BYOB of the Week: Gazala Place, New York's Only Druse Restaurant
In our series BYOB of the Week, Serious Eats writer Carey Jones stops by a different New York eatery each Thursday, her own bottle of booze in hand.
Eating out in New York, I occasionally end up at restaurants whose cuisine I’ve never tried; it's rare that I stumble upon a restaurant whose cuisine I’ve never heard of. But Gazala Place fits that bill.
Opened in late 2007 by Israeli native Gazala Halabi, Gazala Place claims to be New York's first and only Druse restaurant. The Druse, a Gnostic Islamic sect spread over Syria, Lebanon, and Israel, are neither politically nor ethnically distinct from their neighbors, but their cuisine does differ slightly. Think hummus-heavy Mediterranean, with a twist. (And, of course, a BYOB policy.)
The differences start with paper-thin pita that arrives with every dish—bread that Halabi shapes every afternoon on a rounded iron called a saag, positioned near the front window. Served piled in baskets, crumpled like a handkerchief, the pita is lighter than a crepe but somehow more substantial, studded with whole wheat.
Hummus is a logical starter, as is the babaganush ($5.50): smoky and supple, lightened by the distinctive tang of tahini. A bit less gentle is the Turkish salad ($4.50), a blood-red dish of ground dried peppers and onion. It's fresh on first taste, but the spice creeps up behind, bringing powerful chile flavor rather than just spice.
It's hard to pass by Gazala's window without noting the burekas ($9.95), enormous phyllo twists studded with sesame. In truth, they don't look particularly appetizing. (Dried-out deli pastries came to mind.) But the flaky pastry housed a generous core of salty cheese and spinach that lent deep, mature flavor, not just color. Better than most spanakopita I've ever had.
Though we arrived quite early in the evening, the kitchen was out of one dish I longed to try: the frekasai, a salad of smoked, boiled wheat grains that Robert Sietsema raved about.
Entrées, unsurprisingly, are heavy on the meats: lamb, beef, and chicken. Try them all (with a dippable tahini sauce) on the moshakal plate ($17.95). Though the lamb is somewhat gamey and tough, almost muttony, the garlicky chicken is uncommonly moist, and the ground meat kafta juicy and perfectly spiced.
Halabi's love for garlic also comes through in her fish, like the fried orata ($23.95) we tried—a gorgeous whole specimen, buried in a blanket of mouth-puckering pickled garlic.
Our waitress wouldn't let us escape without trying Gazala's signature dessert, the Osh Al-Saraia ($5.95). Thank goodness she didn't. The orange blossom-scented custard had the softness of a zabaglione but the lovely honey and rose notes of the best Mediterranean desserts.
Matching a wine was a bit of a tall order, with a menu spanning white fish and red meat, heavy garlic and spicy heat. We went with a Substance Merlot from Washington's Columbia Valley—full-bodied and fruity, gutsy enough to hold its own, sweet enough to counter the spice.