I arrived at Gazala's, located across the street from the American Museum of Natural History, and was promptly seated at a corner banquette overlooking a cherry blossom tree-lined 78th Street. After I got settled, I couldn't help but smile; for this location was so much larger than that of Gazala Place (complete with private event space, as well). I had to assume that business was going very well for Israeli-born owner, Gazala Halabi. The dining room, though simple and understated, oozed with character from features like exposed brick walls, mile-high ceilings, rounded-top windows, and unique color hues. The space evoked an unexplainable warmth, and it was at this moment that I knew that both Tara and I were in for a treat.
Prior to Tara's arrival, I handed the bottle of Brunello wine that I purchased for our BYOB meal to our server. After our glasses were promptly topped with the Italian red, the two of us toasted to our long overdue dinner date and to Tara's upcoming bachelorette party and late-summer nuptials.
We began our meal with two shared appetizers: an order of falafel and a spinach boureka.
Falafel: You wouldn't think that these fried chickpea/fava bean morsels would be easy to mess up but, trust me, I've had plenty of horrendous versions here in NYC. Luckily, Gazala's was not one of them. Actually, hers weren't even close. Crispy, warm, garlicky, nutty, and dense - I barely even missed the fact of not having pita bread as an accompaniment! This falafel was perfectly divine on its own, especially with a schmear of house-made tahini.
Spinach Boureka: I was first introduced to Gazala's famous spinach boureka during a Hell's Kitchen tasting tour in the fall of 2009. Since that first bite, I've been hooked. And how could I not be? Layer upon ultra-thin layer of *handmade* olive oil-based "phyllo" dough envelopes homemade goat's cheese and wilted, brined spinach greens that, quite honestly, taste more like grape leaves than spinach. A small bowl of sliced pickles and bright green olives accompany.
Although we had originally intended to share, Tara and I ended up ordering separate entrees.
In an effort to sample as much as possible, I chose the "Moshokal Plate," which included the following: skewered and flame-broiled lamb, chicken, and kafta (ground meat with spices), rice, house-made tahini sauce, and two cabbage-based side salads.
As if all of the above weren't enough, Tara and I had a difficult time saying "no" to dessert. So difficult, in fact, that we ordered three: date cookies, baklava, and Osh Al-Saraia. While the cookies and baklava were nothing short of fantastic, it was the Osh Al-Saraia that completely stole the show/spotlight. A dense, creamy yogurt "pudding" oozed from a delicate crust that was constructed from honeyed oranges, rosewater, and chopped pistachios. There are, truly, no words to describe just how incredibly delicious - simple - and, yet complicated, that this dessert was.
After our fabulous meal, I had the pleasure of speaking with Miss Gazala, herself. Here are some interesting tidbits that I took away from our conversation:
* I learned that the correct way to pronounce both her name and namesake restaurants is "Jeh-zah-lah." Not "Guh-zah-lah." Whoops.
* Goat's cheese, not cow's cheese, is more prevalent in the area of Israel where Gazala is from.
* Because the kitchen space at Gazala Place, her original restaurant, is so small, she prepares many of the menu's items at her apartment - located just around the corner.
* Not only are Gazala's restaurants the only two Druze in NYC, but they are, currently, the only Druze restaurants in this country! Hello, market share.
In conclusion: I was beyond pleased to learn that Tara enjoyed her meal at Gazala's just as much as I did. There's always this indescribable sense of relief that accompanies a restaurant's approval, especially when coming from that of a close friend.
Alas, it looks as if I've turned yet another pal of mine on to the magic of Gazala Halabi's growing Druze cuisine empire.