Tapas Takes a Trip to the Levant — in NYC
Family Inspiration: Haim Amit of Vino Levantino was inspired by Yotam Ottolenghi and others to update his grandmother’s Turkish recipes.
It’s easy to love a cuisine that describes eggplant as pescado de tiera — fish of the earth — but Turkish-Sephardic cuisine has more than inventive nomenclature to recommend it.
“The Jews of Izmir couldn’t afford much meat,” explained Haim Amit, co-owner of the new neighborhood wine bar Vino Levantino , on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, “so there are many vegetable dishes.”
And what vegetable dishes!
Despite offering only a small selection of tapas-sized servings of eggplant, tomato, chickpeas, leeks, potatoes and kohlrabi, Vino Levantino makes a fair case for the cuisine as it spreads out and encompasses the whole Eastern Mediterranean. Each dish is carefully prepared and herbed to complement, not overpower, the ingredients. The beech mushroom salad takes just a hint of sweetness from the maple syrup dressing. Lightly frying the leek-and-potato patties (similar to the traditional Passover dish keftikes de prassa ) with dill elevates them from being just leeky latkes.
It’s sometimes difficult to discern when the original cuisine from Amit’s Turkish family ends, where Israeli influence begins, and where the chef’s interpretative invention takes over. Jewish Turkish cuisine is not essentially different from any of the many local Turkish cuisines, except for the constraints of kashrut.
More than two millennia of Jewish and Muslim cohabitation in Turkey meant that whatever swept through the Black Sea into the Aegean and Mediterranean or back again made its mark on a number of local cuisines. At the center of an empire — first the Holy Roman and then the Ottoman — foodways from the silk route arrived in the Mediterranean, colliding with Balkan and European ingredients, traditions and palates.
Vino Levantino is a unique twist on the wine and tapas bars of lounge land. Combining the expertise of both co-owners (the Turkish Osman Cakir and the Israeli Amit), as well as the received wisdom of Amit’s late Turkish grandmother, the redoubtable-seeming “Madame Donna,” it sets out to provide a neighborhood hangout with a flavor of the Levant.
When Madame Donna was born, just before World War I in Ottoman Istanbul, the idea that eventually her recipes would be written out in Hebrew and photocopied for her 16 grandchildren surely could have made little sense.
Even when that reproduced recipe booklet became a reality at her 92nd birthday in Israel in May 2004, the idea that those recipes would be the basis for the menu of a stylish wine bar on the Upper West Side and that her instructions, interpreted by chef Edwin Reyes, would provide visitors of all stripes with a gustatory glimpse of Ottoman Jewry would have seemed like a dream.
But her grandson Amit, a proud owner of a photocopied booklet, has helped make all that come true. Building on his love of wine and on his grandmother’s cookbook, Amit — still a full-time print broker — has brought to life a form of Levantine culture that even the primary scholar of the subject, Jacqueline Shohet Kahanoff, only touched upon.
The pattern of the dishes that we tried in the shadow of some tasty and reasonably priced Lebanese, Turkish and Israeli wines: elegant simplicity. Although there is meat on the menu, we snacked on vegetarian plates on a recent Thursday night (music night).
The stuffed tomato — a simple but satisfyingly effective dish — was added to the menu, but languished until the restaurant added the Ladino name*, tomato reynado* (tomato of the king). The flourish of the name is not an ancient grandiosity; in fact it’s the only flourish on a menu that makes no pretense.
And regal the tomato is. With tangy flesh lushly bursting around the delicate rice interior, this tomato embodies the simplicity and the drama of this Levantine cuisine. Herbs, capers and olives provide the filling with moisture and a savory poise.
A chickpea dish (described simply as “chickpeas!”) was exquisite, and deeply undersold by its prosaic menu description. Baked crisp, the chickpeas were firm on the outside but fresh in their dressing of lemon, cumin and parsley.
A roasted eggplant is topped with ricotta cheese, za’atar and small ruby pomegranate arils.
An explicit innovation, the quinoa falafel, was less crisp on the outside than some of its forebears, but lighter and moister than they are. Its accompanying tahini dip was excellent. “It is the second best tahini in New York,” Amit noted of his investment in the Al Arz version. “The best is too expensive to buy. The customers, they don’t want to pay $20 for falafel, but you can really taste the quality of this one.”
The reserved tapas portions means that the dishes only tantalize, they don’t cloy. And there’s plenty of time to enjoy the wines, each of which Amit — who had the idea of a wine bar because he wanted to choose the wine, not to cook his grandmother’s food — has selected personally. “It makes me proud and happy that I could make a wine bar which also goes back to the flavors I grew up on.”
There’s no dessert on the menu, but we were treated to some marzipan that Amit’s mother cooked with him when she visited New York. It was soft and chewy, unlike some marzipan, and tasted like almond cookie dough. “In Jaffa,” Amit said, “when I grew up with Turkish and Bulgarians, neighbors used to give marzipan to people who were leaving to travel. I’m not sure how traditional it is, but it’s delicious.”
Dan Friedman is the managing editor of the Forward. Follow him on Twitter @danfriedmanme