Just how badly did 44-year-old Moroccan-Israeli chef Meir Adoni want to open a restaurant in New York? For one thing, the endeavor required some patience: The search for the right mix of location and partners took him nearly half a decade. Then there were the sacrifices — both financial and emotional — Adoni was forced to make: namely, shuttering his flagship fine-dining destination, Catit, which had an impressive fourteen-year run in Tel Aviv, as well as Mizlala, its casual younger sibling. “It’s been my lifelong dream to open a restaurant in New York,” says Adoni, “and to do it correctly would require more of my attention.”
Nur, Adoni’s first stateside venture, lands in a boxy, low-ceilinged space on 20th Street, down the block from gracefully aging stalwart Gramercy Tavern and across from West Coast sushi juggernaut Sugarfish. Mobbed since opening at the end of April, Nur greets you with white marble (for the bar top up front) and earthen tones, the floor covered in Levantine-patterned tilework, all of it cast under the soft glow of backlit shelves holding wines from Lebanon, Israel, and the broader Mediterranean — including bottles both kosher and non-. Although the restaurant doesn’t employ a sommelier, the many staff members who populate the dining room will gladly guide you through the concise list. In fact, service couldn’t be friendlier once you’re inside.
A famous face in his homeland from juggling television appearances and the forward-looking, pan–Middle Eastern cuisine he pioneered in Tel Aviv, Adoni has teamed up with expat-Israeli babka baron Gadi Peleg for this project. For millennia, the region has been a hotbed of stellar baking, so you’ll want to start with some of the loaves here, made daily for the restaurant at Peleg’s celebrated Breads Bakery. Forgo the sourdough ($7), good as it is when eaten with paprika aioli and whipped butter. Instead, opt for regional specialties like garlicky challah ($7) sweetened with honey and meant for swiping through creamy onion dip, or the elongated Jerusalem bagels ($10) you can eat with lima bean hummus and zaatar, a fragrant spice blend redolent of thyme and oregano. Best of all is Nur’s attractively rotund and knotty kubaneh ($11), a Yemenite bread that arrives looking like a bulbous, burnished cloud — deeply browned top, hand-rolled whorls giving way to a rich, buttery interior — and comes with grated tomato pulp and the bracingly spicy and verdant pepper sauce called schug, also with origins in Yemen. For maximum gratification, use the kubaneh to sop up the remnants of Adoni’s eggplant carpaccio ($17), which comes dusted with grated feta and drizzled with olive oil, rosewater, raw tahini, and date molasses in a hypnotic gyre.
Nur, a word shared by Arabic (“flame”) and Hebrew (“light”), arrives at just the right time, a boon for New Yorkers who’ve already warmed to the cooking of Israeli and Middle Eastern chefs like Philippe Massoud (Ilili), Einat Admony (Taïm, Balaboosta, Bar Bolonat), Eldad Shem-Tov (Glasserie), and Israeli-born Philadelphian Michael Solomonov, who last year brought hummus haven Dizengoff to Chelsea Market. Then there’s Nir Mesika, a Catit and Mizlala vet who made a name for himself running Zizi Limona in Williamsburg before opening the East Village’s Timna two years ago. If you’ve been to the latter, Nur’s freewheeling style will be familiar.
And while it’s something of a cliché to liken chefs to artists, at Nur, Adoni often plates with a flair that’s more Frank Stella than Richard Serra, with bold expressions of color and abstract geometry taking precedence. See his tartare ($24), a collage filigreed with custardy baby artichokes and swirls of chopped tomato, sheep’s-milk yogurt, and greenery (fava beans, chiles), the beef shot through with lemon and parsley, tahini, sumac, and a smoky burnt-eggplant cream. Elsewhere, octopus ($33) tentacles nod to Morocco, stacked like pick-up sticks with multicolored roast carrots over puddles of cardamom yogurt and harissa, while the Turkish Delight on the Hudson ($39), an idyllically named lobe of foie gras lashed with lavender-honey yogurt and propped next to rhubarb jam and figs, is long on manic enchantment.
Other dishes appear to take a more minimalist approach, but here too there’s complexity at work. “Date doughnuts” ($11), the size and shape of Dunkin’ Munchkins, should really be called fish doughnuts, since the supple fruit fritters are stuffed with ground almonds and smoked trout. They’re to be dipped into a citrus-curry vinaigrette that’s almost as tangy and lush as the amba, or pickled-mango sauce, Adoni slathers inside pita for butcher-paper-wrapped grilled sandwiches ($13) overstuffed with shredded lamb. Gefilte shrimp ($14) gives the Jewish staple a luxe makeover, nesting coins of dense ground tiger prawn showered with wobbly dashi jelly inside a swing-top jar alongside pickled carrots and beet-horseradish cream; you assemble a little of everything, in sharp and briny harmony, atop slices of bread and eat it like an hors d’oeuvre. (Prepare to see this at many a millennial seder next year.) You’re encouraged to share everything, and indeed you might have to: Larger items like the chraime ($36), a fish stew brimming with mussels in a tomato-accented broth — and served with remarkably tender hand-rolled couscous and tershi, a coarse Libyan pumpkin spread — make for entrées that would more than fill you up on their own.
Eleven Madison Park vet Lisa Meisenger handles desserts ($14), which extend the flowery monikers. The Flavors of Ramallah, for one, is a sweet-savory success combining pumpkin marmalade, crunchy kadaif pastry, and herbaceous sage-honey ice cream. On the other hand, smoked-yogurt ice cream isn’t enough to redeem the surprisingly muted Hills of Jerusalem and its mock boulders of chocolate and halva coated in a candy shell. But Nur’s confectional ambitions reach their zenith with the New Middle East, a jumble of semolina-mascarpone cream, blood orange sorbet, yogurt crumble, and citrus compote crowned with a mosque-like dome of tart sumac meringue, a reminder of the region’s diversity that sates both mouth and mind.