"It literally just fell into my lap," said Scott Zwiezen of his space at Dune, a casual Middle Eastern concept that's been open since January. Zwiezen, who also operates the vegetarian restaurant Elf, originally wanted to open a falafel place in Echo Park but couldn't find an appropriate location.
"A friend came into Elf one day and said, 'there's a For Rent sign' in the window of that space [the old Atwater Grill space]," he said. After some negotiations with the landlord, "I thought it best just to jump on it," Zwiezen said.
It's good that he did. Dune fills a culinary need on Glendale Blvd. in Atwater, a neighborhood with confoundingly inconsistent food, despite its being populated by a demographic that would clearly pay for the good stuff. The lunch at Wild at Canelé has recently breathed some life into Atwater's mainstay "nice" restaurant of the past decade. All'Acqua is the loud, brash newcomer. Largely, though, Atwater eateries fall into the "could potentially be great; for some reason aren't" category (Viet Noodle Bar with it's so-so pho and shelves of dogeared Lonely Planet books, the totally strange Bon Vivant Market, the healthy and largely taste-free Mexican fare at Hugo's Tacos).
Dune bridges the gap between the sit-down places like Canelé or All'Acqua and Tacos Villa Corona, where you get a $3 burrito passed to you through a screen door. The flavors of Dune's plates and sandwiches are bright, fresh, and lean distinctly toward the Levant: lots of garlic, olive oil, lemon, and salt.
The menu at Dune is pared down to the essentials: there are three flagship sandwiches, of which the falafel is the Santa Maria. At $8, it's a glorious, inelegant mess of fried chickpea, fresh herbs, pickled onions, garlicky tahini, and a pinch of crunchy shoestring potatoes. The outsides of the falafel balls (Fun Fact: the word "falafel" roughly translates to "little balls" or "rollers" in Arabic) are satisfyingly crunchy, while the insides are robustly textured without being too dense or mealy.
A pickled beet sandwich ($9) is wonderful mix of savory and sour: capers, olives and feta together with crunchy sliced pickled beets, all held together by the earthiness of a runny, 8-minute egg. The pasture-raised lamb ($10) is the final sandwich offering, and is the one nod towards carnivores on the menu. It features lightly packed balls of ground lamb that are pan fried and wrapped with greens and onions in the house-made flat bread. The lamb balls are juicy, not too greasy, and complemented well with a tangy lemon turmeric yogurt.
The lamb is a strong departure from Zwiezen's vegetarian roots at Elf
The lamb is a strong departure from Zwiezen's vegetarian roots at Elf, something of which he is well aware: "I thought long and hard about that but it's happened enough times at Elf that parties have come in and said, 'I'm really sorry about this but Dad wanted meat so we'll come back next time.' So just to be inclusive, and as limited as our menu is, lamb is rather sustainable, so it actually dovetails nicely with our vegetarian roots."
Zwiezen, who grew up in the small town of Slidell, Louisiana, can pinpoint when he fell in love with Middle Eastern and Eastern Mediterranean flavors: "I can remember, almost to the day, my mind being blown," Zwiezen recalled. "I was a bartender in Denver and I had a Middle Eastern friend who was a good regular at the bar and was talking about Middle Eastern food. I said I'd never tried it and he was shocked: he took me to a place called the Jerusalem Restaurant in Denver. That was the day. I still think about that day. I'd never tasted anything like that before. It instantly became my favorite thing to eat in the world; my favorite flavors, favorite spices. I love it, and everywhere I go, I seek it out."
On the casualness scale, Dune ranks a notch slightly above places like Sqirl — the two spots are very similar in size and feel, but whereas the latter has quite a bit of indoor seating, Dune relies almost exclusively on outdoor tables shared with Kaldi Coffee and The Juice. So, grab a sandwich or two, a plate of sliced Moro blood oranges to cleanse the palate, park yourself at table in the sun on the sidewalk, and welcome this new addition to Atwater's food scene to the neighborhood.
Dune is located at 3143 Glendale Blvd. in Atwater Village. It is open Mon-Sat from 11 a.m. until 8 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. until 6 p.m.