Given the preponderance of preschoolers and fro-yo shops, it's easy to forget that the Upper West Side was once the swingingest destination in town, home to the legendary Continental Baths and Plato's Retreat. Today, Shalel Lounge seeks to keep the neighborhood's libido alive.
If we hadn't been looking for the entrance, we'd have missed it. An illuminated menu abuts a set of metal stairs, festooned with rose petals. We followed the flowers through a narrow alley lined with tables and couches to a doorway, but we could just as easily have smelled our way there, lead by plumes of vanilla incense. Eventually we entered what might be the darkest restaurant we've ever visited. "Is this a game?" a woman asked, referring to the number of tables half- or wholly-hidden in dimly lit corners and cozy caves. A more appropriate question might have been, "When did they open a New York branch of the Playboy grotto?"
Seated at a tiny marble table, we listened to water tinkling over rocks and selected several mezes. Although Shalel serves "les petits plats" and "les grands plats," we weren't confident our backs could handle hunching over while eating chicken tagine a la fez ($19) or braised baby lamb ($22). Smarter to order finger foods, and save our spines from scoliosis.
We started with marinated Mediterranean olives ($6), which included pickled beets, pickles, and wedges of pita. That first nibble of a pickle was so sharp, so full of vinegar, it sent thousands of pinpricks to our brains, like acupuncture on the high palate. We did start to feel very relaxed at that point, though, so perhaps the briny needles worked. The olives were milder, those at the bottom so saturated with oil that we barely had to chew.
The turkey meatballs ($11) resembled little footballs. Bread crumbs gave them a fair amount of crumble, unfortunately necessitating a further curl over the table. (So much for finger foods.) Juniper berries and garlic heightened the lip-smacking factor and lent a slightly bitter, unobjectionable aftertaste.
Liberal sprinkles of feta helped put the "Greek" into the Greek bruschetta ($7). The tomato-and-cheese topping was coolly invigorating, kind of like a summer salad, but the hardness of the bread was not, kind of like cold toast or an extra-large crouton that hogs all your attention as you try to eat around it.
Our final two dishes, lamb cigars ($10) and saffron chicken briouats ($10), came out looking exactly the same, never a great sign. Still, ras el hanout made the lamb richer and smokier, as it was supposed to do, and the chicken briouats had a nice meaty flavor, although we wished the saffron had played a larger role. The phyllo wrapping on both was crisp yet pliant. Worth mentioning too was the velvety harissa dip that accompanied each.
Take away the tapestries and throw pillows, the world music with drums like heartbeats and the softly glowing lamps, and this restaurant becomes the basement in The Silence of the Lambs, minus the sewing equipment. Turn on the lights, and no doubt the ceiling would be chipped or patched in places, the concrete walls suffering from water damage, the floor less than scrupulously polished. But so what? Everything (and everyone) looks better in low light, and the Mediterranean offerings here sure beat the all-you-can-eat buffet, featuring chow mein and potato salad, once served at Plato's Retreat. Shalel Lounge is best for: a sexytime date.
65 1/2 West 70th Street, New York NY 10023 (map) 212-873-2300