Pushing at the Edges: Zizi Limona

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I celebrated my birthday this past week, and looking back at the year that was, it’s hard not to think of the old adage of “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” I’ve got a lot of new, exciting developments in my life, from changing jobs to my upcoming enrollment in grad school. But as food shifts from passion to profession for me, I’m noticing more than ever my palate’s internal tug-of-war between my desire for new tastes and experiences and my lifelong devotion to those comfort foods that evoke contentment and simple satisfaction.

 

So in a way it’s fitting that one of my last meals as a 25-year-old was at Zizi Limona, a restaurant that bills itself as “Mediterranean Home Cooking,” and was called “Grandma’s Middle Eastern kitchen” in one review. My brunch at Zizi Limona was the perfect combination of the traditional and the innovative, taking me back a little over a year to the scents and flavors of my Birthright trip to Israel, while also introducing me to a take on falafel that I’m pretty sure would leave the cooks at our kibbutzim scratching their heads. This is exactly the reason to get yourself over to Williamsburg and check this place out. You’ve got safe bets and experimental options aplenty, catering to any type of bruncher (or dinner-er … diner) you might have in your posse.

 

First Impressions:

Mismatched chairs, brick and wood covered walls, and Mediterranean goods for sale say a lot about Zizi Limona's vibe before you even crack a menu.

Mismatched chairs, brick and wood covered walls, and Mediterranean goods for sale say a lot about Zizi Limona’s vibe before you even crack a menu.

The trip to Zizi Limona was instigated by my belated birthday present to my Gastronomic Life Partner Jacob — a tour of the Mast Brothers Chocolate Factory. I could spend an entire separate post on that experience, but I’d rather just tell you to go. It’s very affordable, and aside from starting at 10am on a weekend, definitely a memorable experience. It’s worth every dollar for the amount of high quality dark chocolate you get to put in your face, plus you learn far more about the art of chocolate-making than I did at the “factory tour” at Hershey Park.

 

However, after our blood sugar levels dropped from their Mast-induced highs, Jacob and I found ourselves in the brunch mecca of Williamsburg with a desperate craving for non-cacao-based dishes. Neurotic that I am, I had of course researched our options, and landed upon Zizi Limona, a restaurant that had been on my radar for a few years after reading raves about its sandwiches and spreads.

 

The other side of the dining room, with the tiled bar and hanging pewter pitchers for brewing Turkish coffee.

The other side of the dining room, with the tiled bar and hanging pewter pitchers for brewing Turkish coffee.

Zizi Limona is an establishment with personality, to be sure. This is immediately apparent from the vibrantly green exterior topped by a red-and-green striped awning. Peering inside reveals a single, light-filled dining room constructed out of a variety of woods and exposed brick. This orchestrated mishmash of decor continues throughout the space, from the collection of non-matching tables and chairs, to the multicolored painted tiles on the small bar. Behind the bar are multiple shelves brimming with wine and beer bottles, and the wall across from it holds shelves stuffed with regional speciality products, like Turkish coffee, spice mixes, and date molasses. Speaking of Turkish coffee, Jacob (recently back from a trip to the country) noted that Zizi Limona hangs pewter vessels over the bar, to be used in the traditional method of brewing the coffee. We sat at one of the handful of outdoor tables, also made up of an assortment of styles, sizes, and seating arrangements. In fact, the only consistency I saw came in the table setting — all of our flatware and dishes was of the same set. I would venture that Zizi Limona is trying to emphasize a “restaurant next door” persona, quirky, eclectic, but accessible.

 

 

The Food:

 

That’s actually a pretty apt description of Zizi Limona’s menu, as well. The menu denotes vegan and gluten-free foods, but also carries the warning: “to keep our food balanced the only possible substitutions are listed.” Grandma’s only doing so much for your picky palate, kiddo. After struggling to narrow down our choices, Jacob and I chose to split an order of Aunt Trippo’s Falafel, followed by the Challah Sandwich for him, and the Shakshuka for me. Jacob almost ordered the Sabih (sic) Croissant (he does love his sabich), but drawn to the Challah by the promise of a more egg-forward, brunchy dish.

 

Complimentary spiced popcorn -- not as good as the pita and tahini to come but I'm never one to turn down free carbs.

Complimentary spiced popcorn — not as good as the pita and tahini to come but I’m never one to turn down free carbs.

Our meal started with a complimentary bowl of popcorn sprinkled liberally with Spanish Paprika. I would have preferred the pita and tahini bread basket outlined in the Serious Eats review I read, but in hindsight the popcorn was a nice entrée into brunch — heavily spiced, with lots of smoky flavor and salty, but not greasy or oily, which meant it didn’t make a serious dent in my stomach.

 

Aunt Trippos Falafel, the Aggro Crag of chickpea appetizers.

Aunt Trippos Falafel, the Aggro Crag of chickpea appetizers.

Aunt Trippo’s Falafel (pickles, smoked tomato, curry yogurt/tahini) was unlike any falafel dish I’ve seen before — tiny fried chickpea balls, each about the size of a large marble, plated atop a curried tahini sauce, then piled high with a smoked tomato chutney, charred shallots, and pickled cabbage. The falafel themselves were a little on the dry side, but had nice mix of basic chickpea flavor and fragrant spices like cumin and coriander, and the crunchy outer crust provided textural contrast with the tahini and the chutney. I really enjoyed both of the sauce elements — the curry-infused tahini was not as assertively sesame-y as some versions, its spices marrying well with those incorporated with the falafel, reminding me somewhat of Indian pakoras. The tomato chutney, chunky enough to stab with your fork and smokey and speckled with peppers,  turned out to be serious foreshadowing for my shakshuka. Overall, the dish was unfamiliar but satisfying, grounded in the traditional combination of falafel with vegetables and tahini, but taken to new corners of the globe through its spices and format, a tangle of tastes and textures that is far from Taim’s pita pocket, but still quite delicious.

 

 

Zizi Limona's Shakshuka, the best specimen I've tried outside of Eretz Yisrael.

Zizi Limona‘s Shakshuka, the best specimen I’ve tried outside of Eretz Yisrael.

Now as you know, I fell in love with shakshuka in Jaffa, care of licensed practitioner Dr. Shakshuka. Since I got back from Birthright I haven’t really found an iteration that lived up to the Doc’s, most of them mere echoes of the soupy, stewy, umami bomb of a skillet I had in Israel. But Zizi Limona’s Shakshuka (Two eggs poached in tomato stew with smoked eggplant, tahini, and cilantro) comes closest to reaching that high bar. As it happens, the owners of Zizi Limona come from Hummus Kitchen and Hummus Place, two restaurants where I’d been reasonably satisfied, if not bowled over, by the shakshuka. Apparently it took a meeting of the minds to crack the eggy code. What brought me back to Jaffa was the inclusion of the smoked eggplant, adding a deep, earthy flavor that cut through the richness of the perfectly cooked eggs, and fought for dominance with the alternately sweet and savory tomato stew. I really appreciated the wide variety of flavors that intermingled in this dish, from the bright cilantro to the nutty tahini, the acidity of the tomatoes to the mild bite of the onions. After breaking the eggs, the texture was pretty much like a sauce, but as with the falafel there were substantial chunks of tomato strewn throughout, thickened by the mixing with the unctuous eggplant. I sopped up the shakshuka with the same pita we had been given with the falafel — a fluffy disk of warm, soft dough, sturdy enough to handle the soupy shakshuka but still chewy and light on its own. The dish was a very filling, but wholesome lunch that took me back to that outdoor table in Jaffa — albeit, with a slightly different vibe, as a number of hip Brooklyn stereotypes strolled by us on a Sunday morning. But the stew itself evoked enough nostalgia to make me place Zizi Limona’s shakshuka at the top of my stateside list.

