Most restaurant meals don’t come soundtracked by Khia’s 2002 oral sex anthem, “My Neck, My Back (Lick It).” Then again, most places aren’t rambunctious Greenpoint diner Hail Mary, whose plucky wife-and-husband team of Sohla and Hisham El-Waylly also recently served “Sex Pastrami” to honor infamous coital gourmand George Costanza at a Seinfeld viewing party.
After careers in some of the city’s most competitive kitchens, the chefs — who met as classmates at the Culinary Institute of America and married before graduating — opened this wonderfully oddball nostalgia-haven-on-acid in May. Hail Mary isn’t the first restaurant to put a modern spin on the American diner, and the El-Wayllys are far from the first culinary pros to renounce fine dining’s fastidious trappings in recent years, but they’re among the most playfully inventive to do so. An air of lighthearted rebelliousness pervades the deep, garage-like space thanks to kaleidoscopically kitschy décor (Tiffany lamps, yellow chrome barstools, orange floral wallpaper) and a broad menu that mingles curious original recipes and tinkered-with American classics. The pair are clearly kids at heart.
Hisham, who was brought up in an Egyptian-Bolivian household and raised in Qatar, goes by “Ham” for short. Sohla, the daughter of ice cream shop–owning Bengali immigrants, hails from Los Angeles. In their spectacles and black aprons (staff wear white ones, with the occasional tapered soda-jerk cap), they dart around the kitchen behind an industrial expanse of paned glass. They cook from a wide-ranging comfort food canon, whether that means fried green tomatoes with lively yogurt-buttermilk ranch or a head-and-foot-on grilled duck half served with Egyptian-style rice and duck tongue ragù.
Echoing how souvlaki and gyros wound up populating Greek diner and lunch counter menus, the El-Wayllys tip their hats to Middle Eastern shawarma. But instead of lamb or chicken, there’s octopus, the coins of spiced tentacle crowded around pistachio tahini, fried potatoes, and a pickled-onion salad that pops with citrusy Iranian barberries. At $19, it’s the most expensive of Hail Mary’s “nibbles,” the appetizer section where you’ll also find a deep-fried ball of burrata sitting in a pool of spicy marinara, the grande dame of mozzarella sticks. Another small plate reimagines broccoli-cheese soup as a cheddar-sauce-smothered charred whole stalk laid over crunchy yucca and broccoli purée. Despite the artful presentation, it’s familiar and comforting. Call it New Americana cuisine.
Five months in, and the El-Wayllys have found their voice, restructuring their menu to more closely align with modern dining habits, though it’s a far cry from your local greasy spoon embracing kale. Vegetables, like the leafy greens the kitchen sears and tosses with briny anchovy breadcrumbs and an electrifying combination of buttermilk and plum molasses, are shipped in from a farm in the Berkshires. Duck in triplicate (breast, terrine, offal salteña) comes with yeast-fermented cauliflower purée. Standards — eggs any style, turkey club, BLT — now huddle at the bottom of the menu under “diner classics.” But even there, the “American” cheese (a mix of gruyère, cheddar, and funky époisses) is made in-house, working wonders inside grilled cheese or melted over grass-fed beef for a double cheeseburger.
Hail Mary also uses pedigreed, extra-fatty Sasso birds for its sensational fried chicken, done in the hot-oil-drenched style of Nashville, only with outrageously spiced flour heavy on cinnamon, Sichuan peppercorns, and star anise. It appears to be a splurge ($32 for half, $58 for the whole bird), but heaped over corn and potato salads, pickles, and Sohla’s soft, chewy white bread, it’s more than enough to share. In fact, there’s unbridled richness all over this menu, so proceed with caution when ordering. Garlicky mayonnaise almost overwhelms a bowl of creamy sepia and shrimp fideos. “Carrots & potato,” hidden among the vegetable dishes, provides a sleeper gut-punch, the stretchy spuds suffused with obscene amounts of cheese.
Both the soda-fountain-esque cocktails and desserts, including boozy egg creams, fall under Sohla’s purview. Her towering, gonzo layer cakes alone are cause for celebration, sporting oversize sprinkles that add to their kid-like appeal. You’d be hard-pressed to finish a slice by yourself. And while ice creams offer a subtler sweet ending (subtlety being in short supply here) in flavors like banana-saffron and chocolate-cardamom, the El-Wayllys will gladly make you an epic sundae or banana split, just to remind you where you are.
68 Greenpoint Avenue, Brooklyn