10th avenue is the new 9th avenue. Thats what I tell visitors when I bring them to 10th ave in ethnic rich Hell’s Kitchen. That line either prompts a smile, confusion, or in one particular instance, gas. Among the various new eateries that popped over the last few years, which includes Peruvian, Thai, Mexican, Italian, farm-to-belly (yes The Marshall, I see you), Korean Chicken Wings, “Middle-terranean” Taboon stands as the grand ol’ daddy in this rejuvenated, gentrified, stretch of Hell’s Kitchen. You could not open a place like Taboon 18 years earlier (Taboon opened in 2004) in that neighborhood without having a Shepherd’s Pie in the menu, or other classics from the Irish mob cookbook.
I was given a task by a group of hard to please New Jerseyans to pick a nice Israeli place in the city for a group dinner, and I immediately thought of Taboon and Balaboosta for a slightly cheaper fare. Balaboosta’s somewhat limited group menu, and my two year absence from Taboon made the choice clearer. A coin flip! Ok, not really. The choice was clear and needless to say the South Jerseyans who miraculously arrived on time after carefully planning a route via Chris Christie supported towns, seamed pleased with the end results.
Taboon means oven in Arabic, and your host for the evening is the domed wood burning, brick oven which greets you as soon as you arrive. This is the stuff that dreams are made off. And pizza! And once seated it didnt take long to get a taste of the that oven. Focaccia that would make Italian gourmands proud. Perfect depth, golden crispy exterior, brushed with just enough olive oil, with a touch of rosemary and salt. But the bread doesnt just stop there. A splendid Sambusak stuffed with feta cheese, jalapeño and onion follows.
Along with the bread, came an army of mezzes. Well, an army for NYC standards at least. In any Arab restaurant in Abu Ghosh near Jerusalem this would be called “Closed till further notice”. An acceptable Hummus, tzaziki, taramosalata (roe spread – the older I get the less I like it), baba ghanoush, green schoog (the older I get the more I like it, but I prefer it like my wine, red), red pepper spread (the older I get the more I like cookies. Nothing to do with red pepper spread [which was lovely btw] but I thought this is as good as a time to mention it). The lovely mezze parade then continued with a refreshing avocado salad, and salmon ceviche (I believe it was salmon, it says red snapper on the site). But the mezze war was won by the fantastic falafel balls with an all too familiar taste (Amba – that mango condiment we enjoyed so much in Israel last year), and the crowd favorite Zucchini cakes with sauteed snow peas, cipollini onions, fresh herbs topped with yogurt/garlic/mint sauce
As for main, I enjoyed my perfectly cooked Hanger with potatos, Brussels sprouts, and garlic. But I quickly realized that I had this steak here twice before, and a quick look to my right gave me some serious and extremely rare chicken envy. Yes, the first time New Jerseyan ordered better than me. The mighty fine looking Chicken Taboon was featuring my true love, Israeli couscous.
A note about Israeli couscous. Israeli couscous is not like the couscous you know and love and really only called Israeli couscous in America. In Israel, its called “Ptitim”, and its essentially tiny oven toasted ”Pasta balls” invented when Israel’s first prime minister asked Osem to develop a rice substitute. For a while it was nicknamed Ben-Gurion’s rice.
Back to the mains. Two fish dishes that have been on the menu for as long as I remember are particularly popular. The whole baked Branzino, and the Heraime – wild striped bass, baked in the taboon oven in a ragout of roasted pepper, tomato, cilantro, mild Moroccan spices, artichokes and hot paprika oil served with regular couscous (booo, but I get it). If you like meaty white fish with red sauce, get this. Did I mention that a top Israeli chef who happened to be owner Ayala’s uncle (I think) was brought in to help generate the menu?
Normally in Middle Eastern/Mediterranean I find my refuge in all the apps/mezzes, and the desserts, and any greatness in the middle is a bonus. Bonus! The desserts here are just fantastic. The Silan in particular is a thing of beauty – Vanilla ice cream with puffed rice and date honey sprinkled with caramelized pistachios and topped with shredded halva, I’ve had this on every single visit. The Lava Cake however was this crowd’s fave, and the Knaffe capped another great meal at Taboon.
773 10th Ave, 52nd Street
Recommended Dishes: Focaccia, Sambusak, Falafel, Zucchini cakes, Chicken, Heraime, Silan, Lava Cake