Glistening folds of salt-cured tuna form a semicircle around the curved edges of their shallow bowl. Balanced on a bank of nutty and soft tabbouleh, the rosy fish brushes up against slices of raw radish and jalapeño, brittle shards of dehydrated beets, and a garnish of baby cilantro. A tart tzatziki finds the familiar Greek yogurt sauce blended into a zippy light-green purée.
Take a bite and all the disparate elements flash herbaceous and bright, a many-layered parade of clean flavors. The dish’s creator, chef Nir Mesika, calls it “Mediterranean Sashimi.” In that vein, it’s the most stylish crudo I’ve had in recent memory. It’s also one of the prettiest plates you can order at Timna (109 St. Marks Place, 646-964-5181), the cozy Israeli restaurant Mesika opened with partners Amir Nathan and the Hummus Place’s Ori Apple this past spring.
Named for a desert valley that was once instrumental to the spice trade, Timna joins the crowded East Village fray of St. Marks Place. The environs complement Mesika’s lush dishes: Framed in a familiar yet agreeable arrangement of exposed brick and natural wood, the split dining room is divided by a wall of potted plants that break up the space’s earth tones with a splash of green.
Confited carrots and beets top a mound of chewy ancient grains that soaks up date molasses, raw tahini, and sweet vegetarian jus in warm freekeh salad. Shakshuka, a Tunisian tomato-and-egg stew, gets a New American update, with sweetbreads replacing the more common spicy lamb sausage. The delicacy is braised, then topped with a fried quail egg, grilled baguette croutons, and okra halves. (Traditionalists can order an offal-free version made with poached eggs or skirt steak at brunch.) With the zeal of a pyromaniac, Mesika chars eggplants until they practically implode, serving the smoky innards with pickled onions, fresh oregano, and silky ricotta made in-house.
The chef has an affinity for pairing dairy and seafood — and to great effect. “Sea Bass Panzanelle,” a main course that finds three hard-seared fillets perched upon squares of toast, plunks half a ball of velvety burrata into a pool of roasted-tomato purée anointed with grilled red onions and long-stem artichokes. The bass might seem like an afterthought if there weren’t so much of it on the plate. Then you take a bite and its crisp skin mimics the crunch of the bread before giving way to flaky white flesh that tastes lusher thanks to the burrata’s intense milkiness. Tender flaps of grill-kissed calamari arrive arranged on the plate like a giant outstretched tentacle, along with sautéed spinach, chickpeas, and fried Greek halloumi cheese on a swath of thick, piquant gazpacho sauce made from smoked vegetables. Here it’s the seafood that’s soft, its supple chew offset by the nuggets of salty fried dairy and crumbs of dehydrated olives. Both are eye-opening.
During his two and a half years at Zizi Limona in Williamsburg, Mesika won acclaim for far subtler updatings of Middle Eastern standards. Here we find him embracing a more freeform approach, wild even when compared to progressive Israeli pioneers like Philadelphia’s Michael Solomonov (Zahav) and NYC’s own Einat Admony (Balaboosta, Taïm, Bar Bolonat).
Mesika likes to tinker with his recipes every few days, switching up ingredients, techniques, even plating. The olive crumbs in the squid dish debuted as a mushy tapenade. At launch, the chef was using black bass, not tuna, for his sashimi, coupling it with green almonds and crisped panels of the fish’s skin, bolstered by the same vibrant tzatziki. By the time I got around to ordering the lamb loin, the freekeh I’d seen it paired with on social media had been replaced by sumptuous lentils cooked in lamb stock. And although I’d been primed for chops, the lamb, coated in Persian lemon dust, was boneless. With so much improvisation, there’s a good chance you won’t get the same dish twice. That makes Timna a thoroughly engaging restaurant. Still, given the main menu’s constant flux, do we really need daily appetizer specials and multiple tasting menus on top of all that?
That said, the chef’s gambles overwhelmingly succeed, and often reveal his indelible talent and drive. He readies throngs of kubaneh each day, baking the brioche-like Yemeni breads in individual terra-cotta planters so that they’ll bloom forth from the pottery. They’re served as $7 appetizers with sides of tahini and zhug, a Yemeni tomato salsa flavored with coriander.
Mesika handles desserts to varying effect. Mocha budino disappointed one night with a stiff, grainy texture. Our other choice, a bizarre yet ultimately winning concoction called “La-La Land,” looked and tasted like a Wonka terrarium: porcini pudding, sage ice cream, and tonka bean meringue crammed together in a glass jar. On subsequent visits, tart fruits tumbled over white chocolate semifreddo, embodying late summer; and a take on malabi — an Israeli rosewater pudding — left me stunned. The mound of yuzu custard layered with black mission figs, fresh berries, shredded halva, rose syrup, and more of those olive crumbs is one of the best things I’ve eaten this year.