 

The monster Challah Sandwich, not quite the eggy dish Jacob was aiming for.

The ginormous Challah Sandwich — all about the bread, at the unfortunate expense of its filling.

Unfortunately, I felt like the Challah Sandwich (omelette, charred veggies, harissa) was the weakest dish of our brunch, although it was it was by no means a bad sandwich. Our waiter had called it the “heavier” of the two when comparing the Challah and Sabih Croissant, and it was easy to see why he felt that way: this was definitely a monster of a sandwich,  with two thick, almost Texas Toast-style slices of toasted challah encasing an egg patty, harissa, tahini, and a bounty of grilled vegetables. It came with pickles, yogurt, and some sort of lemon sauce on the side, which tasted like curd but had the appearance of applesauce. Despite all its promise, I found myself disappointed by the sandwich. It ended up being almost entirely about the challah and vegetables, which would have been fine if the challah had matched the standard set by the pita. But it was the kind of white-bread-esque challah I find underwhelming except when employed as the base for french toast. See, I grew up eating Zomicks, a local brand of challah that has a supremely sweet eggy dough, with their best loaves possessing a pliant, even bouncy texture as you tear into them (leading to the occasional smushing as you try to slice them). If you haven’t encountered Zomicks, seek thee out the diamond in the rough.

 

As for the filling, after the care and subtlety of our other two dishes, I was surprised by how bland the Challah Sandwich was. The grilled vegetables had a nice amount of char to them, but the eggs that Jacob had wanted so badly were anonymous in the sandwich, reminding me of the kind of generic patty of premixed omelet you’d find in a cafeteria. The tahini was creamy, but there was none of the punch of a good harissa. Jacob ended up opening up the sandwich to eat it with a knife and fork by the end of our meal, and I found myself happiest with the dish when I used the challah to soak up more of my leftover shakshuka.

 

 

Final Thoughts:

Overall, I was more than satisfied with Zizi Limona — it’s got a great, laid back atmosphere, helpful servers, and Mediterranean-inflected food that is playful without neglecting its roots. I fully intend on returning to try some of the meat dishes like the shawarma, or come back for lunch for the infamous Sabih Croissant to take another stab at Zizi’s sandwiches. Although I’ll admit it’s going to be a struggle to order anything besides the shakshuka, so maybe I’ll just have to visit enough to quench my stewed-egg-longings.

 

I’ve spoken before about authenticity, and the more I explore cooking and dining, the less stake I put in it (at least in this city of Ramen Burgers and General Tso-boys). My point is that, at least in my case, sometimes you can have it all — the genre-bending and the classic fare, the loves both old and new. I fell in love with Mediterranean food over the past year (as mentioned over and over and over on this blog), but hummus has been my homeboy for at least a decade. I kinda like that I’m the girl who tries chicken hearts on rosemary skewers, but is also desperate to find the new Reeses Cup Oreos (seriously, anybody seen ‘em?). Maybe the whole point of exploring food, or growing up, is not to “put away childish things,” but rather to realize that your experiences lie on a spectrum that widens as you age. By trying new things and challenging myself, I push the outer limits of that spectrum, but that means there is always room for Archie comics and the Atlantic, for blue Cookie Monster ice cream and Durian Banana Sorbet, for Mickey Mouse pancakes and for damn fine shakshuka. Almost makes me glad I’m getting older.

 

Zizi Limona

129 Havemeyer, Brooklyn, New York

http://zizilimona.com/

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Never Mind the Sizing, Just Try a Scoop: Solid Gelato at A. B. Biagi

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With the return of the summer season, I can finally stop making excuses for my near-constant ice cream craving. Intellectually, I always want ice cream, regardless of how the rest of my body feels about it. I’ve recently discovered I’m genetically predisposed towards this condition, when my father told me that his mother ate a bowl of ice cream nearly every day of her life. So it was really only a matter of time that I stumble into a new cup-and-cone-commissary, wide-eyed and near-drunk with the anticipation of embracing my birthright once more.

The first entry in my list of Summer 2014 frozen desserts is A.B. Biagi, a small and relatively new (they opened last summer) gelateria on Elizabeth St. Jacob and I paid a visit after our falafel-fest at Taim, braving intermittent rain to once again test the veracity of a Serious Eats rave review.

(I suppose you could argue that I’ve already broken the seal with my inhaling of a Sprinkles Sundae, but I’d counter that the focus of that dish was split between ice cream and cupcake, whereas A.B. Biagi is all about the gelato.)

 

First Impressions:

The priority at A. B. Biagi is clearly the making, rather than the serving of gelato, since the kitchen dominates the space.

The priority at A. B. Biagi is clearly the making, rather than the serving of gelato, since the kitchen dominates the space.

As I mentioned above, A. B. Biagi is only a few short blocks away from Taim, a gelato oasis in the relatively scoop-free Nolita. The bright yellow exterior gives way to a tiny store front, narrow, yet deep, with most of the space devoted to the kitchen. Inside, the walls are covered in white tiles on the bottom half, with the upper sections decorated with unconventional paintings evoking scenes of Italy on one side, and a large mural of a woman (A.B. herself?) on the other.

 

A. B., is that you?

A. B., is that you?

Across from the counter is a small bench that offers the only seating. The set up is similar to Il Laboratorio del Gelato, albeit smaller and less clinical in decor — the goal is to get you in, ordering gelato, and out again, with minimal hanging around. Although in our case, we were the only customers on a rainy Friday afternoon.

 

The Food:

 

Size is in the eye of the beholder...

I guess at this shop, size is in the eye of the beholder…

A. B. Biagi offers a rotating selection of 6 flavors of gelato, a couple of sorbets, and espresso, coffee, tea and hot chocolate (covering all your temperature-based food needs). On our visit, the options were Stracciatella, Chocolate Brigadeiro, Vegan Almond Butter, Pistachio, Chia Pudding, and Coffee gelato, and Lemon and Guava sorbet. Any of those can be scooped into A. B. Biagi’s somewhat confusingly named sizes — Tiny, Small, or Regular — which remind me of the McDonald’s strategy of renaming Super Size as Large, hoping we wouldn’t notice that the actual volume stayed exactly the same. The cashier warned us that the Small cup holds more gelato than you’d expect, so we opted to play Goldilocks and go neither too big or too small.

After sampling nearly all of the gelato flavors, we ended up splitting a Small cup of the Stracciatella and the Vegan Almond Butter. I was a little surprised that Jacob would ignore the opportunity to have chocolate gelato, but he said the Chocolate Brigadeiro was a little too sweet, and I concurred that it might be best left as its own dessert (as former employees of Brazilian animated film director Carlos Saldanha, we’ve been fortunate enough to sample more than a few authentic brigadeiro varieties, such as those from My Sweet Brigadeiro).

 

Vegan and non-vegan gelato, meeting briefly for peace-talks before being forced to coexist and my stomach. Vegan Almond Butter on the left, Stracciatella on the right.

Vegan and non-vegan gelato, meeting briefly for peace-talks before being forced to coexist and my stomach. Vegan Almond Butter on the left, Stracciatella on the right.

As promised, our cup came piled high with gelato, split between the two flavors. The Stracciatella was composed of a thick and intensely rich sweet cream base, speckled with dark chocolate shavings still big enough to offer a bit of a snap as you bit down on them. Whereas the Chocolate Brigadeiro fell more on the milk chocolate side, the chocolate in the Stracciatella was just over the edge of bitter, providing a nice contrast to the sugar of the gelato base. I was hit with a bit of childhood nostalgia when eating it, suddenly taken back to bowls of Breyer’s Chocolate Chunk ice cream out of my parents’ freezer, my teeth struggling to crack through the semi-sweet chocolate chunks.

