Gazala Place in Hell’s Kitchen and Gazala’s on the Upper West Side claim to be the only outposts of Israeli Druze cuisine in New York, or indeed in the country. I’ve no reason to doubt it, given that the entire population of the little-known sect is just 120,00 in Israel.
Gazala Place, named for the chef Gazala Halabi, opened in Hell’s Kitchen in 2008. It seats just 18, and the kitchen is so small that the chef supposedly does some of the cooking at home. It won favorable reviews from Peter Meehan in The Times and Robert Sietsema in the Village Voice.
I won’t try to explain the technicalities of Druze cuisine: Meehan and Sietsema did it far more knowledgeably than I could ever hope to. You’ll find many ingredients familiar from other Middle Eastern cuisines, like goat cheese, grape leaves, bulgur wheat, eggplant, chickpeas, and lamb kebabs. Prices are very modest, with cold appetizers as low as $5 and most entrées below $20.
Gazala’s, the chef’s new place across from the Museum of Natural History, is a bit larger than the original. It takes reservations, but I gather it gets a significant walk-in crowd. Although OpenTable offered any time I wanted on a Thursday evening, the restaurant was just about full for the entire two hours we were there.
Promising food was marred by well-meaning but atrocious service. There seemed to be just one server for the whole dining room, and he couldn’t keep up with the demand. He was also very difficult to hear, in a room with the acoustics of a train station.
We ordered a mixed appetizer platter to start, followed by a whole deep-fried red snapper. A while later, the server returned to ask if we’d mind if both were served together. Yes, we minded. After another wait, the fish arrived, and seconds later, the appetizers. Both wouldn’t have physically fit on the table, even if we’d wanted them.
As we’d already started to dissect the fish, we sent back the appetizers. They returned after we’d finished the red snapper—obviously the same platter they’d brought out before, as items that should be warm were now cold.
Anyhow, I really liked the snapper ($28; above), but the cold appetizer platter ($33; below) had all the appeal of a stale buffet. It is probably better when it is served first, straight out of the kitchen, as was intended to be.
The wine list is mostly inexpensive, but the only Israeli wine on the list was something like $80. I wasn’t about to spend that for an appellation I didn’t recognize, so I ordered an unobjectionable $35 merlot.
If the service improves, Gazala’s could be a decent and inexpensive option on the Upper West Side, well positioned to take walk-ins from museum and park traffic. The space is pretty, but bare-bones, and as noted, punishingly loud when full. I doubt I’ll go again.
Gazala’s (380 Columbus Avenue at 78th Street, Upper West Side)