Jane Stern: Vivianne’s Middle-Eastern Food is where salad is a full meal

When food lovers try to top each other when comparing little-known restaurants, the conversation can grow heated.

These conversations usually start with the description, “It’s a real hole the wall.” Among foodies this is not an insult, but the highest praise, because it translates to “tourists haven’t found it and the food is authentic.”

I can’t think of a better description of Vivianne’s. This tiny bastion of Middle Eastern food resides in a strip mall not far from Danbury Hospital. In fact I think I learned about it from my gastroenterologist, who believes (I can’t blame him) that talking about restaurants and his other hobby, expensive watches, is a way more interesting topic than my bowels.

The “hole-in-the-wall” known as Vivianne’s is a storefront tucked away in a strip mall. It shares parking spaces with a hair salon, an auto parts store and a laundry.

Vivianne’s is half a grocery store and half a deli. The deli supplies the takeout meals you can order and the grocery store is chocked full of uncommon things used in Middle Eastern recipes. Here you can buy pomegranate molasses or the complex curry mix called za’atar.

I usually do not come here to fill my shopping basket, rather to fill my belly. I can’t say that the dishes offered are unique, you can find most of them at other Middle Eastern stores around town, but they will likely not be as authentically homemade and tasty.

I could happily never move beyond the appetizers on the menu. I am smitten with Middle Eastern pies, not American dessert ones made from apples or blueberries but the ones that look like Mexican empanadas, filled and crimped at the outside edge to seal them.

Each pie neatly fits in the palm of your hand. If you plan on dining there soon, do not forget to tell the person behind the counter to heat them.

The pies on the daily menu are spinach pies, meat pies, pepper pies and za’atar pies. There is no single “correct” recipe for the latter. Usually, za’atar is a blend of savory dried herbs such as oregano, marjoram or thyme, to which is added earthy spices like cumin and coriander. My favorite way to eat za’atar at Vivianne’s is have it baked on fresh pita bread, and then dip it into a fresh yogurt salad with cucumbers, garlic and mint leaves.

I must confess that salads rarely excite me. A typical restaurant “side salad” is stomach room wasted. I appreciate a good Cobb salad and a warm bacon and spinach one, but I usually ignore them. I do not ignore the salads on the menu at Vivianne’s nor at any authentic Middle Eastern restaurant. Here, salads are a full meal. My favorite is fattouch salad. Many cultures (such as Italy with its panzanella salad) have salads based on hunks of (often stale) bread. The breads act like croutons, soaking up the dressing and adding a nice crunch. At Vivianne’s you get a selection of all vegetables in the kitchen, hunks of pita bread and a tangy, lemony Lebanese dressing.

Despite its off-putting name, try the foul moudamas. There’s nothing foul here, just large squishy fava beans flavored with olive oil, lemon and garlic.

If you unsure if fava beans will thrill you, request the tabbouli salad, a mix of soaked bulgar wheat, finely chopped parsley, tomatoes, mint leaves, onion, oil and lemon. Like hummus, made from chickpeas, tahini, garlic and lemon juice, tabbouli is one of the pillars of Lebanese cuisine.

The combination plates at Vivianne’s hold a large amount of food and let you choose from many categories. I adore the lamb kabob which comes with rice, a nice combination salad and hummus My other favorite are the little loaves of baked kibbe that resemble footballs. Kibbe is a mix of bulgar rice, onions and finely ground meat. They are hearty without being stomach sinkers.

At Vivianne’s there are also many great items that can be stuffed in a pita bread. The pita bread is fresh and of a much higher quality than the supermarket versions. The simplest version is a stuffed pita bread is with tomato and lettuce and hummus. A heartier dish is pita stuffed with falafel. Falafel are deep brown fried balls of seasoned ground chick peas, and a third option is a pita stuffed with kibbe. Kibbe is ground beef or lamb seasoned with parsley and spices. Add a spoon or two of hummus and some sliced onions and you will get a beautiful dish.

The menu here is “mix and match.” You pretty much call the shots on your combo plate or what goes into the pita. If you break it down, Middle Eastern dishes often share many of the same spices and ingredients, so it is hard to go wrong. I hope by the time I go to Vivianne’s, there are not tour buses outside and that it is still a “hole in the wall.”

Vivianne’s Middle-Eastern Food

36 Tamarack Ave., Danbury


Restaurant columnist Jane Stern co-authored the popular “Roadfood” guidebook series.