As far as palate goes, I find that mine is ever-changing, evolving, but sometimes devolving, finding my tolerance and craving for certain foods tied into emotional needs and culinary curiosity. Coming from such diverse roots, I am open to various types of cuisine, but often balk at staples I am supposed to enjoy. Take black beans, a basic Caribbean representative at any Latino table. I hated the stuff until my late twenties. My grandmother, who is part Syrian/Lebanese, filled our meals with Arab delicacies like kibbe and stuffed grape leaves. But I seldom found myself in a hummus parlor or craving falafel or babaganush. There are better ways to serve meat in my opinion than kebabs, and as an opponent of vegetarianism (don’t even mention the other V word), I foolishly associated this cooking to be unfulfilling.
Recently, I have had numerous hankerings for Middle Eastern and Indian comfort food, choices which were always at the bottom of my list in the past. What sparked my revolution is tough to pinpoint. Intellectually speaking I must broaden my horizons to be considered a true foodie (although monkey brains I am staying clear). My appetite drives me, as my grandfather loves to point out – I am a slave of food and wine.
Start out at the best places possible – I think – so at least I have given a particular food its due at or near its peak performance. The same doesn’t hold for wine, by the way. I drank Yellow Tail like everyone else, and my tastes continue to evolve with each glass. But I am glad I started at the bottom first so I can appreciate superior products later.
On a tip from my friend Evan, I headed over to Hell’s Kitchen (that’s right, Clinton was a President, not this neighborhood) to Gazala Place on ninth avenue. The cuisine is labeled as Druze, originating from the mountains of Syria, Israel and Lebanon which features much of the same standard fare one would find at a hummus parlor, plus a bonus of crepe-like pitas and pastries which are crafted on a griddle called a saag. Chef Gazala Halabi utilizes the spices from her family back home, and the quality and seasoning combination stand out.
My excitement for the home style cooking here was rewarded with brightness and good flavors with a light touch. My disappointments may be tied into my own shortcomings and understanding of this type of food. Like all ethnic cuisine, you have to be in the mood for it. If you want sushi don’t get Mexican. If you want Thai, don’t look for Italian, etc.
I imagine that judgment of any Middle Eastern place should begin with its hummus. While the hummus here is very organic and delicious, it does not have the same consistency I am accustomed too. It is too whipped, and does not hold its form. The tahini is fresh, and with the choices of chick peas or fava beans, a delight. Rather treat yourself to the labanee, creamy goat cheese accented with zahatar, fragrant olive oil and a zing of lemon. I only wish the homemade crepe-like pita were more solid. My attempts at scooping up the labanee often ended in failure.
A close second is the babaganush. The eggplant is not too smoky (I detest overly smoked anything, especially barbecue), and coupled with tahini, probably the best I have tasted in some time. You will forgive me that I did not try any of the salads, but con attest to the bright quality of the tabouli. If I could douse my body with this after a shower I would. It gives anything green a good name. I have not tried the kibbe, but have heard they are competent. Kibbe is one of the reasons my grandfather married my grandmother. Hers are unbelievable, and the knockoffs that exist always disappoint me.
Moving onto what separates Gazala Place from the rest are the homemade breads and pies. Upon looking at them, located in the front window, they look like pastries from a street breakfast cart, an appearance of too much dough and staleness with an amateurish sprinkling. These burekas are spiced with sesame and filled with goat cheese, tomatoes or chicken. In reality each bite gets better and better, and coupled with yogurt are irresistible. Save room to sample these. The shell is flaky, the fillings moist, the balance correct. Not as successful are the fresh baked pita shells, which are a tad greasy and uninteresting, the meat on top unremarakable.
Instead have the falafel, just lovely testaments to a chef Gazala’s hand, light and crispy and ideal. I am upset that they are so far away from the Upper West Side.
I still have not tried any of the kebabs or the fish dishes, again holding onto my own prefabricated beliefs about what the essence of this type of food really is. Who knows, maybe sometime in the near future, I will head over to a place like Angelica Kitchen, because I am in the mood and ready for a plate of fine vegetables. Until then, break me in with a little hummus, babaganush, labanee, tabouli and a grape leaf or two and chalk that up to progress.