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Bringing Couscous from Algeria to Brooklyn via Paris

When studying journalism at Columbia University, Aaron Lee never imagined he would become, in his wife’s words, “a Southwest Georgia boy who’s now the king of couscous in New York.” However, just a few years later, he owns and operates Bar Omar in Williamsburg, a dimly-lit restaurant in Brooklyn with a menu famous for its French-Algerian couscous and tagines.

The restaurant was started to replicate its parent location in Paris, Chez Omar. The French joint was one of the first to introduce North-African dishes to city-dwellers in the late 1970s and its founder and owner, Omar Guerda, is loved and remembered by many. Aaron Lee came into the family business when he married Omar’s daughter, Yasmina Guerda, after they met at Columbia University. The couple opened the New York location in February 2016, and now that Yasmina has stepped aside to work at the United Nations in Nigeria, Aaron is in charge of making sure the restaurant stays true to its Algerian and French roots. The aim of the restaurant is to give the much-loved Parisian brasserie a second home in the United States and the menu stays faithful to family-recipes passed down through the Guerdas for generations. However, Lee aims to bring more than just the dishes; he wants to spread Omar’s idea of them—shared plates filled with heaping portions of homemade food. His primary concern is that his guests get enough to eat and leave “needing to go to bed because they’re so stuffed.”

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Bar Omar owner Aaron Lee (right) and French-Algerian chef Pierre Rougey. © Melody Chan

Bar Omar will be taking part in New York French Restaurant Week which runs from July 3-16. For the occasion, Bar Omar will offer two dinner options for 38 dollars: one called “The Parisian” and the other “L’Etranger,” or “The Foreigner,” a nod to Albert Camus’ novel. We spoke with Aaron Lee and Yasmina Guerda to learn more.

France-Amérique: What does it mean for you to serve North-African dishes and be included in French Restaurant Week?

Aaron Lee: Omar loves to share the fact that couscous is now the second most popular dish in France. It seems fair to say that couscous is a part of French culture. So much of any culture is largely defined by the immigrants who have passed through.

Yasmina Guerda: I am proud that we’re not 100 percent French. We are immigrants contributing to French gastronomy in the United States. It is an interesting position to be in in these turbulent times. In Europe, too, there is a debate on who is European and who is not. The two menus we designed for French Restaurant Week play on this idea.

Tell us more about the dishes you serve at Bar Omar.

Yasmina Guerda: We serve North-African and French dishes. I insist on ‘North-African’ because everybody in America knows about Moroccan food, but nobody knows that a lot of it was created in other places like Tunisia and Algeria. We’re known for couscous, but we also broadened our menu by offering tagines, a few French dishes [such as steak au poivre, or sirloin with pepper cream sauce] as well as the mandatory burger.

So you had to adapt to American culture when you decided to open a location here?

Yasmina Guerda: We added the burger because not everybody in a group is ready to be adventurous and try food from other cultures. We also changed the décor. Chez Omar in Paris is a traditional French brasserie, with furniture from the 1920s and extremely bright lighting. For Bar Omar, we tried to copy the Brooklyn aesthetic with the dark wood and dim lighting.

Aaron Lee: Another thing we added is the bar. This is not common for bistros in France to offer cocktails but it is here. So we put a lot of time into developing a cocktail menu [which includes the Maghreb Mule, the Berber Spritz and the Omartini] and making sure we have a nice, diverse, well-stocked bar.

What do you hope to share with Americans?

Aaron Lee: We want to expose our style of couscous service to as many new people as possible. Our couscous is not rationed or pre-portioned on a plate, it is bottomless. It’s like you are at the family dinner table. You cannot find this type of couscous service anywhere else.

Bar Omar
188 Grand Street
Brooklyn, NY 11221
(718) 388 0411
www.chez-omar.com

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