After a three-year absence, Gazala’s reopened on the Upper West Side last month in an expansive new space located at 447 Amsterdam Ave. near 82nd Street. The previous location was on Columbus, right across from the back end of the Museum of Natural History; its surprise closure is still considered a mystery. The places are both comparable in size, but the new Amsterdam locale arguably enjoys more nighttime foot traffic, with such popular restaurants as Nice Matin and Crave Fishbar nearby. It also has an expanded menu, which two friends and I sampled on a recent evening.
The new space is divided into two large dining rooms. The first includes a long bar, communal table, and open kitchen faced with handsome ceramic tiles, featuring a rotating vertical shawarma spit and stacked ovens. The second room is slightly larger, positioned up a few steps on the uptown side. Both rooms are sparsely decorated and lit with jeweled wall sconces that cast an uneven glow that dims as the evening progresses.
The menu includes that of the restaurant’s predecessor, the still lively Gazala’s Place, located in Hell’s Kitchen in a more intimate space with a BYOB policy. The new branch, called simply Gazala’s, has a full bar with a relatively short wine and beer list, as well as invented cocktails. Israeli Druze chef Gazala Halabi has been busy in the interim, developing several dishes that haven’t been seen at her restaurants before, many served with her signature paper-thin pitas.
We set about trying the new stuff along with some old favorites, while sitting at the end of the communal table nearest the kitchen so we could watch the chef at work. Here are the five new dishes we liked best.
1) Shawarma plate ($19.50) — The twirling cylinder in the kitchen is put to good use in this entrée, which features slashed chicken fragments on an oniony green salad drizzled with herbed tahini. A choice of french fries or rice pilaf is offered; pick the pilaf. Other dishes featuring chicken shawarma include another entrée that places the poultry in the middle of a plate of hummus.
2) Roasted eggplant ($12.50) — This dish is classified as a starter, but it could function quite well as a bargain entrée. It consisted of a pair of thick eggplant slices roasted to crispness. From between the slices oozes melted cheese, while the short stack is crowned with tahini and pomegranate seeds. Call it a Druze eggplant parm.
3) Carmel salad ($12) — The salad name-checks Israel’s Mount Carmel, a coastal mountain range that is home to two historic Druze communities. Based on arugula and leaf lettuce, it features tomatoes and cubes of grilled haloumi cheese in a light, lemony vinaigrette.
4) Cheese cigars ($7.50) — At both of Halabi’s restaurants, we’ve enjoyed these cigar-shaped pastries stuffed with either potato or ground meat. Now we can also enjoy a cheese-filled variety, with a tahini dipping sauce.
5) Shrimp appetizer ($14.50) — In this dish, carefully cleaned jumbo shrimp swim in a sea of olive oil that’s powerfully flavored with garlic. A squeeze of lemon finishes this dish, with also involves sautéed cherry tomatoes. “Hey, this tastes very Spanish,” one of our party piped up.