a dried puck of whey that's left over from making cheese earlier in the year. In the winter, kashk is often diluted with water and consumed for nourishment. "I use it in my menu for our dinners," Michail says. "I slow-roast eggplant over almond wood, and once the meat is steamy and unctuous, I scoop it out, combine it with caramelized onions and kashk, then top it off with a bit more whey, burnt garlic, dried mint, and Moroccan olive oil."
Beyond Bedouin culture, the intersection of Iranian and Turkish cuisine also plays a role in the menu's inspiration. "A lot of the foods which I grew up eating around my grandmother's table I saw in the streets of Istanbul. The thick soup, —translating to 'head to foot'—cooks for approximately 26 hours, contains lamb's brains, lung, heart, cheek, feet, face, tripe, and a little meat. Mmmmm!"
She adds, "One of the most delicious foods I had there was kokoretsi—lamb intestine wrapped around offal and cooked over a spit for hours, then chopped up on a griddle, thrown into a soft baguette, where the bread catches all the delicious grease from the animal innards, sprinkled with oregano."
But Michail and Jermasek's love of whole-animal cooking and offal isn't something that just comes from rustic Middle Eastern cuisine; they're also both butchers. At Belcampo Meat Co.'s Santa Monica outpost, Jermasek has been working with whole animals for years.
"I started working in a butcher shop at 18. My focus from the beginning has been raw ingredients—meat, to be specific. Working with the highest-quality meat products taught me to have respect for what I'm cooking; that natural raw ingredients should always be the focus," he explains.
"Being butchers impacts every aspect of our process. It starts there, really. When a chef goes to plan his/her menu, where do they begin? For us, it starts with the lamb or the bird or the pig. And the whole thing—not just its boxed fragments," Jermasek says. "The challenge we face is how to honor the whole animal and amplify the qualities that make it so enjoyable for us to consume. As butchers, we have some of the finest quality meats available to us. With such beautiful product to begin with, it's paramount that we avoid excessive manipulation. We constantly remind ourselves to stop over thinking, to let the flame and smoke do the work."
In the next courses, that mindset shows through: plates full of nasturtium topped smoky grilled quail a rich Iranian-influenced stew with pomegranate and walnut; chickens with burnt lemon bagna cauda, halved with their little ribs still attached, perfect for sucking meat from the bone; duck breast and legs brushed with bitter lemons and kumquat; a fragrant tu delee turmeric rice with cumin, shallots, and bay leaf accompanying it to perfectly soak up the juices.
The Persian family sitting next to me poses for a photograph and an older gentleman wrangles me into it, likely feeling sorry for the girl dining out alone. I smile, only to end up with glowing red demon eyes from the flash reflection in the photo. He tells me I look crazy, and I thank him. I ask him how he likes the food and he says that he likes it very much, especially the rice, for two reasons: "First because it's just really good, and second because it tastes exactly—literally exactly—like the rice my grandmother would make growing up. I haven't tasted it like that since then, and taking a bite of this made me remember something I didn't know I had forgotten. You take the rice and cook it inside the cavity of the roasting bird very slowly. That's why it tastes so good."
While Logmeh might be a nostalgic experience for some, its other aim is to create a dining experience that gets diners talking about cuisines that are often drastically undervalued and underexplored in the West.
"This may piss some people off," Jermasek tells me, "but sitting down at a restaurant in this city has lost its excitement for me. I am over dainty tweezer-plated food, and stuck up 'mixologists.' Don't get me wrong: It's delicious, but I'm jaded."
Jermasek believes that Logmeh has the opportunity to introduce Angelenos to a more dynamic experience with Middle Eastern food. "Whether it's Armenian, Iranian, Israeli, or Moroccan cuisine, most think it's some sort of kebab eaten with bread or rice," he says. "Well, yes, but that's only a part of it. There is so much history rooted in the Middle East and I feel like it's somewhat taboo to speak about, given the current social and diplomatic situations that are going on overseas. With that being said the cuisine and any exposure it may deserve is on the back burner. Yes you have Zahav in Philly and Nopi in England, but it's not enough, and there is so much more to know and eat."
As the dinner begins to wind down, Jermasek and Michail gather everyone to come back out to the fire, to sit around drink some more wine, talk, and enjoy bites of caciocavallo cheese fondue with lavash flatbread, grilled grapes, and bergamot jam. Guests warm themselves by the fire and enjoy Percy Selections' last wine pairing of the night: glasses of Domaine de Juchepie's "Les Quarts," a sweet white wine perfect for ending the night.
"There is no metaphor that so clearly and distinctly describes what Logmeh is as fire," the duo tells me. "Fire brings people together. Fire warms, enlightens, purifies—fire cooks. Fire is pure energy released. Look at a piece of wood—what you don't see is the potential energy within. All it requires is a spark to ignite. We very closely relate to this concept. As a team, we at Logmeh aim to ignite our potential energy and attract others to its light. That's our ethos."