“I knew I was taking a chance,” chef Elie Kahlon told me after my visits to his nine-month-old restaurant, Novo Mediterranean in Ridgewood. “People hear I’m Israeli, they expect falafel and hummus.”
Novo serves no falafel. Hummus, made in house, appears, among other places, in an appetizer with Greek tzatziki, smoky Moroccan salsa and house-made pita. The word Mediterranean comes with its own baggage. But as Kahlon told me, “The Mediterranean is more than olive oil, sun-dried tomatoes and grilled fish.”
To instantly grasp the point, order Kahlon’s duck bisteeya. Its phyllo surface brushed with clarified butter, it looks like a large, tan hockey puck. The interior is packed with confited duck meat, caramelized onion, garlic confit, raisins, pistachios, walnuts and Moroccan spices. Dusted with confectioner’s sugar, the $33 main course is both sweet and savory, chewy and crunchy, wonderfully fragrant and deeply satisfying. “It’s traditionally done with chicken,” Kahlon told me, “but I use duck for a richer taste.”
Another spoiler of preconceptions is the Jerusalem-artichoke ravioli, which a wag at my table called, “the most Israeli entrée here.” The joke, of course, is that Jerusalem artichokes, also called sunchokes, are native to North America. Kahlon stuffs four large ravioli with a mousse of sunchokes, garlic, coriander, sage, figs, honey, Israeli oregano, vegetable stock and olive oil. The pillows are served over sautéed spinach, sauced with a purée of sunchokes and organic yogurt, and sprinkled with crumbled Valbreso sheep’s-milk feta from southern France. The dish would be a winner on any continent.
Kahlon’s flavors arise from his biography. A Sephardic Jew, he grew up in a moshav, a community of farmers and artisanal food producers in southern Israel near Gaza and Egypt. “My father’s from Libya and a farmer; my mother’s from Tunisia and a great cook,” he said. “I loved walking the farm with my father and cooking with my mother, making everything from scratch. I have six brothers and sisters. Food was our life: growing it, picking it, cooking it, sharing it. We ate as a family, three meals a day.”
Friday dinner celebrated the Sabbath. “Relatives would drive from Tel Aviv to eat with us,” Kahlon said. “The table would be covered with 10 mezes and homemade challah. Then we’d have spicy Moroccan fish, then salad, turkey, lamb. We’d sit and eat and talk all night. It’s something very ancient, very powerful. It connects you to the land and to who you are.”
Yet Novo’s identity is not so simple. “I’m Israeli, and Israel is in the Middle East,” Kahlon mused. “But Israel has absorbed so many cultures and traditions, it’s like a melting pot of food. Today’s Israeli cuisine is more than Israeli. I think the direction is modern Mediterranean, and Novo is my twist on that.”
After serving in the Israeli Armed Forces, Kahlon went to culinary school near Tel Aviv and worked in a variety of Tel Aviv restaurants: Italian, Greek, and a fine-dining spot called Toto, “modern Middle Eastern with a touch of Italian.”
He moved to the States in 2012 to work with Israeli chef Einat Admony at Balaboosta, Manhattan’s best-regarded Israeli restaurant. But craving “the experience of a big kitchen,” he moved to the midtown seafood restaurant Oceana, “where I learned everything about how to love a fish, and all about the local fish you don’t see in Israel.” Next he cooked at Gordon Ramsay at the London Hotel in midtown. “That was serious cooking technique,” he said. “Things a chef has to know. How to really cook a vegetable, how to put food on the plate.”
For six months, Kahlon worked as private chef for a Russian billionaire living on Park Avenue. “I traveled with the family everywhere on their private jet,” he told me. “Miami, Seattle, Moscow, Israel. Every day, every menu was different.” Then an Israeli-born friend, Rafael Cohen, who was launching what would become Novo, asked him to be its chef. Kahlon felt ready to pull all his influences and experiences together.
The focal point of the dream kitchen he built is a modern version of the traditional Israeli and Palestinian brick or clay oven known in Arabic as a taboon. Its 800-degree heat, from a gas flame, imparts hints of smoke and gives meats and vegetables a delicious sear.
The first thing you’ll taste at Novo, its sensational bread, is baked in the taboon from airy focaccia dough finished with salt from the Dead Sea. It’s served with Greek olive oil and Kahlon’s formulation of the traditional Middle Eastern spice mix called za’atar.
Za’atar and the taboon team up in Kahlon’s tender and exotically flavorful octopus. The roasted tentacles are coated in date syrup, coriander seeds, preserved lemon zest, za’atar and Kahlon’s paprika, which he makes from sun-dried Israeli Chushka sweet peppers and spring garlic. The octopus is served with a tomato-butter sauce, pickled eggplant, green olives, spring onions and fava beans.
Another appetizer, haloumi cigars, were so good they were gone in a flash. Made from Turkish phyllo dough, they are filled with haloumi, a cow’s-milk cheese from Lebanon, mixed with fresh-ground Syrian Aleppo pepper, sauteed spinach and zucchini. Kahlon calls the cigars “my Middle Eastern spring roll.”
Cauliflower keeps extending its moment of menu stardom, and Novo’s take is terrific. Kahlon slow-roasts it with sesame tahini, pine nuts and currants. It emerges from the taboon crisp yet nutty and buttery, with a light sweetness. In another excellent starter of sautéed shrimp, the juice of Persian limes adds the Middle Eastern touch along with a sprinkling of za’atar. A yogurt sauce studded with bits of fresh pineapple and coriander seeds amplifies the fruity note.
Stellar entrées included branzino filet with sun-dried tomatoes, fennel, artichokes, green olives and a sweetening touch of fresh apricot. My 7-ounce Scottish “wild farmed” salmon fillet was impeccably grilled and served on a bed of bok choy, snow and French peas and crunchy-chewy bulgur. The magic came from crumbled roasted cashews tossed with gingery, fresh-ground turmeric and sprinkled over the fish.
Kahlon makes couscous as his mother did, by hand, from semolina. In a seafood couscous, the tiny golden globes were perfectly textured and spiced with house-made, Tunisian-style harissa hot sauce. Unfortunately, the mussels, shrimp, squid and fish in the bowl were overcooked and dry.
Novo’s very good, 21-day, dry-aged prime beef loin was seared in the taboon and served with an atavistic, halved marrow bone. The Colorado lamb chops were the best I’ve had in a long time. The lamb was playfully served with lamb bacon (a variation on a preparation picked up from Gordon Ramsay), a tangy-sweet eggplant-date purée, and an exotic jus of cardamom and Persian lime juice.
Desserts by Choya Hodge are tasty, if overcomplicated. The tahini parfait, for example, is composed of a white tahini pudding topped with shards of halvah, with crumbled sesame sablé cookies, pistachio gelato and crumbled pistachios, all resting on a smear of caramel sauce. It’s good, but would stand little chance in a smackdown against a simple chunk of great imported halvah.Click here to leave a comment
Cuisine Type:European - Greek/Mediterranean - Middle Eastern
Price Details:Appetizers, $12-$18; entrées, $28-$38; sides, $7-$9; desserts, $10-$13; three-course, prix-fixe dinner Mondays and Tuesdays, $38
Service:Knowledgeable and helpful