Yet despite the memories called up by the Stracciatella, my favorite of all of A. B. Biagi’s flavors was by far the Vegan Almond Butter. Although we asked the cashier, he wasn’t sure what the base of the gelato was. It tasted like it was made of almond milk, but had the same thick consistency as the non-vegan Stracciatella, leaving me curious as to how they achieved that chewy texture (most vegan ice cream recipes I’ve seen call for coconut milk, but I couldn’t detect any coconut flavor in A. B. Biagi’s version). Regardless of the technique, the Vegan Almond Butter was absolutely delicious, creamy gelato that had a subtle almond taste, no frying-pan-to-the-face of almond extract here, punctuated with the sweetness of the almond butter, thinly swirled throughout so it was more like an array of crunchy crystals rather than a ribbon. I’ll admit that after being a lifelong peanut butter fanatic, I’ve been on a bit of of an almond butter kick, adding it to my yogurt in the morning and a few cookie recipes. It feels like a more adult flavor (at least, the raw unsweetened version I bought) — somewhat more restrained, but still giving you that wonderful nuttiness. That was the level of flavor in A. B. Biagi’s gelato as well — not the orgiastic sugar wonderland of say, Sprinkles‘ Rocky Road, but a more mature, composed dessert that you should linger over.

 

Final Thoughts:

Overall, I was pleased with the quality of gelato at A. B. Biagi, and understand why Serious Eats was a fan (I think their offices might be close by, too…). However, considering the prices, I’d recommend checking out Vivoli or Il Laboratorio del Gelato first, depending on your tradition vs. innovation preference when it comes to gelato. Despite it being in Macy’s, you’ll get more bang for your buck at Vivoli, which still tops my list for classic gelato in NYC, and I’d tell anyone that you have to try some of the wacky flavors at Il Laboratorio if you’re a frozen dessert fan. Not to knock A. B. Biagi — they do offer a solid group of interesting and well-made gelatos, but just not of the caliber to break into my pantheon of ice creams. If you’re walking around Nolita or Little Italy, and you’re looking for a cool treat, I’d say stop by and try the Almond Butter. Maybe I was just born this way, but I think you can make any day better with the addition of just a little gelato.

 

A. B. Biagi

235 Elizabeth St (Between Houston and Prince)

abbiagi.com

Brief Bites: Taim

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Ever since I got back from my Birthright trip last year, I’ve been on the hunt for good falafel in New York. After my misleadingly named fiasco of a falafel at Market Table, I thought perhaps I should resign myself to inferior offerings on this side of the Atlantic. Maybe the falafel of the Holyland is a product of Israel’s water, like the bagels in New York. Or maybe falafel is one of those foods that you just aren’t meant to eat at a table with a knife and fork, but rather should be deposited directly in your mouth by means of messy, saucy street pita. I’ll have to hit up a few more food carts to answer that question properly (not to mention pay a visit to the famous Mamoun’s Falafel, which arguably has the cheapest falafel sandwich, recently raised to an outrageous $3.50). Or perhaps the answer lies somewhere in the middle ground, far from the black and white pronouncements like so many of life’s great quandaries. Perhaps it takes a combination of native handiwork and a little New York thrift to produce American falafel worth frying — the kind you’ll find at Einat Admony’s Taim Falafel & Smooth Bar.

 

The Set Up:

The tightly packed Taim, full of lunch rush patrons.

The tightly packed Taim, full of lunch rush patrons.

Taim’s Nolita location (their original spot is in the West Village) is just a few blocks away from the Spring St. 6 stop, so I’ve walked by the storefront many times, but never found an opportunity to stop for a meal. Given the multiplicity of mediocre falafel-purveyors in NYC, I only noticed Taim once I read that Serious Eats had pronounced it to be the best in the city. And then Jacob had to come back from the Middle East talking endlessly of falafel and shawarma, virtually ensuring that Taim would be a part of my NYC Staycation before starting a new job.

Taim (which means “tasty” in Hebrew) is the casual chainlet of Chef Einat Admony, a Tel Aviv emigrant who also owns the sit-down restaurants Balaboosta and newly-opened Bar Bolonat. I’m eager to try all of her establishments, since she seems to bring together reverence for the ingredients and techniques of her heritage with a more modern whimsy.

The Nolita Taim is a small, modern boxy space that sits on the corner of the block, with the counter and kitchen in the back. The exterior walls are plate glass, which helps to keep the space from feeling too dark and claustrophobic, and rest of the space is decked out in vibrant colors, from the bright green of the back wall to the traffic-cone orange stools. Those stools, and the bar-height counters paired with them, are the only seating in Taim, suggesting the shop is mainly intended for take-away. This makes sense given the high volume of customers we saw pass through during our brief lunch — they’d never be able to seat everyone anyway.

 

The Bites:

Taim's topping bar, a panoply of sauces and salads.

Taim’s topping bar, a panoply of sauces and salads.

Taim’s menu covers smoothies, sandwiches, salads, platters, spreads and sides (they also have a small case with a few desserts, like baklava). Jacob and I opted to share a Falafel Sandwich (green falafel, with hummus, Israeli salad, pickled cabbage and tahini sauce) and a Sabich Sandwich (sliced eggplant, fried to order, with an organic egg, parsley, hummus, israeli salad, pickled cabbage, tahini sauce and amba), both on whole wheat pita (you have a choice of wheat or white). When I go back to Taim, I’d really like to try one of their platters so I can sample the salads — I enjoyed the traditional Israeli salad included in my sandwich, but they’ve got several other options like a Moroccan Carrot Salad, and varieties of beet and eggplant-based spreads and salads.

 

Our cozily wrapped sandwiches -- Falafel on the right, Sabich on the left.

Our cozily wrapped sandwiches — Falafel on the right, Sabich on the left.

The Falafel Sandwich, nearly bursting at the seams.

The Falafel Sandwich, nearly bursting at the seams.

Both of our sandwiches came wrapped in wax paper and nestled in a wooden bowl, which proved to be extremely prudent as our overstuffed pitas deteriorated upon attack. The front view photo reveals how packed these pitas were, and as with most falafel sandwiches, I found that the further into the meal you get, the soggier your pita becomes, leading it to fall apart at the tail end of the sandwich, a product of hummus/tahini sauce gravitational pull. This is a shortfall of the entire pita genus, however, and not a reflection on Taim’s iteration, which overall was a simple, but excellent falafel sandwich. Taim actually offers 3 flavors of falafel: the traditional Green (with parsley, cilantro, mint), the mildly spicy Harissa (mixed with Tunisian spices), and the Red (mixed with roasted red pepper). Despite the cashier’s strong suggestion to try the Harissa, I chose the Green, wanting to test the mettle of the traditional for my first Taim experience. Although I’m game to try the Harissa next time, the Green falafel was stellar — the balls were crispy on the outside, their exterior coating holding up against the tahini sauce which was creamy but discernibly sesame-flavored. Once I bit into a falafel ball, I encountered a chewy, moist interior with a solid chickpea flavor, subtly underlined by the herbs. The remaining elements of the sandwich integrated well, the Israeli salad providing textural contrast and some moisture to combat the whipped-butter viscosity of the smooth hummus.

 

The Sabich Sandwich up close, a little unevenly distributed.

The Sabich Sandwich up close, a little unevenly distributed.

