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Helluva Halvah

Why fine Israeli dining isn’t an oxymoron.

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Miriam  

At $14.50, the chicken shawarma at Park Slope’s six-month-old Miriam may be the priciest chicken shawarma the Underground Gourmet has ever laid eyes on. Anyone who knows anything about chicken shawarma knows that among the falafel shacks of Macdougal Street and the pita huts of Coney Island Avenue, the going rate for fire-licked poultry freshly hacked off a rotating thingamajig and shoved into a pita pocket is about six bucks.

Miriam, though, is neither a hut nor a shack. It’s a full-fledged Israeli restaurant, unfussily but comfortably accoutred with linen napkins, capacious wineglasses, and a jazzy soundtrack. And it does not shove its chicken into pita pockets but rather arranges it just-so atop the flatbread in the manner of a delicately composed salad. To drive home the point that the kitchen specializes in what the menu describes as “modern Israeli” cuisine, the chef layers the marinated and grilled strips of chicken over fresh spinach, surrounds it with a piquant moat of mango chutney (amba, to shawarma cognoscenti), and tops it with an oven-roasted tomato. It’s a deconstructed fancy-pants chicken shawarma that you eat with a knife and fork, one that, deliciousness aside, could cause a shawarma purist to throw a fit.

And so begins your introduction to Contemporary Israeli Cuisine, courtesy of Miriam’s owners, who have handily provided a definition on their Website. Identified more by what they call its “lack of identity” than by any firm one, modern Jewish food (and Miriam’s menu) is diverse and refined enough to include not only egg-noodle lokshen and kasha but lobster demi-glace and coriander-orange gastrique. Israeli chef Ido Ben-Shmuel, who trained in Paris, might hate the term—most chefs do—but what Miriam purveys is a form of fusion: familiar Middle Eastern ingredients and flavors reinterpreted for the sophisticated Park Slope palate.

Although falafel is conspicuously absent from the menu, there is a hummus plate of sorts—it comprises three small ceramic bowls set on an oval platter, one filled with the thick parsley-and-pine-nut-festooned spread; the second with sliced jalapeños for do-it-yourself spicing; and the third with a warm stew of chickpeas, fava beans, and meaty mushrooms. A molded Mediterranean salad is ringed with strips of grilled eggplant and crowned with a mound of creamy feta; inside, avocado and crunchy mini-croutons provide textural contrasts to a medley of crisp vegetables and melting morsels of fried eggplant. It’s more satisfying than the grilled halloumi salad, which, despite its nice, wild-tasting arugula and walnut vinaigrette, would probably be better if the salty block of cheese weren’t so cold. “Kerepalach,” as the menu calls them, are thin-skinned dumplings stuffed with mushroom and purple potatoes adrift in an earthy-tasting broth. The soup is thin but flavorful, served with a bowl of the world’s tiniest oyster crackers to float on top.

As befits its Mediterranean origins, Miriam’s menu is big on fish. Whitebait, another appetizer, are crisp and tender, piled over fresh parsley and served with a pungent rouille. Pan-seared dorado comes under a lid of slivered beets, accompanied by kasha ragout and tzimmes. Marjoram-crusted grouper wasn’t as busy: a green-herb garnish above, a loose but rich cauliflower purée below, and a pile of still crunchy chopped green beans infused with preserved lemon. Like Greek tavernas, Middle Eastern restaurants aren’t known for cooking lamb to temperature, and Miriam’s no exception. Our chop came (too) well done, automatically, but the accompanying braised shank in the “two ways lamb” was rich and meaty and served with a fluffy pile of couscous.

Despite its ambitious food, Miriam clearly aspires to be an unpretentious neighborhood spot. The service is friendly and unfrazzled, and thanks to what must be the most efficient busboy-runners in all of Brooklyn, astonishingly quick. But you’re still welcome to linger—over a silky halvah mousse, with pistachio halvah crumbled on top, or a bottle of Israeli wine, which Miriam pointedly lists under the “South Europe” designation, alongside affordably priced selections from France, Spain, and Italy. With that sort of globally informed, culinarily sophisticated outlook—proud of its heritage but not enslaved by it—Miriam isn’t only elevating Israeli cuisine. It’s reinventing it.

MIRIAM
Address: 79 Fifth Ave., at Prospect Pl., Park Slope, Brooklyn 718-622-2250
Hours: Dinner, Sunday to Thursday, 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday until midnight. Brunch, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers: $5.50 to $8. Entrées: $13.50 to $20.
Ideal Meal: Hummus, grouper, and halvah mousse.
Note: Try the shakshuka at brunch.


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