Restaurants all over the country are struggling to strike the perfect balance between the casual meal and gourmet experience, hoping to showcase their commitment to fine food but still stay within customers' comfort zone when it comes to affordability. At his new Beverly Hills restaurant named Momed, owner Alex Sarkissian hoped the environment would showcase the artisan-quality Middle Eastern dishes like manaeesh (Lebanese flatbread) and savory boreks (Turkish cheese pastries), but still provide a flexible, food-focused environment that customers could visit at any time of day.
"The main attraction at Momed is the food and all the color that is associated with it," says Sarkissian, a former exec at Dolce & Gabbana. "We didn't want anything to distract the customer from that principle." The key, according to architects at Johnston Marklee, was to create a modern environment that places all the focus on the unique, colorful ingredients, including a marketplace where customers could take the Momed experience home.
With Sarkissian's direction in mind, principals Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee were able to step beyond the typical Middle Eastern stereotypes. "Many of the choices that were made for Momed were outside of the expectations of what a Mediterranean restaurant should look and feel like," says Johnston. This includes the extremely unconventional choice to render the interiors almost completely white. "We wanted the palette of different shades of white and neutral materials to really embolden the visually intense Mediterranean cuisine that are typically very vibrant, fresh, and rich with color," says Johnston. "We believed that incorporating colors in the space with a tradition of food that is already influenced so much by color would detract from both components." There's a bar of white Mink-cut marble and even a custom-made white espresso machine.
This meant the designers were able to incorporate Middle Eastern cues in a very unique, subtle way. The industrial duct work that barrels along the ceiling was made to look like a contemporary tapestry, looping down into the space. Delicate patterns of lights and circular ducts subtly reference traditional Mediterranean motifs by being grouped together into patterns throughout the space. They also used another strong and recognizable element of the region—tile—to create a wide border that wraps onto the walls.
One of the goals was to draw diners throughout the space, namely into the back half of the restaurant, where a specialty bakery and bar serves as a gathering space throughout the day. "The different zones of the restaurant were planned to be busy at various times throughout the day much like a large scale urban marketplace," says Johnston. Filtering people into this back area and through the marketplace further activates the restaurant and makes it feel bustling and full at any time of the day.
More and more restaurants have been handing over a sliver of their space to sell the ingredients they serve, a trend that Johnston thinks drives customer loyalty. "Acclaimed restaurateurs and chefs do extensive research into the sources of their special ingredients, and often restaurant patrons want to have access these specialty ingredients themselves—unique items that can't be found in a regular grocery store or even a more upscale market." This gave the white-on-white palette another place to shine, as Johnston and Lee chose to feature the products as a design element in and of themselves, carefully organizing the colorful and unique packaging into its own graphic patterns.
Plus, says Sarkissian, the marketplace rounds out the consumer experience. He points to the wall of the open kitchen, where a glass shelf showcases the technicolor jars of the spices used in our cooking. "The Momed experience is one of discovery of new foods and tastes," says Sarkissian. "This can take place both on the plate as well as on the shelves—and eventually enabling you to try to cook some of the dishes at home with ingredients supplied from the store."
Location: 233 Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills
Date it opened: April 20, 2010
Chef and cuisine: Matt Carpenter, Modern Eastern Mediterranean. Combinations of ingredients and centuries-old cooking methods and techniques that celebrate the crossroads of the spice trade. Dishes are inspired by flavors and ingredients from Greece, Turkey, Cyprus, Lebanon, Morocco, Egypt and Israel.
Designer: Johnston Marklee
Design brief: Create a modern and casual dining room, open kitchen, and marketplace for a new restaurant concept that combines varied Mediterranean cuisines on a busy Beverly Hills streetscape.
What went before: Rosti's Tuscan Kitchen
Design highlights: "Chandeliers" made from circular air vents are intertwined with lights and multiplied by the long mirrored wall that extends the entire dining room.
Special features: A large glass case near the front of the restaurant displays freshly prepared salads and daily mezze—simple lighting draws your eyes instantly to the bright colors of the produce, which include beets, asparagus, chickpeas, baba ganoush, and hummus. A large wood-burning oven serves oven-baked eggs, manaeesh (Lebanese flatbread) and pide (Turkish flatbread).