The fact that Taim offered a Sabich sandwich was the tipping point for Jacob, after he had fallen in love with them in Israel. As with the Falafel sandwich, the pita was fluffy and pliant, with a prominent whole wheat taste, and the hummus and tahini were obviously just as good, since they all come from the same source. Initially I found the sandwich too segmented — you can see from the photo that one side is virtually sauce-less, while the other side is submerged in tahini. There was also an iceberg of hard boiled egg floating in that sauce-sea, which I think would benefit from being chopped up and distributed throughout the sandwich. As you got further down into the pita, the flavors did meld together more, with the oily, sweet eggplant playing against the nutty tahini and hummus, and the sour/sweet amba (pickled mango-fenugreek chutney) adding a wholly different tasting note (which felt almost Indian-inspired to me). The Sabich fell apart slightly more at the end than the Falafel, leading to a fork-mandatory situation, which I actually thought helped to coalesce the elements of the dish. Even though it costs more, I think the Sabich works better as a platter, since it’s hard to get both eggplant and egg in one bite if you go the sandwich route.

The Last Licks:

I haven’t had enough falafel in the city to really assess the veracity of Serious Eats, but I definitely agree with them that Taim offers an exemplary model of the food. Admony has solved the age-old issues of hard-as-rock exteriors, flavorless interiors, or dry as bones chickpea fritters. Taim’s not looking to reinvent the wheel here (after all, they don’t even offer the “chips” topping I got at Tasty Falafel 4), but they do a damn good job making straightforward sandwiches. I’m hoping to pay a few more visits and sample the rest of the menu, especially the platters I ogled as we exited the shop. I’ll be honest, my favorite pita spot is still Taboonette down by Union Square, because of the sheer variety of their menu (and the fact that it’s still really well-done), but Taim has some standout falafel that make a trip to Nolita or the West Village a worthwhile investment. So head on down there, to ponder life’s great questions of chickpea-based cuisine, or simply to awaken your tastebuds — either way, they’ve got plenty of balls to go around.

 

Taim

45 Spring St.

http://www.taimfalafel.com/

Edible Inquiries: Whence Pita?

Pita: Irresistible, but oh so mysterious...

Pita: Irresistible, but oh so mysterious…

I have a pita problem. It’s much like my knee-jerk naan consumption, in that when faced with fluffy, expertly baked circles of pita bread, well, they somehow end up in my mouth without any conscious thinking on my part. Fortunately, at Indian restaurants naan is usually a separate side order where you get charged for refills, so I can usually rely on the whimpering of my wallet to override my innate carb codependence. But most Mediterranean and Middle Eastern restaurants I’ve been to will happily furnish you with an endless supply of pita to scoop up mezze or load your shawarma into, leaving me overjoyed if somewhat ashamed of the flatbread devastation I leave in my wake.

Considering this intimate relationship, I couldn’t help but tackle the question Jacob posed to me on the eve of his trip to the Middle East — “where exactly does pita come from?” After all, you can find variations of the bread in Israel, Turkey, Egypt, Greece and many other countries across Southern Europe, Western Asia, and North Africa. It seems almost as ubiquitous as rice, so it must have deep roots worthy of a little Edible Inquiries Internet digging. To the Google!

 

Our look-back at pita has to start with flatbreads, generally considered the earliest type of bread product made, dating back to the Amorite-era Damascus of 2000 BCE  (Princeton). In fact, some of the earliest examples of food in the world were flatbreads discovered in tombs and archaeological sites (WiseGeek). This makes sense when you think about the nomadic and/or fuel-scarce environments of the earliest cultures, where dough could be stretched out on a hot stone to bake.

Now as for pita specifically, there’s a bit of contention on its exact origin. Some sources claim that pita is the Western term for the Arabic word “khubz” meaning “ordinary bread” (Princeton), and therefore pita’s roots lie in ancient Syria (WikiAnswers). In fact, pita was initially referred to as “Syrian bread” in the US before the name “pita bread” became more common (Backwoods Home).

Others argue that pita originated in Greece and subsequently spread throughout the Middle East  (Ask.com), eventually spreading as far as Western Europe and Asia to become the progenitors of pizza and pancakes (Abigail’s Bakery). The actual word “pita” does come from Greek, and means “pie or cake” (Princeton). It’s “probably derived from the Ancient Greek pēktos (πηκτός), meaning “solid” or “clotted” (Wikipedia), and came into use after the older word for cake — “plakous,” came to refer to a thicker product (Abigail’s Bakery). “Pita” was used to differentiate between the heftier plakous and the thin flatbreads used in so many dishes.

At least for Greek pita, there are two types — a thin “pocket bread” and a thicker “gyro bread” (Abigail’s). The thin variety is the pita pocket kind we’ve all seen vendors stuff falafel into, or even picked up in the bread aisle of the grocery store (my own personal encounters with pita began with these guys — http://www.fooducate.com/app#page=product&id=09E41E8E-E10C-11DF-A102-FEFD45A4D471). The pocket is achieved through the baking process, where the dough is baked over a flame on a convex surface, so the high heat causes the dough to inflate as it cooks, and then deflate as it cools, creating an air pocket in the middle. The thicker, single layer Greek style of pita is the kind you see used for gyros, kebabs, or souvlaki (which shows up in Turkish food as well). To add to the confusion, in Greece the word “pita” can also be used for sweet and savory pies, so you see words like spanikopita (spinach pie) or kreatopita (meat pie). But for most of the world, pita refers to the “slightly leavened wheat bread, flat, either round or oval, and variable in size” (Wikipedia).

Some prime examples of the "pie" type of Greek pita.

Some prime examples of the “pie” type of Greek pita.

Unlike the site-specifically-named Quiche Lorraine, pita’s history goes back so far that placing a pin on the map for its origins is almost impossible. What really separates Greek pita from pide, its Turkish brother, or even roti, its Indian cousin? Regardless of the coordinates of its birthplace, what makes pita remarkable is the way it has truly become a global food, rising from those humble beginnings baked in ancient hearths to the shelf of your local 7/11 in endless flavors of pita chips.

 

Cut to the Chase, Lady!: Though disputed by some, pita is largely thought to have originated in Greece, and then spread throughout the Middle East, and the world. As a type of flatbread, pita’s roots go even farther back, to the dawn of civilization. And you just thought it was a marketing gimmick to get you to eat more hummus.

Like what you read? Got a question about cooking, dining, food or history? Comment, post or tweet and let me know your thoughts, and I’ll tackle it in another round of Edible Inquiries!

Sources:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pita

http://www.ask.com/question/what-country-did-pita-bread-originate-from

http://www.abigailsbakery.com/bread-recipes/where-pitta-bread-comes-from.htm

https://www.princeton.edu/~achaney/tmve/wiki100k/docs/Pita.html

http://www.wisegeek.org/what-is-pita-bread.htm

http://www.wisegeek.org/what-is-flatbread.htm

http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodbreads.html

http://agexted.cas.psu.edu/FCS/4hfl/BreadCultures.html

http://www.backwoodshome.com/articles2/salloum135.html

 

 

Restaurant Week Brunch at El Toro Blanco: Indulgent Mexican Comfort Food

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We now return to our regularly scheduled programming to bring you another NYC restaurant review. Just before Jacob left for his own Birthright trip, we snuck in a few Winter Restaurant Week meals, the first of which was at El Toro Blanco. Although it had been on my list for a while, I was especially drawn to the restaurant because it was one of the only establishments that offered a brunch option for RW, and how can you resist the dual siren call of Mexican brunch and a 3 course prefixe for $25? Plus, we had to make sure Jacob topped off his salsa quota before flying off to the lands of hummus and shawarma. And thanks to El Toro Blanco, he got to indulge in more than enough queso fresco before trading his tortilla for pita.

 

First Impressions:

The main dining space of El Toro Blanco made me think of a 1970s dream "man-cave."

The main dining space of El Toro Blanco made me think of a 1970s dream “man-cave.”

