Asian cuisines of all sorts have taken turns in the spotlight for going on a decade — from Thai, Korean and Filipino, to haute Chinese and most recently, Indian. But now, the Middle East is finally getting some love with the ascendance of Israeli food, celebrated at a diverse swath of eateries from casual lunch counters to tony hotel restaurants.
Einat Admony has undoubtedly been the most high profile chef to focus on the fare of her native country — starting with a fleet of falafel trucks and the West Village café, Taim, and expanding to a still-evolving dynasty that includes the homestyle Balaboosta (Yiddish for “perfect housewife”), the slick, internationally-influenced Bar Bolonat, serving small plates like Squid with lamb bacon, black chickpeas and amba aioli, the short-lived Combina, which had a Spanish twist (think baharat-spiced Marcona Almonds and Malawach Churros), and an upcoming couscous establishment, Kish-Kash, specializing in fluffy bowls of semolina prepared entirely in house.
And while she may have been amongst the first to stock her NYC kitchens with harissa, tahini and zhug, she’s hardly been the last. In fact, the pro-Israeli movement has really taken off in Brooklyn, with the opening of Glasserie back in 2013 (currently helmed by Eldad Shem Tov, whose notable menu additions include Lamb Babka, Chicken Kibbe with English peas, and Harissa Rabbit Kohlrabi Tacos), and the debut of the Shuka Truck in 2014; a mobile eatery and Smorgasburg vendor, focused on the breakfast favorite of eggs poached in a tomato and hot pepper-based sauce. Then there’s Batata — a cozy Windsor Terrace bistro known for pita pockets of sweet potato-based Falafel and Schnitzel and coconut milk waffles — and “Top Chef” Ilan Hall’s Israeli BBQ spot, Esh; where you’ll find rustic, wood fire-grilled items like Ribs with smoked date syrup, Babaganoush with pita, Lamb Shoulder with zhug (a Yemenite hot sauce) and shawarma-spiced Beef.
But the most recent action has definitely been back in Manhattan, thanks to the 2015 launch of Timna — where Zizi Limona-alum, Nir Mesika, serves pots of Kubaneh bread with crushed tomatoes and yogurt, Tzatziki Tartare made from minced lamb, sour cream, lime powder and bulgur, and Bedouin Octopus paired with grilled pickled cabbage and black eggplant puree — and of course, Dizengoff, from the pride of Philly, Mike Solomonov. Thanks to his new Chelsea outpost, there’s no need to leave New York for gold standard plates of Hummus, paved with seasonal toppings like romanesco and raisins and lamb neck and rhubarb, as well as the soulful salads referred to as Salatim; think Moroccan spiced carrots, nubbly tabbouleh and salt-baked beets.
And if any eatery has the power to translate our passion for Israeli fare to the masses, it’s Green Fig in YOTEL New York — located steps away from tourist-thronged Times Square. The in-house restaurant in the luxury hotel is headed up by Gabriel Israel (formerly of the Shuka Truck), and plies diners with Mezze scooped up with laffa bread, Om Kalthoum Skirt Steak seasoned with baharat and strewn with fava beans, and the so-called “Jaffa to Tijuana;” pomegranate and mustard seed-glazed pork belly, teamed with Mexican corn and a chewy Jerusalem bagel.
So move over sriracha and gochujang; because zhug and harissa are adding serious heat to NYC’s dining scene.