Lots of restaurants' websites have a line or two describing the chef's connection to the menu. Few restaurants' websites have 15 minutes of YouTube footage in which the chef describes to diners what he's trying to express in each dish. Saro Bistro is as personal a restaurant as you will likely find in New York in 2012, the singular vision of Eran Elhalal. In a ćevapčići-sized room, Elhalal serves "the cuisine of long lost empires." For him, that's the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman-inflected Balkan comfort food his grandmother (whose nickname graces the restaurant) served him while growing up in Israel. It's a complicated, delicious backstory, and one he's happy to share.
We began with a bread basket ($7), along with ricotta, tursija (pickled veggies), and aivar, an acidic relish. Known as lepinja, the bread echoed challah, in shape and a slight sweet egginess. Best of all were the balls made from cornbread, smaller than a hushpuppy and denser, perfect for popping. Elhalal ought to bag these things.
As our second starter, we tried that day's savory pie ($13), in our case two flaky triangles of spinach and feta, served with a shot of kefir, fermented milk. Elhalal's training at the Culinary Institute of America comes out here: this is a textbook croissant, delicate and buttery and falling apart in layers.
The rabbit duo ($24)—pork-crusted loin and braised legs, served over kale and root vegetables—wowed us with its combination of delicacy and robustness. Elhalal offered to explain this one, and it's a saga, a tale of several hours of preparations involving rabbit rib cages, offal, two types of paprika, and mats made from pork. Listen to the story before you start eating, because once you have a bite of the gamey, crunchy loin nuggets, you won't have much attention to spare.
First we ate rabbit, then we ate rabbit food, hand-cut kale pappardelle ($21), topped with white truffle caciotta. It looked, and tasted, like a garden in a bowl, with a slight, starchy sauce holding everything together. If complexity reigned over the rabbit, simplicity dictated the pasta. This chef has range.
"I'm so glad you're here, taking pictures," Elhalal said to us. Flattery gets you somewhere in this world, no doubt, but great food gets you everywhere. At Saro, specials are written on china and tea cups have been neatly arranged in a wooden cupboard. Modifications to your meal won't be welcome, but questions certainly are. It's best for: a date with Elhalal's past.
About the authors: Jessica Allen and Garrett Ziegler have been eating out together since 2002 and writing We Heart New York since 2006.