Nabila’s, a Mother-Son Collab, Brings Lebanese Home Cooking to Brooklyn

The restaurant's namesake, Nabila Farah, puts finishing touches on knafeh ashta, or shredded filo with Lebanese custard. | Credit: Kathryn Sheldon

15 years of working on Wall Street took a serious toll on Mike Farah. So he resigned from his finance firm and joined forces with his mother, Nabila, a Lebanon-born culinary whiz with catering experience. It’s why Farah named his debut restaurant, which opened in Brooklyn’s Carroll Gardens this May, after his beloved mom. “The biggest risk was never doing it,” Farah says, describing his labor of love.

Beirut-inspired accents dress the interiors at Nabila’s. | Credit Kathryn Sheldon

Runs in the family

Though he’d grown up visiting the restaurants that his father, an architect, invested in around the Washington, D.C. area—where they lived—Farah couldn’t claim much prior hospitality industry experience. His mother, however, brought serious cooking chops, courtesy of her own mother and grandmother, when she left civil war-stricken Lebanon in 1987. 

After Nabila got a divorce in her late 40s, she also took a risk, opening a small storefront in D.C. to offer homestyle catering. Twenty years in, she’s hyper successful and hasn’t once tried to market her business. At 68, Nabila doesn’t know about Instagram and doesn’t care, according to Farah.

Before opening Nabila’s, Farah spent 18 months shuttling between New York and D.C., gleaning what he could from his mother’s business, understanding the food, cooking, and all the inner workings of her success. In 2020, he selected a charming corner space in Carroll Gardens—where he now resides with his wife and two children—to bring his vision to life. “This is a very personal project for me, I [wanted] it in my community,” he says.

True to tradition

Nabila’s bridges a gap between Farah’s American identity and his Lebanese heritage. Archways, tiles, and Beirut-inspired accents, in deep shades of aubergine and contrasting pale aqua, are aesthetic nods to Lebanon—but none of the design elements feel out of place in this pocket of northwest Brooklyn. 

Nabila’s malouf, or cabbage rolls stuffed with seasoned beef, rice, garlic, and lemon. | Credit: Kathryn Sheldon

Nabila’s menu, which steers clear of tired fusion fare, features Lebanese comfort food instead. The malouf, or cabbage rolls stuffed with seasoned beef, rice, garlic, and lemon are so authentic, they might as well be from a kitchen table in Beirut. Loubieh, a slow-cooked, green bean and tomato stew, which rarely makes an appearance in restaurants, is also served here. The rice hashwi, part of every Lebanese grandmother’s repertoire, is luscious, cooked with chicken stock and ground beef, accompanied by roast chicken. Every dish on the menu is classic, intriguing, familiar, and flavorful but still affordable—almost all the items are under $20. “You’re not seeing the familiar stuff people associate with Middle Eastern food [like] falafel, kebabs, and shawarma,” says Farah, describing Nabila’s soulful and singular approach to home cooking. 

Baked beef dumplings in a yogurt, mint, and pine nut sauce at Nabila’s. | Credit: Kathryn Sheldon

As a duo, Farah and his mother couldn’t be more different: She’s an expressive and impulsive personality, while he’s much more deliberative. But they balance each other in different, helpful ways.

“I’m very emotional and thrilled,” Nabila says, via handwritten letter, of opening a restaurant with her son. “I have complete confidence in him. He is smart, meticulous, and likes perfection.” 

Rounding out the Nabila’s restaurant team is chef de cuisine Luis Ahuet, whose impressive resume includes stints at Meadowsweet, Eleven Madison Park, and Jean Georges.

After a lifetime cooking without formal recipes, Nabila showed Ahuet the ropes, allowing him to bring his precision and process to her intuition. “Every Lebanese mother believes they’re the greatest cook in the world,” Farah says. “But she distinguishes herself with her cooking.” 

Melissa Kravitz Hoeffner is a writer based in Brooklyn, where she lives with her wife and rescue dog. You can follow her on Instagram @melissabethk and Twitter @melissabethk