It shouldn't come as a surprise that Uptown's newest Israeli spot, Tal's Hummus, is already enjoying a modicum of success, considering the accolades racked up by nearby Shaya.
While Shaya's approach is polished and elegant, Tal's is much more casual. Here, the concept is based on quick and fresh Israeli street food. Diners order at a counter and can bring their own alcohol, which helps keep the tab low. Service is limited and can slow down when the tiny place is packed.
Since opening in May, the airy Magazine Street restaurant, owned by Doris Metropolitan alum Tal Sharon, has offered a small and simple selection of platters, sandwiches and salads. Though fairly straightforward, the food is fresh and lively, and there's clear dedication to quality. The menu is modeled on street food, but that shouldn't imply fast food decorum. Food is fresh, filling, flavorful and made to order.
Pingpong ball-sized orbs of falafel have a coffee-colored crust that gives way to bright green, moist and cohesive interiors with a toasted, nutty flavor. A colorful mix of diced tomatoes, cucumbers and onions forms the backbone of an Israeli salad tossed with bright green parsley leaves and drizzled with peppery lemon and olive oil dressing — a refreshing medley that decorates many platters and pita sandwiches.
On one visit, borek — buttery puff pastry triangles — were filled with a thin layer of sauteed mushrooms. On other visits, they were stuffed with soft farmers cheese and served with hard-boiled eggs, tomatoes, pickles and yogurt.
Somewhere in the late 1990s, hummus (remember the grainy stuff?) fell into favor with the Birkenstock-wearing crowd, but it took a while to reach mainstream grocers' shelves in the U.S., let alone trendy restaurants. A few years ago, a hummus renaissance ushered in a new breed of velvety spreads, and the Middle Eastern chickpea dish finally got the respect it deserves. The version at Tal's is in the second camp — a garlicky, silky dip with a faint hint of tahini that doesn't taste smoky or heavy on sesame paste. Mushroom lovers will swoon for a version topped with heaps of sauteed champignons and slivered onions.
Warmed, fluffy pita envelopes a number of pocket-like sandwiches including the excellent sabich, which brims with smoky ribbons of charred eggplant, hard-boiled eggs, tomatoes, cucumbers, a healthy slathering of tahini and amba, a sweet and briny pickled mango condiment.
Beef kebabs are presented like miniature patties, blackened and crispy on the outside and cooked to a juicy, barely medium on the inside. They fill pita along with parsley and Israeli salad, tahini and fat pickle wedges — a combination of tart and bright flavors that balance the rich elements of the grilled meat.
Besides a handful of chicken and beef kebab dishes, Tal's is a mostly vegetarian joint, and vegetable sides don't disappoint, with the exception of a lightly fried, poorly seasoned cauliflower dish.
There's a small rotating selection of desserts, but one sweet Middle Eastern standby is always a good end to a meal here: syrupy baklava cigars, with thin, honey-drenched threads of phyllo wrapped around a dense walnut center.
New Orleanians have made it clear that modern Israeli food is not only welcome but celebrated, and Tal's Hummus is a fun and casual addition to the scene.