Atlanta Orders In: Aviva by Kameel founder adds love, showmanship to hummus and pita

Takeout from Aviva by Kameel in Midtown: Rosemary chicken with roasted potatoes and tabouleh. Left, a pita pocket with falafel and all the fixings (hummus, baba ghanoush, cabbage salad, Nazareth salad). In the back: Pita, baba ghanoush and mujadara.
Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Caption
Takeout from Aviva by Kameel in Midtown: Rosemary chicken with roasted potatoes and tabouleh. Left, a pita pocket with falafel and all the fixings (hummus, baba ghanoush, cabbage salad, Nazareth salad). In the back: Pita, baba ghanoush and mujadara. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

As a 13-year-old Israeli kid who loved to cook, Kameel Srouji once did a trick in his mother’s kitchen that surprised even him. “One day, I flipped an omelet. I said, ‘holy cow!’” recalls the chef, now 65. “I had a couple of nephews there. They were surprised as can be, so I knew I had something.”

On that day, Srouji, the youngest of 11 children, became a performer. Today, he’s a chef whose ebullience is just as memorable as his smoky baba ghanoush and rosemary chicken. Since arriving in Atlanta in 1981, the owner of Aviva by Kameel has run a series of restaurants featuring the healthy Mediterranean cuisine of his homeland, with a delicious dollop of personality.

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Aviva by Kameel makes vegan baklava in walnut and pistachio; it’s pretty addictive. 
Courtesy of J. Alburl, The Imprints
Caption
Aviva by Kameel makes vegan baklava in walnut and pistachio; it’s pretty addictive. Courtesy of J. Alburl, The Imprints

Credit: John Alburl

Credit: John Alburl

Repeat customers stand in line for lamb and chicken shawarma, hummus and pita, and vegan baklava. It would take a world-class sour puss to stop this happy chef from saying “I love you” or “hello, habibi.” Before COVID-19, he lavished hugs on customers the way he douses salad with olive oil.

And this man loves his olive oil.

A pescatarian who does not eat butter, Srouji swears by the health-giving properties of the natural fat. Every morning, he drinks 3 ounces of it, followed by a glass of lemon water, and a couple of dates with walnuts. Then he makes coffee.

His son, Nas, who partners with his parents at Aviva by Kameel at Peachtree Center and their 5-month-old second store at Coda in Midtown, says the family rarely ate out. But when they did, he and his two sisters were always nervous: They knew their dad was going to interview the chef and ask to see the kitchen.

Srouji started in banking, but he felt nothing for it. At 21, while still in Nazareth, he opened his first restaurant, Aviva Express, named for a beloved sister. Aviva helped him prep dinner service while he worked days at the office. She was his muse, the one who helped him replicate their mother’s cooking, and after four decades, her name endures as part of the brand. (Kameel’s wife, Dana, is the company’s chief financial officer.)

ExploreIntown Atlanta dining news
Kameel Srouji opened his first restaurant, back home in Israel, when he was 21. In 2013, his son, Nas, joined the family business, which includes Aviva by Kameel locations in downtown and Midtown. 
Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Caption
Kameel Srouji opened his first restaurant, back home in Israel, when he was 21. In 2013, his son, Nas, joined the family business, which includes Aviva by Kameel locations in downtown and Midtown. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

Since the ‘80s, Srouji has owned restaurants at Colony Square (Jaffa Gate), on Crescent Street (Cafe Aviva, now South City Kitchen), and Kameel’s Cafe (three locations). For a time, he focused solely on catering, but he missed the customer interaction – the applause – so much he reappeared, at the Peachtree Center food court in 2012.

Nas came on board soon after graduating from the University of Georgia with an economics degree. “At Peachtree Center, we were definitely not an overnight success,” Nas, 30, recalls of the early years. But over time, they developed an enthusiastic following with the business crowd and corporate-catering clients.

One customer, who found Kameel’s via Dragon Con, drives every month from Macon to load a cooler with baba ghanoush, hummus and soup. “One guy, he lost 50 pounds – 50 pounds! – eating at Aviva every single day for one and a half years,” Kameel roars.

A server at Aviva by Kameel in Midtown scoops up a to-go container of mujadara, a dish of creamy lentils and brown rice with fried onions.
Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Caption
A server at Aviva by Kameel in Midtown scoops up a to-go container of mujadara, a dish of creamy lentils and brown rice with fried onions. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

By 2018, the family felt it was time to expand. Coda, which offered a food court set-up with soaring ceilings and a commodious communal outdoor space, was perfect. The pandemic delayed the July 7 opening, but having a second location in a vibrant part of town with day and night traffic has helped shore things up.

When a reader recently asked me what I thought of Aviva, I had no answer. I’d never been.

So on Saturday afternoon, I placed an order online from the food court and lurked at a table while the server assembled it. It didn’t take long for Kameel to appear, and ask if I was the guy from the paper. Next thing you know, he shows me he his favorite brand of California olive oil, then comes out with the giant skillet he uses to fry falafel. (No deep frying here!) The oil is clean, because he changes it every day. Before I can leave, he pours about a cup of olive oil into a to-go container, asks a staffer to wrap it in plastic, and tells me to take it home to try his morning ritual. Let me get back to you on that.

If you’re lucky enough to score a falafel soon after Kameel scoops it out of the pan and dots it with harissa, you’ll see why he’s a star. It’s a warming hug on a cold day, a bite that makes the pandemic a little less somber.

Is there a restaurant you want to see featured? Send your suggestions to ligaya.figueras@ajc.com.

AVIVA BY KAMEEL

Menu: Middle Eastern

Alcohol: No

What I ordered: Rosemary chicken with potatoes and tabbouleh. Falafel pita. Hummus, baba ghanoush and mujadara. The pita, baba and, especially, the mujadara were superb.

Service options: food court dining; takeout and delivery via Uber Eats and DoorDash (DoorDash only at Peachtree Center)

Outdoor space: yes

Mask policy: required, for staff and guests

Address, phone: Peachtree Center: 225 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta; 404-698-3600. Midtown: 756 West Peachtree St. NW, Atlanta; 470-355-6543

Hours: Peachtree Center: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Mondays-Fridays. Midtown: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays. 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays.

Website: avivabykameel.com

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