“I’m trying to bring a touch of home to Auckland,” says chef Elie Assaf (ex-Milenta, ex-Williams Eatery), who opens his new venture, Lebanese Grocer, today.
Find it on Pitt Street, just off Karangahape Road, in a site formerly occupied by Renkon. It looks completely different now, with a deep-olive-green exterior and a huge Saint Leo black marble counter dominating the inside space, along with the chrome open kitchen. Along the exposed brick walls are shelves lined with cans, jars and bottles of Lebanese pantry staples, and there’s an operational fireplace down one end.
Assaf says he had always wanted to do something of his own – an expression of his heritage and who he is as a person. “A lot of it is based on nostalgia – me just trying to bring a little bit of what reminds me of home closer to me. Especially seeing as I’m away from my parents at the moment.” Assaf’s family lives in Wellington; they moved to New Zealand from Beirut when he was 10 years old, and his parents own long-running Wellington favourite Phoenician Cuisine.
Stop by Lebanese Grocer to grab house-made hummus, baba ganoush, sausages and other deli goods from the fridge. All the shelved products are based around what you’d find in a Lebanese household – “what you’d find in my mum’s cupboard”, says Assaf.
There’s rose water and blossom water, Cortas canned fava beans and chickpeas, large jars of Durra pickles, Zwan luncheon meat, Lebanese olive oil, and other bits and pieces for a well-stocked pantry.
There’s also a concise daily menu for eating in – if you can nab one of the 10 stools along the counter or a table outside – or takeaway.
There will always be “Elie’s special” shawarma, which will change daily, and falafel. Sides include tabbouli, a pickle plate, and trays of glossy ba’alawa (or baklava) displayed on the counter. On opening day, there are walnut and cashew-pistachio versions. Lebanese coffee and mint tea are available if you’re sitting in, but the whole idea is based predominantly around quick service and takeaway capabilities.
In coming days and weeks, you might walk in and see trays of fatayer (savoury pies) and Lebanese pizza joining the ba’alawa on the counter. The kitchen will also be geared towards producing wholesale and catering options.
Assaf works only with “really small producers”, or directly with farmers for vegetable products. You can buy veggies, including Heirloomacy tomatoes, to take home with you, as well as New Zealand-made boutique staples like Honey by the Sea.
The plan is for the offering to evolve – keep an eye out for dining events, cooking classes and an expanded restaurant in the rear courtyard – with Assaf keen for Lebanese Grocer to become a “place of education” as well as a daily neighbourhood go-to.
65 Pitt Street, Auckland
Wed to Sat 9am–4pm, with the occasional late night
This article was updated on July 6, 2023 to reflect that Assaf is no longer working at Milenta.