It wasn’t so long ago that Israeli food in New York meant mainly falafel or shawarma served in a pita that might as well have been a cardboard envelope. Now all that is changing as Israel-identified chefs arrive in New York City, bringing with them a modern cuisine far more lush and nuanced.
Einat Admony rode in on a pink Vespa, carrying with her Jerusalem bagels that were lighter than air and covered in sesame seeds — miles different than the traditional New York ones — and sabich sandwiches in puffy homemade pitas filled with boiled eggs and eggplant dripping with tahini. Next came Michael Solomonov by way of Philly, making hummus a dozen ways the centerpiece of his Dizengoff menu. More recently, Tomer Blechman opened Miss Ada, juggling Israeli and Italian cuisines.
Now appears Meir Adoni, chef of four restaurants in Israel. His Nur — a word common to Hebrew and Arabic, meaning “fire” or “light” — recently opened on East 20th Street, a few steps from Teddy Roosevelt’s birthplace. The 60-seat restaurant is relatively small, with a front room that showcases a white marble bar and a darker back room infused with bronze light from hanging metal fixtures that look like outsize salon hair dryers. The place has been jammed from the beginning.
The menu is fascinating — not quite like any we’ve seen before. As with other new Israeli menus in town, it acknowledges the debt the cuisine owes to the other cuisines of the Middle East and North Africa. There’s Palestinian tartare ($24), for example, a gorgeous plate of leaves and sauces in many hues dancing around little hillocks of coarsely chopped beef. When a customer at the bar asked the bartender what the name meant, she said that it’s a tribute by the chef to his Palestinian line cooks.
This is food infused with meaning, but is it good? Yes it is, though those who love the purity of tartare may find it muddled with a few distractions. The menu starts off with four breads: challah, sourdough, and kubaneh, a bulging brioche, to be seized and pulled apart and then dipped in pureed fresh tomato or green Yemenite schug. Adoni also serves Admony’s airy bagel, only bigger, lighter, and more elliptic, offered with sumac and pureed eggplant.
When these giant breads arrive at the start of the meal, save some because they’ll be useful later for sopping up sauces on a menu largely lacking starches. The other two menu sections are Small Dishes and Large Dishes, the latter about twice the length of the former, both comprising 15 choices, plus a couple of specials each evening.
From Small Dishes comes date doughnuts ($11), two orbs of date-nut pastry stuffed with smoked trout, presented on a bed of pebbles in a box, as well as Damascus qatayef, a pair of lamb empanadas served with two shot glasses of drinkable yogurt with a green sauce on top. The hand pies are fantastic, but the yogurt drink may get left in the cup.
You may not like everything that comes your way at Nur, but even the challenges are fascinating. That goes double for the specials. On a recent evening a trio of sweetbreads came with a pool of hummus, and a twisted shakshuka bobbed with calf brains. The chef certainly likes to play around with offal.
In the Large Dishes section there’s a tip of the hat to Eastern European Jewish cooking in gefilte shrimp ($14), and a paean to North African gastronomy in “octopus” ($33), which comes with harissa and Moroccan carrots and includes two long, fat, tender tentacles. The dish I most enjoyed on two visits was a very agreeable spin on French bouillabaisse called Casablanca chraime, which featured mussels and fish in a tomato-laced fumet, with some very fine-grained, hand-rollled couscous on the side along with a Persian pumpkin pickle called tershi.
The wine list features vintages from the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe, some made with less common grapes and blends, available by the bottle and the glass. The anise-flavored distilled spirit called arak is also featured, some of it from Turkey and Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Yes, all food is political, and Adoni’s menu proves that a well-chosen bill of fare can seem like a gesture of reconciliation. And the dishes are certainly beautiful to look at. My advice: Go when the place first opens at 5 p.m. and sit at the bar.