Shawarma gets a fine dining touch at Spice Brothers in the East Village


(New York Jewish Week) — From halal carts to kosher cafes, there’s no shortage of places in New York City to grab some shawarma. But you’ve probably never had shawarma the way Spice Brothers do it.

At their East Village ode to Middle Eastern street food, the restaurant’s co-owners, Lior Lev Sercarz and David Malbequi, use upscale ingredients (meats from Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors, fluffy pita from New Jersey’s Angel Bakery) and draw upon their backgrounds working in Michelin-starred restaurants. In fact, that’s exactly where the pair first met more than two decades ago: They were chefs at Daniel Boulud’s flagship restaurant Daniel, where Malbequi was Lev Sercarz’s boss.

“Throughout the 20-some odd years that we’ve known each other, we always kind of joked that maybe one day we’d do something together,” Lev Sercarz, 52, told New York Jewish Week.

In late 2022, the pair finally got their opportunity. Malbequi, who runs David’s Cafe, a French-American restaurant on St. Mark’s Place, alerted Lev Sercarz that there was an upcoming vacancy next door. “I came down and kind of as a joke I said, ‘Well, maybe it’s time to do something and maybe we should do shawarma,’” Lev Sercarz said. “And he was like, ‘Oh, that sounds cool.’”

The idea may have originated in jest, but immediately something about it “felt right,” Lev Sercarz said.

“I think it was just both of our cravings for a good shawarma, and the ability to bring our know-how to this on-paper simple dish to make — that’s why we went with that,” he added. “We wanted something that’s fast-casual, no table service, it’s good all day long, and shawarma was it.”

The result is a small restaurant that offers “destination” shawarma, according to New York Magazine’s Grub Street. The compact menu features items like Shawarma East — a beef-and-lamb shawarma topped with amba (a Baghdadi mango condiment), tahini and a herbed labneh (yoghurt cheese) sauce — and Shawarma West, a spiced chicken shawarma topped with amba, tahini and harissa — a hot pepper paste — as well as sabich and falafel pitas and a host of sides.

As for the restaurant’s name, Lev Sercarz said it’s a nod to his two sons, whom he calls “the spice brothers.”

Lev Sercarz, who grew up on a kibbutz in the Galilee, moved to New York City in 2002 and opened his Hell’s Kitchen “spice atelier,” La Boite, in 2011. “If you want to make good food and beverages you need to know about spices, and I would like to help you know more about it, whether you’re a home cook, whether you’re a professional,” he told JTA in 2017.

La Boite’s signature spice blends inspire and inform the Spice Brothers menu, said Lev Sercarz. He and Malbequi — who hails from Paris —  make liberal use of La Boite’s premium blends in their recipes, including using their Shabazi spice blend on their steak fries and their D’Vora spice blend in their falafel.

In partnership with Bar Lab Hospitality — which also launched Williamsburg’s hip Israeli eatery, Mesiba, along with a host of bars and restaurants nationwide — Spice Brothers opened in mid-September, just weeks before Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel. Lev Sercarz said that other than some inflammatory Instagram comments and accusations of appropriation, he hasn’t seen any negative effects on his business, despite the tensions that have surfaced at other Israeli and Jewish establishments around town as Israel’s war with Hamas continues. There are customers who specifically come to show their support, Lev Sercarz said, and there are plenty of others who aren’t aware of the connection between Spice Brothers and Israel.

Since the war began, Lev Sercarz — who joined other New York-based Jewish food celebrities for a $27,000 fundraiser for Israel just days after Oct. 7 — said he has deleted some negative comments on the Spice Brothers’ Instagram. “I don’t think they came from people who really wanted to engage in a conversation,” he said. “I’m all about conversation and not agreeing as long as we can have a valid conversation and that wasn’t the case.”

For Lev Sercarz, who started cooking when he was in the Israeli army, much of what he and Malbequi share isn’t just a passion for food and ingredients — the pair is serious about hospitality, too. This is evident when you see Malbequi cooking behind the counter and Lev Sercarz kibitzing with customers in both Hebrew and English, helping to clear their trays. And despite its compact footprint, Spice Brothers features homey touches like a disco ball, and a blackboard where visitors can write their names and well wishes and a curated playlist featuring Middle Eastern hip-hop.

“We just thought about it, like, this is a place we would want to come and hang out,” Lev Sercarz said. “So it has the music that you like, it has the vibe that you like, the food that you like.”

“I think that speaking to a lot of chef friends of mine for years, why wouldn’t you serve at your restaurant what you like to eat at home?” he added. “So, for me, whether I’m at home or here it’s the same. And I think people feel that.”