MOKO HIRAYAMA AND OMAR KOREITEM BLAZE A TRAIL FROM TOKYO TO BEIRUT AND BEYOND IN THEIR EXQUISITE PARIS CAFÉ
STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHS: ROHAN KAMICHERIL
o walk into Mokonuts during lunch on a weekday is to enter a riot of heavenly sensations. The small café is filled with the aroma of something roasted and caramelized, and, just beneath it, something warm and baked. There’s a vibrant herbal note in the air, too: spices and citrus, unmistakably, but which? Thyme? Maybe. Lemon perhaps. Definitely a bright top note of something delicious and pickled. Is that the deep, earthy smell of miso? And amid all this delicious din there’s the well-coordinated ruckus in the kitchen, where the husband-and-wife duo of Omar Koreitem and Moko Hirayama are hard at work producing some of the most delicious food in Paris.
Squeezed into a bright and handsomely outfitted space on a side street off the hectic Rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine at the southern fringe of Paris’s Eleventh Arrondissement, Mokonuts is a gorgeous accumulation of culinary influences, a palm-sized marvel. Arriving at the café during the lunch rush demonstrates how readily Parisians have adopted this neighborhood jewel as their own. The compact space is alive with the chatter and laughter of diners and the periodic sound of Hirayama reciting lunch orders out loud to Koreitem who is bent over a stove just behind her.
Mokonuts is a gorgeous accumulation of culinary influences, a palm-sized marvel.
The couple’s unique blend of backgrounds comes together in a compellingly hybrid cuisine. He was born in Lebanon and grew up both in Paris and New York, she was raised between San Francisco and Tokyo before moving to New York, where the two met—the menu borrows freely from all these corners and beyond.
A plate of veal meatballs served with roasted potatoes and peas sounds like the kind of hearty fare you’d ordinarily flee from on a hot summer day, but in Koreitem’s delicate rendition it is light, springlike, almost verdant. The light grating of
fiore sardo on top is a disorienting and luscious touch: the deep, caramel-like flavor of the Sardinian sheep's milk cheese gives the dish a unique and unplaceable appeal. It looks Italian but it tastes like something else altogether.
“I try to go back to Lebanon in my food,” Koreitem says, but then laughs and adds, “but via Sicily and Italy.” Many of the plates on offer are paeans to the interconnectedness of great flavors, no matter where they come from. A bowl of petite cockles cooked with ‘nduja and lemon are sweet and tender with a subtle bite from the rich, spicy calabrese sausage; a bowl of tart, cool labneh comes cradling a golden pool of olive oil, scattered with fragrant zaatar and sprigs of fresh summer savory. The bonito, served on a bed of just-cooked summer squash, freekeh, and a bright-green zucchini purée, seems like it’s been cooked through some miraculous, otherworldly convection: tender and mild on the outside and a shy, rare pink within.
As the lunch crowd dissipates, the activity in the kitchen gets only moderately slower. Hirayama, manning a stand mixer by the counter, gives instructions to a young stagiare, interrupting her directions frequently to interject a quick, cheerful, “Salut!” to neighborhood types passing by the front door. In front of her there’s a broad expanse of cookies. Craggy, dense, and rich, they come in a checkerboard assortment of flavors and have developed something of a cult following among the café's patrons. With varieties like fennel and preserved lemon or confit black olive and white chocolate chip, they don’t shy away from the unusual.
To taste them, though, is to suddenly, for the first time, realize the underlying harmonies between these discordant-seeming ingredients. The confit black olives, chewy and rich, give the cookies a saline intensity that works in an unexpected and wonderful way with the mild, rich white chocolate. The fennel-and-preserved-lemon cookies (a pairing Hirayama first dreamed up after a trip to Sardinia) are aromatic and just on the verge of savory, tasting like an evilly delicious counterpart to sweet amaretti.
“I don’t know how I come up with the flavor combinations, to be honest,” Hirayama says, staring thoughtfully into the distance as if looking for an answer among the myriad to-do lists and appointments she has on her mind. “They just sort of pop into my head. I don’t like desserts that are just sweet. I like desserts that have more of a flavor to them—not just a beautiful appearance.”
"I don’t like desserts that are just sweet. I like desserts that have more of a flavor to them—not just a beautiful appearance.”
This philosophy pops up in all aspects of the café—from the simple, ingredient-driven dishes that still manage to look exquisite to the congenial coffee-shop setting, bustling and friendly but with a certain laidback elegance. Also true to the casual but refined aesthetic is the wine list, which steers clear of bold-face names in favor of smaller biodynamic and organic producers whose wines are distinctive and full of personality.
The pair also take pains to showcase local produce on their menus, a practice that has proved unexpectedly hard in Paris, where the mania for local, biodynamic farming hasn’t caught on to quite the same degree as it has in many major American cities. “You go to the Ferry Plaza Market in San Francisco and you see the most amazing tomatoes,” Koreitem says. “You’ll see thirty or forty different varieties.” In Paris, by comparison, he complains, even the ubiquitous farmers’ markets that fill the city’s plazas get the bulk of their produce from large-scale conventional farms—a fact that few shoppers are aware of. “There’s just not a huge interest in heirloom varieties,” he says, sighing.
Vegetables from small farms in the Île-de-France appear everywhere on the menu, sitting comfortably alongside ingredients from much farther afield.
The surest cure for this kind of apathy, though, is a delicious meal, and Mokonuts provides a convincing argument in favor of farm-fresh produce. Vegetables from small farms in the Île-de-France appear everywhere on the menu, sitting comfortably alongside ingredients from much farther afield. Koreitem brandishes a narrow bottle filled with a cloudy red liquid, tilting it this way and that to show me the thick slurry inside. “Verjus,” he proclaims, though it looks totally unlike the clear wine-like liquid I’m familiar with. This verjus, known in Lebanon as aseer hosrum, is the tart, unclarified juice of unripe grapes. Koreitem explains that he often uses it just as one would use vinegar or lemon, but that he has to bring bottles of it back with him from Lebanon.
Hirayama packs up my order of a half-dozen cookies as I make my goodbyes. Does she have a favorite cookie? What about him? She glances back at Koreitem. “Well, his favorite keeps changing,” she says. “No, no,” Koreitem quickly counters. “The multigrain. The multigrain is my favorite,” he says, mimicking a cookie-breaking motion with his hands to indicate the crunchy, cereal-rich cookie. Are the black-olive cookies popular? Hirayama squints, hesitating for a moment before saying, “Some people just don’t get it. And some people—it’s the only thing they’ll buy! If we don’t have it they won’t even buy anything else! No chocolate-chip, no peanut-butter.”
“I mean, does it make sense to have a plate of labneh with a chocolate-chip cookie or with a halvah cake?”
Koreitem reappears over Hirayama’s shoulder to try to explain the unlikely alchemy at work in her cookies and, indeed, everywhere in the café. “I mean, does it make sense to have a plate of labneh with a chocolate-chip cookie or with a halvah cake?” He shrugs. “Maybe not, but it works!”
In theory it should be hard to justify how the many elements that Hirayama and Koreitem take in hand could possibly work together—Middle Eastern, Japanese, Italian, Mediterranean, French, biodynamic, local, family-run—it’s a long list that seems to keep growing. But once you’ve joined the convivial, delighted crowd of diners at Mokonuts, you’ll find, too, that it’s hard to argue with its easy charm and its winning, cosmopolitan take on new French food.