El Toro Blanco is one of those restaurants you’re bound to walk by a million times, since it’s located on 6th Ave, just off of Houston. Sitting on a wide block on the west side of the street, there was a small fenced-off area I assume is for outdoor dining in warmer weather, although on the blustery day we visited, I was happy to be seated inside. The interior of the restaurant is a open and full of light, thanks to the plate glass windows lining the front. There’s a bit of a 1970s living room vibe to the decor — lots of wood paneling, black bricks and orange leather, with some multicolored hanging lanterns and funky art on the wall (ranging from the Mexican flag to multiple paintings of bulls, or “toros”).

 

The main bar, with the small upstairs dining room above it.

The main bar, with the small upstairs dining room above it.

The main bar is directly across from the front door, but there’s another small bar just to the right as you enter, both offering seats for dining as well. When we first arrived at 12:30, the place was pretty empty, but by the end of our brunch it had filled up, with most of the space at the bar taken up by people both eating and drinking. We were led up to a table in the small upstairs section behind the main bar, which gave you a nice view of the dining room below, and was a little quieter until a large group of half-tipsy women took over the banquette tables across from us.

 

Our quiet little hideaway of tables, until the ladies brunch arrived.

Our quiet little hideaway of tables, until the ladies brunch arrived (after these guys left).

Overall the service was friendly if not overly attentive, probably because El Toro Blanco is such a popular spot. It’s clearly a trendy place that has high volume (and likely rowdy) brunches, so it’s no surprise that they’re happy to make suggestions, but hardly hang on your every word like our waiter at Ippudo. I should give credit to our hostess who offered us her advice on the best brunch dishes — we ended up ordering based on her suggestions, and her taste was impeccable.

 

The Food:

While there were a number of appealing drinks on the cocktail menu, Jacob and I opted for a dry brunch (let’s just say there was a raucous wine and cheese going away soiree for him the night before). El Toro Blanco’s Winter Restaurant Week brunch offered three courses for $25, with most of their regular offerings available on the RW menu. Based on our own Mexican brunch preferences, and the enthusiastic reviews from the hostess, Jacob started with the Costillas Empanadas, and I ordered the Oaxaqueño Tamale, a substitution from the main menu since they had run out of the special RW Elote Verde Tamale. For main courses Jacob got the Chilaquiles con Huevos, and I had the Huevos Rancheros Verdes, and for dessert Jacob chose the Cinnamon & Sugar Churros and I went with the Mexican Chocolate Cake. All of the portions were substantial and filling, leaving me very satisfied with the cost-to-plate ratio.

 

My substitue Oaxaquena Tamale -- unanticipated, but delicious.

My substitute  Oaxaqueno Tamale — unanticipated, but delicious.

The Elote Verde Tamale (fresh corn, roasted poblano chile, queso fresco, crema, green chile salsa) had piqued my interest, especially since I don’t have a lot of experience with green salsa. So even though I was disappointed to miss out on it, the Oaxaqueño Tamale (roasted chicken, plantain, red mole, queso cotija, crema) was a more than satisfying substitution. I almost always jump at the chance to have plantains (tostones, I love you), although here they mostly served as a textural element. The hefty, square tamale arrived absolutely slathered in red mole, which gave the entire dish a deep cocoa richness. Between that, the sweetness from the plantains, and the crema and cotija cheese, this was a pretty decadent start to the meal (and a good indication of what was to come). My fork sliced easily through the cornmeal wrapper into the interior of shredded chicken and cheese. I think the Elote Verde might have been a slightly lighter and spicier opening act, but I had no complaints about the deep flavor of its tamale understudy.

 

I mean, how can you go wrong with fried dough, meat and cheese?

The Costillas Empanadas — I mean, how can you go wrong with fried dough, meat and cheese?

Jacob’s Costillas Empanadas (slow roasted short rib, oaxaca cheese, ancho barbecue, crema) were more cleanly plated, two petite pockets of dough with just a small cup of sauce next to them. I can’t count the number of short rib dishes I’ve talked about on this blog, but I’m sure a quick search will give an overly detailed account of my love for this iteration of beef. I’d even venture that it has replaced brisket in the top spot (except for my mom’s Passover version, of course). El Toro Blanco presented another fine rendition of short rib, the meat tender and juicy, combining with the oaxaca cheese to evoke an upscale mexican cheeseburger. The dough shell was fried to golden-brown, crispy on the edges and chewy in the middle, its flavor subtle and mostly just a vehicle for the filling and the bbq dipping sauce, heavy on the smoky umami flavor and with just a bit of a kick from the ancho. While my tamale was good, these were really memorable empanadas, high quality and well worth returning for.

 

The Huevos Rancheros Verdes, a cornucopia of Mexican ingredients.

The Huevos Rancheros Verdes, a veritable cornucopia of Mexican ingredients.

Once we moved beyond the appetizers, the entrees and desserts were all versions of dishes I’d had before, but I was impressed by the precision and care which El Toro Blanco put into their cooking. Turns out I unintentionally ensured my opportunity to have green salsa by orering the Huevos Rancheros Verdes (corn tortillas, ham, refried pinto beans, sunny side up eggs green chile salsa, queso fresco, avocado, pico de gallo). What I like about huevos rancheros is that so many places add small, unconventional touches to their take on the dish, be it the meat or beans used, or even the plating. El Toro Blanco’s version starts with crispy corn tortillas on the bottom, hardy enough to hold up against the onslaught of sauces and cheeses, without being rock hard like a recent rendition I had to stab my way through at another brunch. The base was topped with sunny side up eggs and smothered in beans, green chile salsa, pico de gallo, and queso fresco. I had channeled a bit of Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally when ordering, asking to sub the ham for chorizo, but to be honest, I didn’t even really notice the meat, except that it added a little heat and some textural density. Sure, it looks somewhat messy, but if you look closer you can see how everything is actually quite well-executed and composed. The eggs have crispy edges at the rim of the white, with soft domes of yolk just waiting to be broken and flood out onto the dish, the fresh cut tomatoes and onions split the tortillas in contrast to the vivid color of the salsa verde. I’m glad I did get to try El Toro Blanco’s salsa verde, which was bright and tart from the tomatillos, but I think I actually prefer having both red and green salsa on my eggs, like in Huevos Divorciados (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Huevos_divorciados).

 

The Chilaquiles -- don't judge a book by its cover, this guy will hulk smash your hangover.

The Chilaquiles con Huevos — don’t judge a book by its cover, this guy will hulk smash your hangover.

While huevos rancheros is my go-to for Latin brunch, Jacob is a sucker for chilaquiles, so he was just as excited for his entree. El Toro Blanco’s Chilaquiles con Huevos (baked saucy nachos, guajillo salsa, fried eggs, melted mexican cheese, crema, avocado, pico de gallo) had the most interesting presentation of the meal, arriving in a little cast iron pan. One glimpse at the dish and it’s clear why it’s a perfect brunch item — it’s basically nachos + eggs, so plenty of carbs and cheese to sop up hangover ills. Despite the petite plating, this was a deceptively large portion, layer upon layer of chips divided by thick strands of mexican cheese mixed with crema, salsa, and pico de gallo, and then topped with a generous sprinkling of even more cotija, to fully ward off the lactose intolerant. You can’t even see the fried eggs in there, but believe me, the same creamy yolks were hiding in wait to spill out and put the whole dish over the top. While I enjoyed the tastes I had of Jacob’s dish, I found myself more eager to return to my own entree, overwhelmed by the carb and dairy bonanza of his tasty gut-bomb of a dish.

 

The Mexican Chocolate Cake

The Mexican Chocolate Cake with bonus matchstick churros.

