A few weeks ago, I ate a perfectly lovely meal at Gazala Place, one of the very few restaurants in the United States specializing in Druze cuisine. To be precise, it’s one of exactly two Druze restaurants in the United States: the other is Gazala’s, also owned by Israel-born Druze chef Halabi Gazala. Apparently, Chef Gazala is well on her way to constructing the nation’s largest Druze cuisine empire.
By now, you’re probably thinking, what the eff is a Druze? The Druze are a somewhat reclusive ethnic and religious group of somewhere between 1 million and 2.5 million souls, primarily residing in Lebanon, Syria, and Israel. According to our good friends at Wikipedia, roughly 20,000 Druze live in the United States. And at least one of them makes damned good food, apparently. (Another Druze, Casey Kasem, does a very good job of sounding like a stoned teenager while talking with a cartoon dog.)
Along with two wonderful non-Druze friends, I chowed my way through an epic mezze platter ($24.95) at Gazala Place, loaded with baba ganouj, hummus, tabouli, some insanely fresh stuffed grape leaves, a spoonful of tahini, a couple of absolutely heavenly balls of kibbeh (ground beef), and a few “cigars”—something resembling tiny fried eggrolls, stuffed with seasoned ground beef and tomatoes. Much of the mezze platter fell into the category of well-executed Levantine standards, but Druze pita bread is its own unique, delicious beast—soft, paper-thin, whole-wheat dough, baked onsite daily.
For our main entrée, we ate conclusive evidence that lamb fat is completely awesome. We ordered the daily special, lamb shank stewed forever in caramelized onions and tons and tons of lamb fat, creating an unreasonably juicy, dark gravy around the meat ($23.95, served with rice and a light cabbage/corn salad). It deserves a nomination for the best lamb I’ve ever eaten, alongside the ginger-rubbed lamb chops at Banjara, an Indian restaurant in the East Village.
Did I mention that lamb fat is completely awesome? Just checking.
Here’s the thing, though: I love great food wherever I can get it, but I love great food even more when it’s served in an unexpected hole-in-the-wall sort of place. If the restaurant looks unremarkable but serves amazing international food, I’m in heaven. Gazala Place is a nice spot. It looks like it should have great food. There’s even a flour-covered table in the window, where Chef Gazala works her bakery magic. I expected great food. I got it. We paid a decent amount of money for it. That’s cool. You should eat there.
Even cooler: a random-ass, nondescript takeout joint called Green Olive that serves phenomenal Israeli food for half the price. Hells, yeah!
I’ve walked past Green Olive (tagline: “Healthy Mediterranean Food”… yawn) literally 100 times since it opened last winter. It looks like a poor man’s version of Chickpea, the tasty-but-cloyingly-corporate-looking chain specializing in baked falafel. Nothing about Green Olive suggests that it would be any more interesting than Chickpea or the dozens of other Middle Eastern places in Midtown Manhattan.
And clearly, I’m a dumbass for thinking that. For $12.95 (trust me, that’s idiotically cheap by Midtown standards), a friendly yarmulke-clad man (I really, really like the word “yarmulke”) loaded up the best chicken shawarma platter I’ve had in Manhattan: beautifully spiced fowl, accompanied by some of the best hot sauces I’ve eaten in NYC (your choice of a garlicky green puree, or a saucier, sweeter red version), and a fresh pita. The grilled chicken platter ($13.95) was just as brilliant—miraculously tender, and marinated in its own distinctly amazing way.
The side dishes, however, were the best part: top-notch baba ganouj and hummus, a fiery cabbage salad with red peppers, roasted squash and onions, and the best roasted eggplant I’ve ever eaten. All of it was at least as fresh and impressive as the food served by our Palestinian friends at Duzan in Astoria—and that’s one hell of a compliment. The plates were absolute gut-busters, but at least the platters included enough cabbage to push the chicken and vegetables through. (Too much information? You’re welcome.)
I’m sorry, Green Olive, for taking almost a year to try your food. I won’t wait much more than another few days before I come back.
300 East 45th Street, Manhattan
Subway: Grand Central (4, 5, 6, 7, S trains)
709 9th Avenue, Manhattan
Subway: 50th Street (A, C, E trains)