Hazar: The City's Best Falafel
It's a perennial problem in certain social circles: Where can you dine with a mixed group of vegetarians and carnivores? The meat eaters demand big hunks of flesh, or they remain insatiate, while the vegetarians worry they'll be marginalized by a menu that restricts them to one or two choices per course. The solution: a Turkish restaurant like Hazar. This recent arrival is located right in the middle of Bay Ridge's Arab quarter, a colorful, souk-like stretch of Fifth Avenue mainly populated by Lebanese, Syrian, Egyptian, and Yemeni establishments. A Turkish restaurant is something of a rarity in these parts, but not so different menu-wise.
The corner storefront at 73rd Street boasts floor-length windows that open to the street and catch the Upper Bay's maritime breezes. A line of well-lit tables runs parallel to a glass case with luscious displays of meat and seafood, behind which a large oven flickers. Look inside, and you're likely to see a tray of Hazar's excellent pides (a/k/a pitas), which puff up and blacken slightly before being yanked from the oven's maw. The waiters are jocular, but service can be snail-paced. Select your beverage from the stand-up cooler before sitting down, and be adventuresome: The case contains all sorts of Turkish beverages, such as sour cherry, peach, and apple. But avoid the soda called Uludag, which intriguingly bills itself as "The Taste of the '30s." The decade apparently loved bubble gum.
So what's in it for the vegetarians? The city's best falafel comes on a sandwich ($4), a wrap ($4.50), or a giant platter ($8.95), the last accompanied by rice pilaf, mixed salad, tart purple slaw, and a heap of hummus—plus unlimited smokin' pides. How are these falafel different? Pleasingly studded with sesame seeds, they're aerodynamically streamlined like Frisbees, so frying produces more crisp surface area proportionate to the interior, and also allows the insides to cook thoroughly. (I, for one, am tired of biting into a falafel and finding it raw inside.) Also in service of crispness, they've been fried darker than usual. Try these, and you might never go back to Mamoun's.
As most Turkish establishments have learned, that oven is good for making "pitzas," the Levantine answer to pizza. Although most places produce a flattened product something like the traditional Middle Eastern lahmacun, Hazar shapes this dough into foot-long canoes, then swamps the interior with a massive cache of ingredients. My favorite, yumurtali pide ($9.95), tosses in mozzarella cheese and unscrambled eggs, the yolks of which float like islands in a sea of molten white. This gooey and filling treat is unforgettable. Other vegetarian delights include bread dips such as cacik (yogurt and cucumbers), baba ghanoush, and a mega-garlicky hummus; a fiery-red salad of minced vegetables and walnuts; and sigara burek—feta-filled pastry flutes that crunch like Pocky sticks.
For meat eaters, there are multiple kebabs of generous size at bargain prices. All come with garbanzo-bombed rice and salad. If you want to concentrate on one, pick the pepper-laced adana kebab ($7.95): ground lamb wavily pressed onto the kebab sword. But a better bargain is the mixed grill ($16.95), which features adana kebab, chicken shish kebab, lamb kofte (like little hamburgers), and lamb or chicken doner, your choice. Unfortunately, the lamb doner isn't the most common version—the one twirling on a cylinder like shawarma—but rather a heap of fragments carved from a reheated roast. Transformed into the iconic Iskender kebab along with yogurt, hot sauce, and toasted bread, lamb doner is the restaurant's most notable fail.
The biggest winners in Hazar's dietary sweepstakes might actually be the pescatarians, who normally occupy shaky ground between the veggies and the meaties. The glass case you saw when you walked in usually contains three or four fish options, including sea bass, porgy, and pink snapper. Carefully flame-grilled and furnished with rice and salad, and weighing in at an estimated pound and a half, they may be the city's best whole-fish deal, surpassed only by the Egyptian fish markets found in Bay Ridge and Jersey City. The all-in price: $17.95. (My fave is the porgy.)
Did you save room for dessert? Here's a course everyone except vegans can enjoy: a choice of three milk-based puddings ($4 each), each with its own subtle character. Sutlac is a rice pudding, slightly caramelized topside, while pistachio is paved with nuts. Best of all is kazandibi. Thickened with semolina, it achieves a creamier texture and sports a deeply browned surface. It also has the thickest skin you've ever seen, like a trampoline. And isn't skin what pudding is all about?
For more food coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road, at voicefoodblog.com. Follow us on Twitter @ForkintheRoadVV.
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