I'm kvelling. Plotzing. Humming "Hava Nagila." That's what comes of eating at Tel Aviv in Great Neck, an oasis of serious food that's more than just a kosher Israeli cafe. The casual-cheery spot is owned by culinary luminary Michael Ginor, who's also co-president and co-founder of Hudson Valley Foie Gras. Under his watch, ingredients are both scrupulously sourced and ingeniously utilized.
Bright pickled vegetables arrive with warm fluffy pita and three incendiary relishes; lunch is off to a running start. A vivid red and yellow heirloom tomato salad on Yemini fry bread celebrates end-of-the-season bounty, as does grilled summer corn slathered with harissa aioli. From the extensive "hoomos" (hummus) menu, I get the "TLV" variation, a bowl of many flavors and textures - tahini, hard-cooked eggs, yellow chickpeas and "foul" (fava beans) drizzled with olive oil. The "sabich Iraqi" (Iraqi sandwich) is, itself, a marvel - pita enfolding fried eggplant, hard-cooked egg, hoodoos, tahina, mango pickle and Israeli salad. This I wash down with freshly squeezed watermelon juice. Can it get much better?
I'm doubtful, and when I return for dinner, I learn that Ginor is away on a trip, cooking first for the king of Laos and, then, the king of Thailand (really). Still, his affable crew doesn't miss a beat.
A green eggplant salad with an undercurrent of citrus transports me to a rarefied zone. Then come a series of other "meze" (little appetizers): a magical tabbouleh bursting with fresh parsley, coriander, scallion and mint. A resonant jalapeño-spiked spicy tomato salad. Some silky eggplant slices. A mellow-sweet babaghanoush. The waiter brings a plate with three little falafel balls drizzled with tahini. Crunch gives way to soft richness.
I've never had such delectable chicken schwarma, spiced pieces of chicken stacked on a vertical spit, roasted and sliced off. I get mine with mashed potatoes enriched with preserved lemon. A "Jerusalem mix" is a heady combo of sauteed diced chicken, beef, lamb and caramelized onion, served with spicy harissa mashed potatoes. A friend's Israeli herb omelet, as aromatic as it is light, is paired with crisp savory potato cubes ("palates bravas"). Three of us share a bottle of kosher Shiraz while one indulges in a glass of homemade mint lemonade, sweetened to taste with syrup on the side.
Dinner concludes with an exotic nondairy rosewater panacotta with berry coulis and pistachio foam and a lovely molten chocolate cardamom cake with coconut sorbet.
Skin-on pan-seared salmon, requested medium, has spent way too long in the pan. And the otherwise fine Jerusalem mix is lukewarm.
You don't have to take El Al to get to this Tel Aviv, but chances are you'll leave flying.