The Zion King
Bissaleh Café is a kosher Israeli dairy restaurant/pizza place/ juice bar/coffee bar. Not, you might say, your typical, everyday dining establishment. The décor can best be described as a Yiddish Vacas Gordas, with more space between the tables. Like that Argentine parillada, it's a small, informal room with 30 to 40 seats, a counter fronting bustling workers, a storefront window around which are clustered a few outside tables, and black cow spots painted on part of the walls. Bissaleh, though, goes much further in milking the moo: Their menu features images of cows and eagerly explains The Cow Story, which is no story at all, but a rather cloying play on words beginning with “All I learned about life I learned from a cow ...,” followed by adages such as “He who lives with the herd learns to watch his step,” “Some days can be udder frustration,” and so on. Oy vey.
Located on Collins Avenue and 176th Street, Bissaleh is four blocks north of Rascal House and just a stone's throw from the towering Pinnacle condo complex across the street. (Note to local Palestinians: This is just a metaphor.) The outside of the place is a bit off-putting: Only the first three letters of the name are lit up (“BIS”), with more neon on the window advertising “Pizza,” “Espresso, Cappuccino, Gourmet coffee,” and “Juice bar.”
But the waitresses inside quickly make you feel at home with a basket of warm rolls and garlic butter. They're a spirited crew, resolutely darting around the room like a well-trained commando unit whose purpose is to get food and drink to the customers without delay. They're also good at steering you through menu choices, no small consideration if, like me, you have no inkling whatsoever of what a “ftut” is, and the word “malawach” only brings to mind Star Wars. In fact these are two menu categories, as are borekas and stuffed bissaleh, all four based upon doughs that are stuffed, rolled, or topped with varying combos of feta and yellow cheeses, mushrooms, spinach, and potatoes. The menu's meatlessness makes this a vegetarian heaven, but not necessarily a healthful one; though the restaurant's name is a Yiddish word meaning “a little bit,” you could plotz from the size and the heaviness of portions.
You can eat lightly, though, if you so desire, beginning with a spectacular Greek salad that's just like the ones found in Greece: no lettuce, just diced ripe tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion, black olives, crumbled feta cheese, and lots of oregano. Choose from familiar falafel, hummus, and eggplant with tahini, or get them all in the small combination salad, which also contains tabbouleh and eggplant with tomato. Or take the Turkish salad, a spicy brick-red purée of tomato paste, scallions, lots of spices, and extra-virgin olive oil. There are pita places aplenty that prepare many of these same foods, but they're done better here (speaking of which, a basket of pita gets placed on the table alongside the basket of rolls).
Sorry, no chicken soup -- it wouldn't be kosher. They do, however, serve French onion soup in a home-baked bread bowl, cold yogurt soup, soup of the day, and a thin, well-mushroomed cream of mushroom soup.
Many of the foods at Bissaleh contain dairy. It's the Land of Milk and Honey without the honey, so to speak. Cheese blintzes, three tasty crêpes rolled around sweet cheese and adeptly pan fried, are offered with sour cream, nuts, and chocolate, though we passed on the last two, deeming them a bit much for lunch. Potato blintzes with mushroom sauce looked good, too. Somehow just the mere mention of blintzes makes me think of old people, but you'd be mistaken to visualize Bissaleh as a dairy den for retirees. The opposite is true; it has an informal coffee-bar ambiance commonly found in college towns, and it stays open till 3:00 a.m. on Saturdays.
I assumed the borekas would be similar to the böreks of Turkey, but the feta and yellow cheese filling was not painstakingly layered with phyllo. Instead they were overbaked in a square of dry puff pastry; this was the least satisfying of our meals. A slow-roasted egg, hard-boiled in consistency but browned on the outside, and a sprightly dish of paper-thin carrot and cucumber slices marinated in vinegar come on the side of main courses, as does a dip of puréed tomatoes.
Turns out malawach is a sweet, crunchy dough (a bit similar to that browned top layer of noodle pudding) that's shaped like a pizza and baked with a choice of toppings, including a pizza garnish of tomato sauce and cheese. We went with the vegetable malawach of tomato slices, green pepper, onion, and black olives, which, like many meals here, works best if shared; it's too big and one dimensional for a single person to tackle. Same goes for ftut, a distant sister to matzoh brei (eggs scrambled with matzoh) made from crushed-up malawach dough mixed with eggs, cheese, and whatever additional ingredients you order.
I imagine if I asked one of the patrons here if they liked the stuffed bissaleh, they'd reply: “What's there not to like?” I can't quibble with that assessment, as this was the best of the bready specialties, a circular ring of a softer, more buttery, almost croissantlike variation on that same malawach dough, this time rolled around spinach, feta, and yellow cheese.
The last time I had kosher pizza was as a kid in Brooklyn. As it turns out, Bissaleh's other location, on Coney Island Avenue in that borough, is not far from my old neighborhood (though they moved in eight years ago, long after I'd left). The reason I haven't had any kosher pizza since is because I'm not kosher, and while the pizza here happens to be as good as most nonkosher pies on the Beach, that's more a reflection on the state of nonkosher pies on the Beach than anything else. A pizza aficionado would never consciously choose this over a good non-kosher pie.
The only menu items over nine dollars are the fish: grilled salmon fillet, grouper, catch of the day, and fried tilapia -- the whole fish, so you can tell it's really tilapia. They're fresh and come with salad, vegetables, and tahini sauce, for $14.95. Good deal.
More than a third of the 163 menu items (they're numbered) are beverages, mostly coffees and juices. The small carafe of carrot, celery, coriander, and ginger extractions is the most creative of these drinks, but none can quench thirst in as sparkling a manner as lemonade with fresh mint leaves. Also refreshing: a curiously gratifying dessert of watermelon and feta cheese. Then again, some of you might want to opt for a banana split or warm chocolate cake with ice cream.
Bissaleh was opened one year ago by Ossi and Sapir Gamliel from Tel Aviv -- she works the front of the house, and her husband, a chef for more than twenty years in their Israeli restaurant, runs the kitchen. The uniqueness of the dining experience, quality of fare, and affordable pricing qualify this ethnic eatery as a genuine gem. Of course I'm not suggesting you drop everything and go there right now -- but it couldn't hurt.
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