Neomonde Mediterranean Restaurant, 202 Corcoran Street, #300, Durham, 919-680-1886; neomonde.com
Apparently, downtown Durham didn’t know how much it was missing pita and hummus in its life. Since Neomonde, the popular Raleigh-based Lebanese and Mediterranean cafe, opened in the Unscripted Hotel last October, the lunch lines have been steady, sometimes stretching to the doors on Corcoran Street. Maybe it’s the renewed popularity of the Mediterranean diet or the novelty of a new restaurant, but I’ve never seen so many people—downtown Durhamites, office workers, tourists, families—eagerly debating between pita pocket sandwiches and kebab platters or deliberating over which vibrant dips and salads to choose for their sides.
This Neomonde location is the Saleh family’s third, and their first in Durham. The Salehs, who emigrated from northern Lebanon, first founded Neomonde in Raleigh as a bakery in 1977 before expanding to a restaurant and then adding a Morrisville location. The signatures are all here: commitment to home-style cooking and fresh ingredients, the fast-casual format and friendly service, and of course, the pita. It’s an essential part of every Lebanese meal—my Sita used to bake them fresh for family gatherings—for dipping, yes, but also to use as a utensil, for scooping up mouthfuls of tabbouleh, wrapping around grape leaves or juicy pieces of kebab, or mopping up sauce or dressing. Sliced in half, the pita pocket is the finest sandwich vehicle around, and Neomonde’s pita pocket plate—a half sandwich with two sides and a piece of baklava—is one of the best lunch deals in town. Maybe that explains the lines.
Vibe: The cafeteria-style counter and wall-mounted menus make it fast-casual, but accents such as Moroccan-inspired tiling, geometric pendant lighting, and faux-ceramic plates lend a polished feel. Lunch is buzzing but the line moves quickly, and there are retail shelves of brightly packaged sweets and snacks near the entrance to distract you.
The dining room is divided into two distinct areas: an open area that overlooks CCB Plaza, anchored by a chartreuse banquette, a handful of tables, and several high-tops along the window, and a partially partitioned, more intimate nook in the center with a combination of chairs and wrap-around bench-style seating.
Menu: Classic and contemporary Lebanese, Mediterranean, and Middle Eastern dips, hot and cold sides, and salads line the counter, rounded out with pita pocket sandwiches, kebabs, and man’ousheh, or Lebanese flatbreads. Most meals come with baskets of chewy rounds of pita from the restaurant’s own bakery (bags of which are also for sale). There’s also an assortment of pastries, including several kinds of baklava.
What to order: If it’s your first time, it can be hard to decide what to order—but a pita pocket, a kebab plate, or a plate of four sides are all winners.
Let’s start with the sides. To me, a plate of Lebanese soul food looks like this: hummus, finished with a pool of olive oil and olives; baba ghanouj, a smoky eggplant dip; grape leaves, tidy parcels of rice steamed in lemon juice; and tabbouleh, a bright parsley, tomato, and bulgur salad. The sleeper hit is the mjadarah, lentils and rice topped with deeply caramelized onions, their lacy edges flirting with burnt. And though I was dubious, the cilantro-jalapeño hummus is very good, with an herbaceous blast and lingering spice.
For a pita pocket, it’s a toss-up between the “better than Beirut” chicken shawarma, a street food classic of tender chicken with blackened edges; or the falafel, craggy, fried pucks of parsley-flecked ground chickpeas that are fluffy-yet-sturdy inside (these can also be ordered a la carte). The fillings are tucked into pillowy pita with diced tomatoes, pickles, and tahini dressing, but you can doctor up your sandwich with extras such as bright pink pickled turnips and toum, also known here as garlic whip.
On the kebab front, I’m partial to the kafta, grilled skewers of minced lamb redolent of garlic, cumin, and coriander, plated with a tangle of sautéed onions and a dollop of toum. Tear off a piece of pita and fold it around a bite of kafta, dip it in toum, and scoop up some onions for a composed bite. The small kebab platter, one kebab with two sides, will satisfy modest appetites, so upgrade to two kebabs if you’re hungry.
Don’t skip dessert. Of course, no one’s baklava will ever be as good as my Sita’s, but Neomonde’s walnut or pistachio are both solid, a scattering of crushed nuts peeking out from the flaky, buttery layers of phyllo dough (though I wished for a touch more syrup and perfume of rose water). My family used to fight over the crispy corner pieces, and here you can pick up a box of “ends” for a bargain.
Price: Plates are $10-$12; a half pita pocket is $5; single kebabs are $5; dine-in à la carte sides are $3.75, take-home tubs start at $5; man’ousheh are $7.
Perfect for: A quick, healthy bite downtown; vegetarian small-plates feast; weeknight take-out; catering your next party.