Made from sesame seeds, tahini is a sauce or paste (similar to other nut butters) that is widely used all over the world and has fast become a staple here in the United States. Though we most commonly see tahini used as an ingredient in that chick-pea manna from the heavens, a.k.a hummus, its uses are endless, from a base for salad dressings and dips to adding a creamier texture to soups and stews. Like many nuts and seeds, it's so versatile; you can even use tahini in desserts, whether it be a base for ice cream or combined with syrups to make decadent toppings.
In New Orleans, you'll most often discover tahini at one of many Mediterranean restaurants around town, from the hummus at Mona's Cafe to the baba ghanoush at Cleo's downtown. But you're bound to discover it in other items on the menu because it's as prevalent in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine as mayonnaise is in a deli.
For example, Uptown on Magazine Street, there's an Israeli-inspired spot dubbed Tal's Hummus, right across the street from Le Bon Temps Roule. Owned by Tal Sharon, a restaurateur and cook who used to bake at Doris Metropolitan, Tal's Hummus has a large menu of hummus, salads, soups, platters, and sandwiches. The white and whole wheat pita bread is baked fresh daily and stuffed with things like chicken liver, falafel, chicken, and cauliflower. My favorite is the grilled beef kabob that's slathered with tahini and stuffed with parsley,
salad, and pickles.
Another obvious spot to find tahini is Saba, the fairly new restaurant launched by James Beard Award-winning chef Alon Shaya. Located in the building that formerly housed Kenton's Restaurant on the corner of Magazine Street and Nashville Avenue, Saba offers all kinds of tahini dishes, from tahini itself, served as a dip with freshly baked pita from a wood-fired oven, to roasted asparagus with amba (like a pickled mango relish) tahini and almonds. At brunch, they feature fluffy pancakes with rose-flavored tahini cane syrup and butter. Though I have yet to try it, I heard in the fall, Saba serves a roasted apple with tahini and sunflower seeds. I simply can't wait till September rolls around again!
Not-so-obvious spots offering tahini include the NOCHI Café by Gracious, a café on the bottom floor of the new culinary school in the old arts building in the Warehouse District. Chef Michael Doyle is whipping up his usual creative culinary delights that often feature a unique mixture of global cuisines, like a South Coast Mezze (appetizer) with beet and tahini dip, Louisiana field pea salad, carrot hummus, chile oil, whipped feta, and pickled okra served with multigrain batard or short baguette. The current menu also has a lamb and harissa sausage sandwich on Gracious Bakery's wonderful ciabatta bread, with yogurt, zhoug (spicy cilantro sauce), arugula, and pickled onion, served with tahini
French Quarter fine-dining restaurant Doris Metropolitan on Chartres Street offers much more than an elegant atmosphere and prime USDA steaks. Their appetizers feature dishes like an artichoke flower salad and tuna tartare, but my eye is on the Baladi Eggplant, which is essentially charred eggplant drizzled with tahini, tomato concasse (peeled, seeded, and crushed tomatoes), pine nuts, and sumac.
Considering tahini's ingredients and versatility, it's not surprising to find it at health-conscious spots like The Daily Beet in the new South Market District. Located on the corner of Girod and S. Rampart Streets, this café serves "salads, grain bowls, cold-pressed juices, and more," including a gorgeous Beet Hummus Toast (using Bellegarde country loaf bread) with roasted beet hummus, cucumber tahini slaw, crumbles of feta cheese, toasted pumpkin seeds, and smoked paprika.
Finally, although I try not to talk about them too much (but it's difficult because the menu is so varied and original), Turkey and the Wolf has its own twist on tahini. Their house-made vanilla soft-serve ice cream can have a variety of different toppings, but most interesting would have to be the generous drizzle of tahini and date molasses.