Michael Ginor's Lola hit Great Neck like a shooting star in 2009: bold, beguiling, brilliant. His Tel Aviv, a casual, Israeli-inspired cafe for mezze that opened a year earlier, had similar impact. They dramatically improved local dining.
But such meteors burn up entering the earth's atmosphere, and Great Neck's in particular proved impervious to the former's charms, the latter's prices. Tel Aviv eventually closed. And high-end Lola has had to remake itself. The reborn restaurant opens as a vibrant hybrid of the two, with big flavors and a moderate tab.
Ginor, who established Hudson Valley Foie Gras, has kept the modern, handsome design of the dining room. But you won't find that much of the pricey duck liver on the menu, which combines Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and North African accents. You can fashion an excellent meal of small plates. There are a few larger, main-course-size choices, too, from owner-executive chef Ginor and chef de cuisine Lenny Messina.
Try the lamb malawach, a zesty Yemenite-style phyllo "pizza," with spiced ground lamb, caramelized onions, pine nuts, cilantro and tahini; or the tomato-and-cheese version, with matbucha, or stewed tomato relish with peppers and onion, a Moroccan and Middle Eastern treat, plus aged Cheddar. Enjoy charred octopus calcotada, which evokes the Catalan food festival with slow-roasted leeks and hazelnut romesco sauce.
Refresh your appetite with grilled haloumi cheese and compressed watermelon, boosted by almond and mint. Dive into the fattoush salad, sparked by marinated feta cheese and crisp, herbaceous za'atar pita. Slather smoky, grilled pita with tangy taramasalata.
And sample superior hummus, with tahini and either stewed chickpeas, crunchy rounds of falafel or chicken shawarma. Veer westward with the patatas bravas, the elemental tapa, ignited with harissa aioli and soothed by date honey. Skippable: rich but monotonous kale salad in a citrus vinaigrette; and the dry, roasted cauliflower.
The kitchen sends out a fine chicken schnitzel, with harissa aioli, pickled vegetables and a delectably lemony potato puree; and an even better, juicy roasted chicken with apricot and almond couscous. Ginor's seared Hudson Valley duck breast is predictably generous and meaty, sliced and positioned atop chard and herbed farro. You may enrich it with seared foie gras.
A special of grilled swordfish turns almost Sicilian with preserved lemon, olives, capers and tomato. But neither caramelized fennel nor olive oil and sea salt can rescue the bland, whole grilled branzino.
Desserts are few, with a halvah napoleon and a flourless chocolate almond cake in the lead.
Whatever Lola wants, Lola earns.