As a member of the food media, I often get asked to attend soft openings for new restaurants. These are events where restaurateurs invite local press and maybe a few trusted friends and relatives into their space for a test run before the official opening night. Typically, the invited guests do not pay for the meal. The bartenders, servers and kitchen staff get a practice run to perfect timing and presentation. In return, they receive constructive criticism from educated eaters on what works just fine and what needs a bit more work. Food writers get a taste of what’s to come, so they can spread the word if they see fit to do so. But as Pat Benatar would say, no promises, no demands.

I recently attended a soft opening at The Danforth, a plush but neighborhoodly restaurant lounge in Portland’s West End that officially opened to the public last weekend (July 22, to be exact). I will leave the formal restaurant reviews of this place to my colleagues who specialize in that realm of food writing. But I will tell you that I absolutely loved Chef Michael Boomhower’s tomato salad with whipped garlic labne, puffed amaranth and mint. Like all the food I tasted that night (order the boned half chicken and the mushroom polenta!), Boomhower’s inventive combinations and light touch let the local ingredients speak for themselves. The tomatoes were colorful, sweet, and juicy. The puffed grains added crunch and the mint, liveliness. And the swash of labne on the plate reminded me in the very best way possible of Heluva Good! French Onion Dip, a personal summertime favorite.

“Our menu … is anchored by its simplicity,” Boomhower said. “The tomato and labneh dish is a three-ingredient dish, which means every ingredient has to play multiple roles. The rich, fatty profile of labne, its luxurious texture, and bright acidity bring everything we need to complement the Backyard Farms tomatoes.”

Labne (also known as labneh, labna, labni, lebni, or labani; and in Arabic, لبنة) is a soft yogurt-based cheese, similar in texture to cream cheese or mascarpone, made from strained cow’s or goat’s milk yogurt. It’s widely used in Middle Eastern cuisine but, in the U.S., labne is mostly sold in specialty grocery stores or at high-end cheese shops. Yotam Ottolenghi, the renowned Israeli-born British chef, restaurateur and food writer, includes a recipe for it in most of his cookbooks. Sometimes he starts with straight cow’s milk yogurt, other times with a mix of cow’s and goat’s milk yogurt. He advises cooks to strain it through a double layer of cheesecloth and let it hang over a bowl for 24-36 hours, giving it a good squeeze at the end to release even more whey.

Some American recipe writers say you can swap in more widely available Greek-style yogurt, which is also a strained yogurt. But I disagree. If you think of Greek yogurt as strained yogurt, think of labne as super-duperly strained yogurt. It’s smoother, creamier with a more concentrated flavor.

It’s also saltier — salt is added to the yogurt — and has a more concentrated probiotic content, says Israeli-born Tomer Kilchevsky, who with his life and work partner Courtney Jean Perry, operate Shovel and Spoon, a Limington-based operation where they farm sustainably using practices they learned at the now-closed Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont, and produce catered events primarily using the food they grow, always with a bent toward the dishes they learned to make while working in kitchens in Tel Aviv.  Just before the pandemic, an attendee, smitten with the hummus the couple made, asked to buy some. He came back weeks later to buy more and encouraged the couple to make it more widely available.


Labne from Limington-based Shovel and Spoon. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

They did that, first selling their Middle East Coast Hummus at the Portland Co-op, then expanding their distribution to 50 stores and restaurants throughout Maine. The couple next produced Middle East Coast tahini dip, a garlicky sesame spread, for sale. Most recently, in what Kilchevsky says is a natural progression of the line, they started to make and sell labneh (Shovel and Spoon’s preferred spelling). In June, the Maine Center for Entrepreneurs selected it as the best new product of the year in its inaugural Golden Fork Awards.

As Maine consumers search for more ethnic flavors and simple ingredients, Kilchevsky’s recipes are being very well received, said Sue Hanson, who oversees the center’s Cultivator program, which helps Maine food businesses scale up. “Shovel and Spoon’s Middle East Coast product line has experienced substantial growth over the last years, and I expect the trajectory to continue,” Hanson said.

Middle East Coast Labneh, which sells for about $8 for six ounces, is made from organic whole-milk yogurt from The Milkhouse Farm and Creamery in Monmouth. Kilchevsky adds salt and lets the cheese drains for hours. He is experimenting with using the whey that is drained from the process to enrich the soil on his farm. If the salt content harms his crops, though, he said he’ll start raising pigs because they love to lap up the whey.

The product is topped with olive oil and za’atar, a Middle Eastern spice mix containing thyme, cumin, coriander, sesame seeds and sumac. Kilchevsky said his favorite way to eat labne is slathered on warm pita with even more olive oil and za’atar, which is how he ate it as a child in Israel.

Another common way to use labneh is to spread it on the plate under roasted vegetables or cold salads as Boomhower does at The Danforth and I do with a cold Israeli couscous and herb dish.

Columnist Christine Burns Rudalevige spreads a swoosh of labne onto a plate. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Herbed Israeli Couscous with Herbs and Labneh


I failed schmearing in culinary school. “Rudalevige, that’s a plop!” said the instructing chef. “Rudalevige, that’s a straight line!” he exclaimed. “Rudalevige, that’s a dirty plate!” he bellowed.  When you’re following the instructions I’ve given for spreading the labneh on the plate to serve, do as I say, not as I do. Or in the event you misfire, position the pita bread in such a manner to cover your tracks.

Serves 2

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon minced shallot
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon honey
Olive oil
2 cups cooked Israeli couscous
1/4 cup finely chopped herbs (I use a mix of mint and parsley)
1/4 cup finely diced cucumber
Black pepper
4 ounces Middle East Coast Labneh
Sliced tomatoes, to garnish
Warm pita bread, for serving

Combine the vinegar, lemon juice, shallot, mustard and honey in a large bowl. Let the flavors meld for 15 minutes, then whisk in 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add the couscous, herbs and cucumber. Season with salt and pepper.

To serve, use a soup spoon to scoop up half of the labneh and place it at 12 o’clock on a dinner plate. Turn the spoon over, place the back of the spoon into the middle of the labneh, and drag the sauce to counterclockwise to 6 o’clock, curving it like a comma, in a quick but controlled manner. Fill the semi-circle bounded by the labneh with half of the salad. Tuck the pita under one side of the salad, and garnish with tomatoes. Repeat this process to assemble the second plate. Serve immediately.

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