It’s lucky that both Jacob and I are freaks of nature with secondary stomachs designed solely for dessert consumption, because after our mountains of cheese and salsa, there was still another course to come. There ended up being a fair amount of overlap between our desserts, each of our dishes highlighting chocolate, dulce de leche, and cinnamon-sugar flavors. My Mexican Chocolate Cake (matchstick churros & dulce de leche ice cream) came with mini churros (bonus!), and ended up being a more refined version of a lava cake. The cake itself was made of a moist crumb of rich chocolate with a hint of chili powder, totally covered in a thick chocolate sauce that made each forkful gooey. The dulce de leche ice cream was sweet without being overpoweringly sugary, and the mini churros gave a bit of a crunchy break to the other soft elements of the plate. Much like my huevos rancheros, this dessert wasn’t groundbreaking, but rather a familiar treat done very well.

 

And their big brothers, the Cinnamon Sugar Churros.

And their big brothers, the Cinnamon Sugar Churros, with addictive chocolate and dulce de leche sauces.

When Jacob’s Cinnamon & Sugar Churros (chocolate & dulce de leche sauces) came to the table, I initially thought he had gotten the short end of the stick (er, churro?), since there were only two pieces in the basket. Fortunately, much like his little pan of chilaquiles, these churros proved to be plenty filling. The two pieces were hefty logs of fried dough doused in cinnamon and sugar, each bite starting with a crisp and crunchy crust that gave way to an airy interior. I think I prefer these to the churros we had at LeChurro, although I may be inviting controversy by unfairly comparing Mexican and Spanish churros. I was largely swayed by the dipping sauces El Toro Blanco served with the churros. I found myself dipping and double dipping into the chocolate and dulce de leche sauces, long after Jacob had finished.

 

Final Thoughts:

It’s always nice to find a solid restaurant to add to your rotation, and I would say my RW brunch at El Toro Blanco earned it a spot. Aside from my tamale, none of the dishes were unknown territory for me, but all of them were well-seasoned and extremely generous in portion size. Sure, their regular menu is pricier than your average Mexican spot, but if the RW service is any indication, you certainly get your money’s worth. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to come back and try the rest of El Toro Blanco’s offerings, especially in the summer, when I can sit outside, sip a cocktail, and then walk all the way home after scaling a mountain of tortilla and cheese.

 

El Toro Blanco

257 Avenue of the Americas (off Houston)

eltoroblanconyc.com

Must-have Misnomers at Market Table

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As I mentioned previously, Top Chef is my reality TV guilty pleasure (well, that and Chopped, Unique Eats, and The Voice, which is the worst because I’m begrudgingly supporting Carson Daly’s career). One of the common criticisms lobbed at “cheftestants” on Top Chef is the misnaming of dishes, i.e., calling something a risotto when you used cauliflower instead of rice and orange juice instead of broth and your Italian grandma would have no idea what the hell you made. Generally, I agree with Padme and Tom — when cooking at that high a level, you know the definitions of dishes, and you should acknowledge that your experimentation can be “inspired by” a certain dish, but don’t call a club a spade and expect to get away with it. There’s an expectation created by the title of a dish on a menu, and unless you’re going to a Wylie Dusfresne’s molecular gastronomy lab/restaurant, a dish’s name should not be a disguise. Call me pedantic, but the judicious application of some quotation marks would make this all easier.

I bring this up because of a recent lunch I had at Market Table in the West Village. Now the meal I had there was great, and I’d like to go back given the seasonality of their menu, but as you’ll see, their naming conventions probably wouldn’t have passed the Colicchio rule of thumb.

First Impressions:

The corner location of Market Table allows for two walls of windows and ample light.

The corner location of Market Table allows for two walls of windows and ample light.

Market Table is owned by the proprietors of the popular restaurant The Little Owl, and is actually located just a few blocks away from it, on the corner of Carmine and Bedford. The corner space is actually the old location of the NY legend Shopsin’s (now in the Essex St. Market), and you can tell it’s a prime spot, with two full walls of enormous plate glass windows. It’s a very homey, open environment, with dark black leather banquettes and small wooden tables in two-and-four top layouts. The decor evokes a neighborhood restaurant with just a bit of flair — exposed brick walls and wooden beams above them, a tree trunk serving as a the host stand, and a wall covered in shelves of wine simply begging to be opened.

The rustic and inviting single dining room.

The rustic and inviting single dining room.

Forget a list, check out the wine WALL.

Forget a list, check out the wine WALL.

My mom had come in for a mother-daughter lunch, and we arrived basically right when Market Table opened at 11:30am, so the restaurant was fairly empty, and our service was fast and efficient. However, by the time we left, the small dining room had filled up substantially, and our waitress was running around a bit more, making it clear that Market Table lives up to its neighborhood staple aesthetic.

The Food:

Market Table’s menu is made up of seasonally-driven fare, based on (big shock) what’s available at the market. Since we were lunching on a national holiday (MLK Jr. Day), they were offering a few brunch specials, like pancakes and a scramble, but we opted to go full-on lunch. My mother got the lunch special, a Shrimp Salad Sandwich with Old Bay Fries, I chose the Roasted Vegetable Falafel, and we got an order of the Quinoa Hushpuppies to share, based on Jacob’s recommendation (he suggested Market Table in the first place, having been several times).

Complimentary baguette, olive oil, and large flake sea salt.

Complimentary baguette, olive oil, and large flake sea salt.

Our meal started with a complimentary hunk of french bread, served with olive oil and sea salt. Market Table gets extra points for including the sea salt, which offers another layer of flavor and highlights the quality of the olive oil. The bread was light and airy, and biting into it, I wondered if it was sourced from the nearby location of Amy’s Breads, just down the way on Bleecker.

2014-01-20 12.01.11

The Shrimp Salad Sandwich, plated for a real French fry lover.

Our dishes landed on the table before we had even made a serious dent in the bread. I’ll start with my mom’s Shrimp Salad Sandwich, which had an unpretentious presentation to match its straightforward name. The sandwich was nicely plated, if a little less composed than my entree. The sandwich itself was dwarfed by the small hill of Old Bay fries next to it. Now, speaking from the context of a lifetime of Jewish deli visits, I think the bread-to-filling ratio on the shrimp salad was weighted a little too much on the bread side, but you could argue that the salad presented here was composed of higher quality ingredients and not bulked up by a lot of mayo. Once again, I was impressed by the bread — the whole wheat roll was soft and tender where it soaked up the juices of the shrimp salad, but never to the point where it became too soggy to stick together. As for the salad itself, sizable, crunchy chunks of shrimp were plain to see among the pieces of celery and tomatoes, and the taste of shellfish was the dominant flavor in each bite, not too muddied up in the seasonings or mayo. A little lettuce, slice of fresh tomato, or onion might have bulked up the sandwich for me and added a bit more textural contrast, but overall I thought it was a solid lunch entree. Given my french fry affinity, of course I was a big fan of the Old Bay Fries accompanying my mother’s sandwich. I actually wanted them to pile on more of the Old Bay — my parents are originally from Baltimore, and I’ve had my fair share of heavily seasoned spuds by the Chesapeake Bay. Market Table’s iteration featured medium-cut fries, crispy and crunch on the edges, with that soft starchy center that I’ve waxed rhapsodic about way too many times on this blog. They were certainly generous with the fries, but I think the dish is a little unevenly proportioned — a small side salad, or just a larger sandwich would be a more justified lunch dish than the fry-dominant version we were served.

The Roasted Vegetable Falafel, er "Falafel" -- delicious, if not quite what I was expecting.

The Roasted Vegetable Falafel, er “Falafel” — delicious, if not quite what I was expecting.

