In the world of overpriced Midtown restaurant lounges, Fifty Five and its accompanying hookah lounge, Hash Fifty Five, would be just another blip on the radar. Disregarding the $30 hookahs (!) in the upstairs lounge, a few gems on the menu devised by former Todd English chef Victor LaPlaca make it worth a happy hour stop for a bite and cocktail.
The supposed Middle Eastern and Mediterranean-inspired menu sometimes strays far from its roots (Sirloin Burger? Pork Loin Banh Mi Sandwich?), but where traditional flavors are used, the dishes can be outstanding. Medjool Dates ($11), stuffed with Cabrales cheese and wrapped in prosciutto, are a dish worth hogging all to yourself. Each component of the dish is independent yet harmonious: the honey-sweet stickiness of the dates, the intense pungency of the blue cheese, the crunchy saltiness of the prosciutto.
Shrimp Falafel ($14, pictured at top) atop red pepper couscous with parsley-mint sauce is a surprisingly light dish, with the fried fritters delicately crumbling by the forkful. The Israeli couscous is a nice complement to the dish, though we could have done without the awkward rosemary garnish on top.
The best deal on the menu is the Carrot Hummus ($5). Although listed in the side dishes, it easily feeds three to four as an appetizer. The classic dip, lightly sweetened by a touch of carrot, has the airy consistency of whipped butter—but with the added bonus of less calories.
The only disappointing dish of the evening was the Lahmajoun ($14), a flatbread topped with spiced ground lamb, roasted tomato, feta, and chickpea hummus. The Middle Eastern dish, popular everywhere from Armenia to Turkey to Lebanon, takes many flavors and forms, but the key aspect is the use of distinct spices such as allspice, coriander, and cumin. LaPlaca's version falls short by being too Italian in flavor—the tomato and basil overpower any spices used in the lamb. But if you can forgive the comparison to better and cheaper traditional versions, the flatbread itself is palatable enough to share over a glass of wine.
Go early to snag a seat in the spacious area at the back of the bar or the lovely communal table up front. If you time it just right, you'll have plenty of time afterward to smoke more affordable shisha elsewhere.
About the author: Nancy Huang, who comes to New York by way of Los Angeles, writes The Wanderkind, a food and travel blog of adventures here and abroad. She loves noodles, subway maps, and word games.