Rafik Abohattab doesn’t serve “Middle Eastern” food at Torshi, his new restaurant on Frenchmen Street. In fact, he avoids even saying what he considers a colonial insult to the Arab world. “Middle East of where?” says the Cairo-born restaurateur. “Of England, that’s where — which shouldn’t matter to anybody anymore.”
Abohattab is passionate about his home country’s cuisine. The 36-year-old entrepreneur has lived in New Orleans for 12 years and, in fact, used to wash dishes at Mona’s on Frenchmen Street, where he opened his restaurant in early April.
“Now I have keys to the restaurant,” he says. “That’s the American dream for sure.”
Abohattab lives in Metairie with his wife, who is from Chalmette, and their twin 4-year-old sons. When he first came to the U.S., he had $71 in his pocket and didn’t speak a word of English, he says. He traveled around for three years, taught himself English and worked all kinds of jobs — from kitchen work to crewing on a fishing boat — before landing in New Orleans.
“I love it here,” he says. “My mother is from a place called Port Said, a city that is so similar in architecture to New Orleans that they could be sister cities.”
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Abohattab learned how to cook from his mother and grandmother and was running a food cart in Cairo by the time he was 17.
“I was always in the kitchen, since I was a kid,” he says. “I always ended up cooking for the party. I was that guy.”
He aspired to own his own restaurant and imagined he could do that in the U.S. He entered the hotel business and worked his way up to a general manager position with Marriott. But he always was intent on introducing Egyptian cuisine to New Orleans through a menu inspired by family recipes. Abohattab originally opened Torshi as a stand in the St. Roch Market in 2018.
Egyptian fare naturally shares many flavors that grace Mediterranean and North African tables. But there are some specialties that speak to the countries that shared their history with one of the oldest civilizations in the world.
“Every time we got invaded, our menu expanded,” he says. Torshi’s menu has familiar dishes like baba ghanoush, lamb shawarma and grape leaves. “People know and want these dishes,” he says, but there also are dishes particular to his country.
Order falafel at Torshi, which means pickles in both Arabic and Farsi, and the fried vegetarian rounds spiced with garlic and cumin are made not from the usual ground chickpeas, but from its sister legume, fava beans, which are favored in Egypt’s rich Nile Valley. Koushry is considered Egypt’s national dish and is a widely popular street food. With links to Italian, Indian and Mediterranean cultures, koushry is made with rice, bits of vermicelli, lentils and chickpeas, topped with a tomato sauce rich with sauteed onions and served with hot chili sauce on the side.
A crusted hwwaashi is a baked Egyptian panini, a crispy sandwich filled with a mixture of spiced ground beef and lamb, served with garlicky labneh. Fattah, a dish that originated in the Eastern Mediterranean region, is a favorite at home parties and celebrations. It is a bowl of rice topped with varying ingredients, from lamb or beef to spiced cauliflower, all topped with a garlicky tomato sauce. Egyptian spaghetti, made with either tomato or bechamel sauce, is topped with kofta meatballs with notable flavors of Aleppo pepper, turmeric and star anise. Abohattab’s roasted eggplant is an especially smoky version of the traditional baba ghanoush.
“I’m so happy to introduce New Orleanians to the food from my country,” he says.
Abohattab also is doing some catering, most notably during Ramadan, when members of the local Muslim community fast from sunrise to sunset. They break the fast after dark with a repast of Mediterranean dishes. Ramadan ends with a feast called Eid al-Fitr, which takes place May 12 this year.
“We all are looking forward to that meal,” Abohattab says. “We can’t wait.”
504 Frenchmen St., (504) 949-4115
11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily
Dine-in, takeout and delivery
‘That’s why I call it Radical Joy. This is a radical act for me to basically bet on myself and for other people to believe in my dream.’