The only negative thing I have to say about my Roasted Vegetable Falafel (cucumber, feta, arugula, tzatziki, chili) is how it was named. As I mentioned at the head of this post, you create an expectation for the diner when you use a known foodstuff as your dish’s title. Falafel immediately brings to mind chickpeas, a crisply fried outer coating, and a flavor ranging from totally bland (I’m looking at you frozen falafel) to vibrantly herby like the falafel I found in the Tel Aviv shuk. However, what arrived at my lunch was a very loose interpretation of “falafel” — a baked mixed vegetable patty, closer in my opinion to a Mediterranean-influenced veggie burger than any fried chickpea ball. Naming aside, the entree was elegantly presented, the large, bright green patty resting on a small pool of tzatziki, divided from a light Greek salad by a wall of sliced, fresh tomatoes. Overall, the bright colors and clean lines made it an immediately visually appealing plate. Breaking into the patty, I would guess there were peas, carrots, and maybe some onions in the mix. It proved firm without being dry, and I really enjoyed the mishmash of heat from the chili powder and the cool parsley and cucumber from the tzatziki. Despite my lingering reluctance to eat feta (generally it’s too briny for me), the variety used by Market Table was mild, adding a little salt and chew in the face of the soft vegetable patty. The salad was similarly well-executed, the arugula and parsley offering a component of bitterness to round out the plate. Ignoring my griping about the name, I would highly recommend ordering the Roasted Vegetable Falafel if you’re looking for a lighter, but satisfying dish (especially if you plan to go to Big Gay Ice Cream afterwards, like my mother and I did).

The Quinoa Hushpuppies -- a northern twist on Southern Living?

The Quinoa Hushpuppies — a northern twist on Southern Living?

I really enjoyed how unusual the Quinoa Hushpuppies (with capers and lemon) were. Once again, Jacob’s recommendation was spot on, although you could quibble about the authenticity of the Hushpuppy appellation, since I’m pretty sure there’s nary a corn molecule to be found in this fritter. Market Table continued its theme of ample portions with this side dish, featuring close to a dozen oblong pups for my mother and I to split. The hushpuppies weren’t wholly made of quinoa, as I had initially imagined, but rather were made with regular all-purpose flour mixed with whole cooked quinoa seeds, flecked with chives and cooked to a golden brown. This gave them a pleasantly brittle exterior that broke through to a chewy middle. The accompanying dipping sauce was possibly my favorite part of the side — some sort of chipotle aioli, with a nice kick to it that warmed my tongue without making me reach for my water glass.

Final Thoughts:

For all my complaining about how things are named, Market Table did deliver on service, fresh ingredients, and inventive cooking. In fact, I think the weakest dish of our lunch was the most conventional, my mother’s sandwich. Although the Quinoa Hushpuppies and my Roasted Vegetable Falafel were far from what I expected when I read them on the menu, it was a pleasant and satisfying surprise to receive. Perhaps the lesson here is that unless you’re playing for bragging rights post-season on Andy Cohen’s Watch What Happens Live, a little diner deception isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Does it encourage a customer to think outside the ordering box, or does it invite disappointment and criticism? I leave it for you to decide, but in the meantime I’ll be heading back to Market Table for those hushpuppies, regardless of whether they’d pass muster down South.

Market Table

54 Carmine St. (corner of Bedford)

http://markettablenyc.com/

Snackshots Abroad: Eating Adventures in Israel, Pt. 3

While uploading photos to include in this last post about my trip to Israel, I suddenly realized how many different places I ate at. So I thought I’d include a quick montage of some of the more random and/or pedestrian fare I ate, and then focus on a few particularly memorable or exotic dishes from my travels.

Yes, that does phonetically spell out "Doritos" in Hebrew.

Yes, that does phonetically spell out “Doritos” in Hebrew.

We’ll start out with snacks — I’m sure that bag looks pretty familiar. It is the Israeli version of Doritos, and despite the non-Latin letters, the artificial cheesy flavor remains comfortingly the same.

Outside of the US, the King Cone is the Cornetto.

Outside of the US, the King Cone is the Cornetto.

Fans of Edgar Wright films may recognize this ice cream treat as Nestle’s Cornetto (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Three_Flavours_Cornetto_Trilogy), frequently seen in American ice cream trucks as the King Cone. In Israel I saw a wider variety of flavors offered — this one featured peanuts and caramel, and was the perfect treat after a long hike up and down Masada.

Now onto the more local fare:

Shawarma b'laffa in Sderot.

Shawarma b’laffa in Sderot.

First up is the shawarma b’laffa I had in Sderot. My brother’s girlfriend Leah, who lived in Israel for a year, recommended that I get a laffa wrap at least once. Laffa is a larger flatbread, closer to naan in texture than a pita, and a million times better than your average wrap. The shawarma here was tasty, but one of my favorite things about your average street food/deli in Israel was the small salad and condiment bar that seemed standard. Even the mall shawarma place we stopped at one lunch had pan-fried eggplant, pickled vegetables, and a couple of different chunky sauces to accompany your meal. The meal I had in Sderot was memorable not because of the food itself, although it was delightfully greasy in the way a great sub from a NY deli is, but because of the significance of the location. Sderot is a border town with the Gaza Strip, and the poverty was pretty palpable. Our guide explained that due to the frequency of rocket attacks, all those who have enough money to leave Sderot have, and the people left are the ones that are stuck. This was great for our group because it meant a cheap lunch, but I couldn’t help but notice a certain haunted and worn-out look to the roads and market we walked through. There was another rocket strike only two days after we visited Sderot. Regardless of your feelings about the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict, there’s no reason innocent people (on either side) should be subjected to that kind of violence.

2013-03-19 14.06.42

The sign says “Tasty Falafel 4”

Let’s lighten up the mood a bit, and transition to a happier encounter with laffa. This small falafel shop was in a strip mall in Jerusalem. Tasty Falafel 4 offered 4 different types of falafel (wow, who could have made that intellectual leap?) with the option of putting it in a pita, laffa, or on a platter. They get extra points for all the different delivery options — half pita, half laffa, falafel, shawarma, a combo of the two, or veggies. They also gave you complementary “chips,” which were closer to the British chip in terms of being fried potatoes rather than our American Lays, but were actually small potato puffs that topped your order like a Greek gyro. I ended up getting a mix of all four falafel types with all the salad trimmings (except the spicy sauce). Sure, it was probably the equivalent of Taco Bell in NYC, but sometimes you just want fast food.

Sorry, but I couldn't wait to bite into a "chip" before I took a picture of my falafel.

Sorry, but I couldn’t wait to bite into the “chip” on top before I took a picture of my falafel. Look at the soft potato center and golden brown fried edges. Mmm.

Next up, we have the Lahuhe from the sacred city of Tzfat. It’s basically a Yemeni crepe/burrito, full of herbs and spices and three different types of cheese.

Lahuhe -- basically a Yemeni crepe -- from Tzfat.

Lahuhe — basically a Yemeni crepe — from Tzfat.

I only tasted the wrap my friend Dave got, but it had the light texture of a tortilla mixed with gooey cheese and a heavy za’atar backend spice.

About to be rolled up for handheld consumption.

About to be rolled up for handheld consumption.

Let’s move into the big leagues for our next round of Middle Eastern edibles. I’ll admit that I had a list of must-try food written up before I even set foot on the plane (we’ve discussed my dependency on lists previously). A lot of the items on the list were types of food I had sampled in America, but I needed to compare with the more authentic Israeli equivalent — falafel, shawarma, hummus and so on. But at the top of the list was an elusive dish I have still yet to try in the US — shakshuka. Shakshuka is one of those foods that has a million variations across the globe — chak chouka, eggs in purgatory, huevos en el Purgatorio, and so on. At its most basic level, shakshuka is eggs poached in a spiced tomato sauce. When I told one of my Birthright leaders I was desperate to stick my face in some shakshuka, she suggested what seemed to be an obvious answer: go see the Doctor. Dr. Shakshuka, that is.

