Three years after opening acclaimed Middle Eastern restaurant Miss Ada, chef and owner Tomer Blechman is headed in a more casual direction. His second act, a corner cafe and coffee shop called Nili, is set to open its doors at 360 Smith Street, at Second Place, in Carroll Gardens on Monday.
Nili is the “coffee nerd” sibling to Miss Ada, says Blechman, a place where residents in the neighborhood can pick up a coffee on their way into the subway, or grab a loaf of bread on the way home from work. “I missed having something quick and healthy to take on the subway with me,” Blechman says. “There isn’t a lot of that here.”
Blechman would know. The acclaimed Israeli chef has lived in Carroll Gardens for more than a decade — most recently in an apartment above Nili — before moving closer to Miss Ada in Fort Greene earlier this year. The corner cafe space was previously home to an outpost of Milk Bar, which closed in August 2019. Following the closure, some residents in the neighborhood reported they hoped to see a neighborhood coffee shop or newsstand open in its place. “Not a chain store,” as one person put it.
At the new coffee shop, the focus is on handheld dishes, like tuna salad and whitefish sandwiches and bacon, egg, and cheeses. Sandwiches filled with chicken shawarma and short rib join the menu in the afternoon, as well.
In addition to entrances on Smith Street and Second Place, Nili has a window inside of the Carroll Street subway station, where customers can order coffee or pastries sourced from local bakeries, like Runner and Stone in Gowanus and Balthazar Bakery in Englewood, New Jersey. Loaves of sourdough and rye bread come from the Dekalb Market location of Pain d’Avignon, while Blechman has tapped Breads Bakery for the cafe’s bureka and rugelach.
Fans of Miss Ada might recognize similar dishes on the menu at Nili, though Blechman warns against comparing the two restaurants. The cafe’s hummus and tabbouleh, though similar to the versions at Miss Ada, head in new directions, the former topped with shifka peppers, onion, and parsley, while the latter is made using ginger aioli tahini. The sweet potato hummus and labne here follow the same recipes as Miss Ada, but they may taste a bit different as they are made ahead of time.
Absent from the opening menu at Nili is the popular whipped ricotta at Miss Ada, but Blechman says a version of the dish is currently in the works.
Nili is a step in a more casual direction for Blechman, a chef who’s best known for his work at pioneering Middle Eastern restaurant Miss Ada. There, his bowls of labne and lamb shawarma hummus have been well-received by the city’s critics, while the restaurant has found a longtime home on Eater’s list of essential New York City restaurants.
Opening another restaurant of Miss Ada-sized proportions is still a distant dream for Blechman, but when the Nili cafe space went on the market ahead of the pandemic, he decided to take the opportunity and start small. Nili will be open for takeout from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily starting on December 21.