Here are three sizzling restaurants to consider for glorious eating this summer in the city. With special thanks to dining companion and food trends guru, Michael Whiteman.
I've written about the “new Israeli cuisine” since 1996, with a seminal article in the New York Times called “A Region’s Tastes Commingle in Israel.” I once called this food the “greatest story never told.” The good news, of course, is that these tastes have long since mingled in America and you can find these earthy, evocative Eastern Mediterranean flavors at Taboon, Balaboosta, Barbounia (in NY), Zahav (Philadelphia) and Shaya in (of all places) New Orleans. The newly-opened Nur (Arabic for “light”), however, may be the leader in executing the Israeli-Moroccan-Palestinian kitchen with such high-wire creativity. Chef Meir Adoni, revered in Israel for his iconic restaurant Catit (from 2001-2016), now runs the less formal but equally thought-provoking Blue Sky and Lumina, both in Tel Aviv.
There is much to consider on Adoni’s modernist menu: Small dishes; larger offerings meant for sharing, and a handful of dramatic desserts. But its breads beguile, and you want to order them all: kubaneh (a recently trendy Yemenite bread served with fiery schug and grated tomato); Jerusalem sesame bagel (oval and almost a foot long) is reminiscent of the bread you buy as you enter the Old City of Jerusalem) served with za’atar; honey and garlic challah with cured onion and crème fraiche, and fabulous sourdough served with paprika and garlic aioli and whipped salted butter.
Adoni’s complexities produce cacophonies of taste thrills. Smoked eggplant carpaccio with raw tahini, dates, pistachios, and rose water; Damascus qatayef – a crispy Syrian pancake with spiced lamb and a (warning: addictive!) herb yogurt chaser; steak tartare served with smoked eggplant cream, yogurt and baby artichokes, and a Moroccan seafood stew known as "chraime," with hand-rolled couscous. Sorrel cumin cream, curry-citrus vinaigrette, black Persian lemon powder, yuzu yogurt foam, pumpkin marmalade, sumac meringue are grace notes that make your mouth water.
But Adoni’s “Hills of Jerusalem” – rocks of cardamom chocolate and halva, crispy Jerusalem artichokes, pistachio cream, almond sable, and smoked yogurt ice cream, may be the most daring act of all. (34 East 20th St. NYC)
Until recently, Beyond Sushi was a three-unit outfit happily flying under the radar with teeny -- but always jammed -- vegetarian sushi takeaway shops. They call themselves "plant-based sushi." It is the brainchild of another inspiring Israeli chef, Guy Vaknin.
Now: Clear any images of vegetarian sushi from your mind, because these places are not hawking soybean schnitzel or tempeh turkey. There's nothing fake or imitation. Instead, they've mastered an entirely new palate of bracing flavors that have little in common with Japanese subtlety and everything to do with knocking your socks off.
Beyond Sushi's menu is composed of dumplings, rice paper wraps, salads, noodle soups -- and their intense sushi variations. These come with a syringe that you use to inject a complementary sauce into the sushi for an added flavor boost. Their "Sunny Side" contains black rice, fennel, sundried tomato and avocado with chunks of butternut squash -- plus an almond pesto sauce. "Chic Pea" uses black rice, roasted eggplant, artichoke, and English cucumber with saffron chickpea purée and parsley -- plus tahini sauce. An umami explosion called "Mighty Mushroom" has six-grain rice, enoki mushrooms, baked tofu, braised shiitake and micro arugula --- with shiitake-truffle sauce.
This is not your grandma's sushi! Each eight-piece roll costs $6.95 and they all shout "photograph me!"
At the height of the country's current ramen craze, the soups here stand out as much as the sushi. Their "Chili Mushroom" has braised shiitake, portabella and enoki mushrooms, baby spinach, roasted garlic and hijiki with your choice of soba, ramen, green tea, or glass noodles.
The company was launched five years ago by Vaknin who before that was in the Israeli Defense Force, and then executive chef of a high-end kosher caterer. Just recently he's enlarged his business model with a 72-seat full service restaurant and bar on West 37th Street in New York's garment district. It will be followed later this year by a food court kiosk in the financial district. Sounds like the fellow's on a (sushi) roll. (134 West 37th St. and other locations)
FREEK'S MILL, BROOKLYN
To the left you see gritty remnants of old industrial Brooklyn -- vacant warehouses, ironworking shops, marble cutters. To the right there's unmistakable evidence of gentrification -- long lines of locals and tourists waiting for artisan ice cream while overlooking the Gowanus Canal, itself once a great oyster bed and now one of the country's most polluted bodies of water.
Do neither. Just walk into the corner restaurant. It will be roaring with a sophisticated clientele who've come to dine at Freek's Mill, an inventive, bigger-than-small plates menu and one of the city's most eccentric wine lists. The eponymous Dutch settler's mill is long gone (gowanus means "bay" in Dutch) and the food is highly contemporary, seasonal and local.
We've enjoyed crispy chicken livers with a dandelion salad and chopped egg; dry-aged duck breast with rosemary honey and beans is among the city's best; octopus comes with ramps and chorizo vinaigrette, and there are superlative wood-roasted oysters. Pork jowl is largely a glob of fat, and a recent version of steak tartare came with an oddly creamy miso dressing. But delicious barbecued kohlrabi with grits and greens outshines most restaurants' spare ribs.
The wine list is almost entirely composed of chenin blanc and gamay grapes. Yes, we have no merlot today, nor chardonnay. Weather permitting, we prefer the sanity of their sidewalk tables to the ricocheting noise inside.
After dinner, walk a block to join the queue at Ample Hills for an expensive scoop of ice cream and then work off dinner at one of the ten shuffleboard courts and two bars at the nearby Royal Palms. (Freek’s Mill: 285 Nevins Street, Brooklyn)