The doctor's office.

The doctor’s office.

Dr. Shakshuka is a restaurant near the flea market in Jaffa, the older Arab city that Tel Aviv grew out of. The inside of the restaurant was crowded and dim, but around the corner Dr. Shakshuka has taken over the whole alleyway, ten tables of varying lengths strewn about the space. I ended up ordering family style with a bunch of my tripmates, getting shakshuka with eggplant, shakshuka with shawarma, stuffed peppers, and a couple of kebabs. The meal also comes with an unlimited supply of thickly sliced loaves of warm, soft white bread to sop up the runny egg and tomato sauce.

Dr. Shakshuka's version of unlimited breadsticks.

Dr. Shakshuka‘s version of unlimited breadsticks.

Vegetables stuffed with meat.

Vegetables stuffed with meat.

The star of the show -- shakshuka with eggplant.

The star of the show — shakshuka with eggplant.

As I had hoped, Dr. Shakshuka totally lived up to expectations. The eggs were perfectly poached, and breaking the yolk led to the unctuous, fatty egg mixing with the acidity of the tomato. A self-professed eggplant zealot, I thought it was a great addition to the dish, the silky texture melding with the rest of the liquid, adding a little bit more chew without distracting from the spices. The beauty of the dish is the way everything comes together — this is definitely not one of those foods for people who like to keep each part of their dinner in separate little sections on their plate. You gotta be ready to get a little messy, dipping your bread in and keeping plenty of napkins at the ready. I know of a few places in NYC that serve shakshuka, and I’m eager to try them out — I only got to try the dish once in Israel, so no over-shakshuka-exposure for this gal.

The most exotic food I ate in Israel came on the last day of my trip, while strolling through Mahane Yehuda in Jerusalem. Another recommendation (both from the trip leaders and my brother’s girlfriend Leah) led me down a side street of the shuk to the Iraqi restaurant Rachmon.

The humble sign for Rachmon.

The humble sign for Rachmon.

Inside, the restaurant is visually nothing to shake a stick at. Small tables and rickety chairs fill the space, and you order off a menu on the wall, giving your order literally to one of the cooks, who makes and places your food on a cafeteria tray and sends you off to the elderly gentleman by the ancient cash register. I had zero knowledge of Iraqi food, but some items on the menu looked familiar — meat-stuffed cigars that seemed almost Greek, and those brimming bowls of hummus with different toppings of beans, vegetables, and sauces. But I couldn’t get just any ol’ bowl of hummus –I needed something authentically Iraqi (or at least ostensibly authentic). So I went with a bowl of red kubbeh. Kubbeh (or kibbe) is an overarching category of Middle Eastern dishes that involve bulgur or semolina and chopped meat. Red kubbeh is made up of semolina dumplings stuffed with ground beef, boiled in a tangy  broth with stewed vegetables.

I didn't realize the kubbeh would be filled with meat until I broke one in half.

I didn’t realize the kubbeh would be filled with meat until I broke one in half.

I initially thought the soup would be spicy, perhaps because I’ve been trained to equate “red” with curries or chili powders. But in fact it was more acidic than spicy, which played well against the richness of the dumpling dough and the ground beef. The vegetables were tender, and even with the meat the meal was filling, but not overly heavy. I know it’s pretty lame to get so excited about trying a new cuisine, but I was very pleased with myself for choosing something new and unknown. Luckily, I happened to like the food, too. There were a number of other kubbeh permutations to try at Rachmon, so I’m hoping I can find some Iraqi food in NY. One of my lunch buddies got fried kubbeh, which seemed almost empanada-ish in appearance.

We started with dessert, so we’ll end with it, too. Jaffa was especially kind to me, from the flea market where I found some great gifts, to Dr. Shakshuka‘s, and finally, to the best ice cream I had on my whole trip. Between his insatiable thirst for trivia and history, and his insatiable desire for ice cream, our tour guide Shachar was a man after my own heart (er, stomach?). He came along to Dr. Shakshuka for lunch, but barely touched his food, explaining that he was saving room for some phenomenal ice cream. And so after a little shopping in the market, I followed his directions to a gelateria a few blocks down. They had a wide assortment of flavors from sugarfree to fruit based to candy-laden types like Snickers. I opted to get a combination of the almond-toffee and the Indian Kulfi.

The best ice cream (gelato) I had in Israel.

The best ice cream (gelato) I had in Israel.

Overall, the milk base of the gelato was strong, but what really took my gelato to a new height were the flavors. The almond-toffee was delicious, if not particularly shocking — the crunch of the almond against the sticky, gooey toffee and the creaminess of the vanilla base was, as you would expect, a stellar combination. But the Indian Kulfi threw me for a loop. Cardamom was the dominant flavor, and I found it absolutely addictive. It reminded me of the best version of kheer, which is Indian rice pudding — almost savory in taste, but the creamy sugar sweetness of the gelato itself kept the flavor from veering out of dessertland. I’m “borrowing” my mother’s old ice cream maker this summer, and I’m determined to try to replicate this gelato. I’ve seen recipes for cardamom ice cream on sites like Serious Eats, and it’s definitely on the top of my ice cream experiments list.

Last, but not least, we’ll deal with one of those amazing food moments of redefinition. Sometimes all it takes is a really well-made version of a dish to completely shift your opinion. For me, this happened with rugelach. I’ve admitted in the past that I’m not the best Jew-food eater, and part of that was my distaste for rugelach. Too often I would come up against stale, dry, crusty rugelach, the filling like bland paste with the barest hints of the sweet promise of cinnamon or chocolate. Forget rugelach — hand me a piece of babka or a danish, please. But then I went to Marzipan Bakery in Jerusalem. Marzipan was a recommendation from the writers of Serious Eats, and with my rugelach-obsessed friend Zina in tow, when I caught a glimpse of the sign in the Jewish Quarter, I knew we had to stop in.

The hebrew spells out "Marzipan" phonetically.

The hebrew spells out “Marzipan” phonetically.

Inside, it was clear what their star product was:

Oodles of rugelach filled the counter.

Oodles of rugelach filled the counter.

And somehow, despite my history with disappointing rugelach, the fact that all of the city had switched to Kosher for Passover goods (blech, matzoh-meal), and the unreasonably high expectations. the rugelach I had from Marzipan that day was lifechanging. It was the best rugelach I’ve ever had — a slightly sticky coating on the toasted, flaky dough, a luscious chocolate filling that made me yearn for a Zabar’s babka. It was everything I’d been told I should love about rugelach, and damn if I wasn’t a proud Jew at that moment.

I’ll be honest, I’m wrestling with how to sum up this brief series of posts about my trip. I didn’t even get to all the delicious things I tried in Israel (like their fascinating take on frozen yogurt), but hopefully the items I’ve covered give a good picture of my general sense of wonder about the entire experience. This trip challenged me in so many ways, from traveling on my own (well, sans friends, that is) to getting up on a camel, to dipping my toes (and the rest of me) into the Dead Sea. Trying to capture just the part of the trip dealing with food keeps pushing me to make grander statements about my own personal growth and willingness to expand my palate, both for literal tastes and the larger tastes in my life. But truth be told, I’m backing away from the melodrama on this one. If you want a pitch for why everyone who can should do Birthright, let me know and I’m happy to jump right into the spiel. Mostly, I just had a wonderful vacation. And like most of the things I write about on this blog, it was as much about feeding my appetite as it was about feeding my curiosity.