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If you're accustomed to thinking of Middle Eastern food as a bland collection of bread dips and kebabs, you haven't been to Gazala Place. The whole fried orata ($22.95) is a magnificent sight as it swims to the table on a long platter. The sleek sustainable fish (a farmed Mediterranean species) is nicely browned, with a crispy skin that would do a suckling pig proud—but what are those gleaming white swatches melded to the skin? One bite, and your mouth catches fire: Though the swatches resemble melted mozzarella, they're really shards of pickled garlic. Eat Gazala's orata, and you won't feel like kissing anyone for a week.
709 Ninth Ave.
New York, NY 10019
Region: West 40s
Gazala Place claims to be the country's only Druze restaurant. Incorporating mystical Greek Gnostic principles, and revering Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, the Druze faith is an offshoot of Islam often regarded as a separate religion. Its clannish followers currently dwell in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel, where the family of chef Gazala Habibi comes from. As with any dispersed population, Druze cuisine reflects a rich multiplicity of sources.
Besides the orata, the Turkish salad ($4.50) is also an unexpectedly spicy dish. The chunky scarlet purée is more dip than salad, and the chile heat is kicked up with sharp white vinegar. A pool of olive oil rests on top. To scoop it up, grab one of the restaurant's pitas from the basket. These speckled flatbreads are not of the cardboard pocket variety you've come to dread in Middle Eastern restaurants, and are made with whole-wheat flour and are as thin as a pocket handkerchief. They're created on the domed grill that sits in the front window of the restaurant, and you'll be eating lots of them before your meal is through.
These pitas are indispensable in excavating the many scoopable substances. As in other Levantine cuisines, beans and eggplant are important staples, mainly incorporated into bread dips. An entire menu section, in fact, is devoted to fava beans, hummus, and their mutual interactions ($5.50 each): You can have plain favas stewed with garlic, mashed favas topped with whole favas, favas planted in hummus, or hummus shot with chickpeas. Listed in the appetizer section, the lemony babaganoush is above average, while the hummus by itself is bland and lacking in salt—that's because it functions as a foil for so many other dishes.
Reflecting the chef's family origins, there are a few dishes identified as Israeli. Chak choka is one: a cast-iron skillet bubbling with a chunky tomato gravy. A pair of poached eggs float like eyes in the fluid, which looks like the work of television murderer Dexter. In The Book of Jewish Food, Claudia Roden identifies this dish as originating from the Jews of Tunisia, but it's now commonly included on Israeli menus in New York and Tel Aviv.
Another amazing dish is the freaky-sounding frekasai ($14.95). The entrée is based on green wheat grains (usually transliterated "phreak"), which are smoked before being boiled. At Gazala Place, the chef turns it into a composed salad, surrounded by tomato slices like an edible picket fence. The domed heap is accompanied by a bowl of cold and garlicky cucumber soup, and the pair is beyond refreshing. In fact, frekasai is destined to be one of my favorite summer foods.
The menu offers the standard Middle Eastern grilled meats, of which the best is surely kafta (sandwich, $5.50; platter, $13.95), a hamburger-shaped kebab composed of lamb and beef ground together and flavored with parsley and onions. Plenty of fat gets into the mixture, causing the patties to absorb the smoky flavors of the fire. Flattened like a pancake, the chicken breast is unexpectedly moist, and the lamb kebabs are some of the best in Hell's Kitchen. If you can't decide, pick the moshakal ($17.95), an entrée that deposits all three on a dome of excellent rice and sides it with a tossed salad.
Savory pastries make up another large part of the menu. Seductively positioned by the front door on a counter lie all manner of bourekas—individual phyllo pies that originated in Turkey, but have spread all over the Balkans, Russia, and much of the Middle East. Their tops dotted with black sesame seeds, these turnovers come stuffed with feta, feta and spinach, or feta and sun-dried tomatoes, the latter a fusioney whim of the chef. By contrast, zaatar and the other pies that look like small pizzas should be avoided like the swine flu: The crust turns out tough, dull, and unlovable. Stick with the bourekas, and you won't be disappointed.