So many shakshukas, so few Sundays

I’m obsessed with Shakshuka [/ʃakˈʃuːkə/; Arabic: شكشوكة‎, Hebrew: שקשוקה‎, a North African and Israeli dish that can be eaten for brekkie, lunch or dinner, that features poached eggs over a simmering sauce of tomatoes, chili peppers, and onions and is spiced with cumin, paprika and cayenne pepper. Along with my dining companion, Shakshuka shiksa*, I’m setting out to find the best shakshuka in New York City. We’ve only been getting out every six weeks or so – busy lives – but as the weather gets nicer we plan to ramp it up. You see, I’m on a mission. And Shakshuka shiksa is satisfied to ride shotgun.

*Shiksa: Yiddish for “Gentile girl.” Sometimes used derogatorily. Before you come down on me for this, please know she coined the term herself.

Stop 1: LOCAL92 / 92 2ndAvenue

Local 92: meh (but I loved the bread) (but who doesn’t love bread)

While Local 92’s shakshuka is the picture of perfection, and I do pine for the warm, crusty baguette that rides shotgun, sadly the eggs were a little undercooked and the sauce, while tasty, was on the thin side. It needed more tomato paste or whatever people use to thicken a tomato sauce—how would I know what that is? I’m a New Yorker, I don’t cook!  

I had high hopes for the fig mojito but as it turned out, I could hardly taste the fig. Mostly I tasted fizz. Not bad if all you’re looking for is a little booze boost. But I was in search of flavor, and unfortunately this fig fantasy failed me.

Shakshuka shiksa is vegan so she skipped the main course and just had a taste of the warm baguette, which she and I concur is outstanding. But the shakshuka only gets a 6.

Stop 2: TIMNA / 109 St. Marks Place

Timna: num num

You know how hosts and waiters at some restaurants treat you like you’re the help? Not here. Israeli-owned Timna has super-friendly servers and a warm vibe. You invariably end up chatting with your neighbors because you need to know what just arrived at their table because it looks so delicious; also because they’re four inches away from you. (New York real estate, harrumph.) The only downer: acoustics. If you really need to hear every word uttered by your brunch partner(s), no Timna for you.

But let’s not lose sight of why we’re here. The chef’s maternal grandfather once cooked for the King of Morocco. With that pedigree the food must be amazing, right? Well, the New York Times was underwhelmed, but that was dinner. Brunch, in my humble opinion, was delightful.

$29 for coffee, juice, main course and a number of sides served in small ramekins. For an extra $10, add bottomless white wine, Champagne or Mimosas. I’m not a big Sunday morning drinker – bloody Marys, perhaps, but they’re not offered – so I abstained. Let’s talk about the sides. A couple of them were “meh”: cumin-spiced carrots (too salty) and beets (needed something—but what?).

Then there were two other sides were exploding with flavor: Labneh is a cheese made from strained yogurt. Timna’s spin includes hand-crushed tomatoes, amba (femented mango) and olive oil. It may sound weird. But trust me…just eat it.

Then there was a green side I couldn’t identify at all. So I asked, and their manager told me it’s called “Crazy Baba” and it’s the chef’s take on traditional Baba Ghanoush, a mix of open-fire grilled eggplant, goat feta cheese from Greece, fresh basil, and “amounts of garlic and lemon that your immune system will thank you for.”

I must mention the bread, which is nothing short of addictive: three mini-discs of what I thought was pita, but is actually kubaneh, a traditional Yemenite pull-apart yeast bread baked all night at a low temperature. And I thought “soppin’” was only a thing in the south. No, you want to use the kubaneh to sop up every drop of the tomato sauce in…

Why we’re here: the SHAKSHUKA. Sublime. The thick, rich tomato sauce is spiked with cumin and god knows what other spices, and topped with just enough small dollops of black eggplant puree to ratchet up the flavor several notches…a few generous sprigs of fresh flat-leaf parsley…and of course the star of the show, two perfectly baked eggs.

Was it worth $29? I’m a little on the fence. I don’t drink drip coffee or juice. The entrée a la carte would be about $15 and my latte, $5. So it’s a little pricey. But when you factor in those sides, and that bread, I have to say yes, it’s worth it.

Judging from the shakshuka alone, TIMNA is a tough act to follow. But Shakshuka shiksa and I will surely give it a shot.

Stop 3: GOTAN / 130 Franklin Street

Gotan: What are those? Pine nuts?!?

Sometimes you stumble on Shakshuka when you least expect it. This happened at one of my local coffee joints on a Saturday coffee run. Unfortunately this means Shakshuka shiksa was not by my side. (Sorry, SS.) Gotan’s shakshuka had a real kick to it, which is good, but the tomato sauce was too runny for my taste. I did like the za’atar (Middle Eastern spice)-dusted pita, but I did not love the pine nuts sprinkled on top. Maybe it’s just me but I like my pine nuts pureed with basil, Parmesan, salt and olive oil. In foodie parlance we call that, umm…pesto?

So let’s just say it was a serviceable shakshuka. Like – if you must have shakshuka NOW (which is indeed sometimes the case with me), it’ll do. I went back and gave it a second try and it was still fine, but not exceptional.

Exceptional happened 24 hours later…

Stop 4: SHUKA / 38 MacDougal Street

Shuka: the winner

So here’s what I’m thinking as I walk down MacDougal on a brisk spring Sunday: If the place is named for shakshuka, the shakshuka better be GREAT. I was already sold when I saw photos of Shuka’s ‘shuka showing a layer of melted haloumi cheese. Let’s be honest: you could melt cheese on a hockey puck and it would look appetizing. But this tasted as delicious as it looked, and the haloumi was only one of the reasons. The tomato sauce was thick and hearty, there was a big dollop of pesto, lots of fresh parsley, and the eggs were poached to perfection. My criterion for that is that they look fully baked but when you cut into them, the yolks run. But not too much.

I could’ve laid my head down upon this pillowy pita and gone to sleep

Then there was Shuka’s pillowy pita, the perfect tool to sop up the remaining mélange of egg yolk, tomato sauce, and caked-around-the-edges cheese.

Oh, and a special shout-out to the za’atar-dusted fries. You see that OMG caption below? The “G” is for “Give me a napkin because I’m pretty sure I’m drooling.”

Za’atar-dusted fries at Shuka. Just. OMG.

Stop 5: TABOONETTE / 30 East 13thStreet

Taboonette: Meh

I’m not looking to throw anyone under the bus, but Taboonette, recommended by the manager of another spot on this list that got a good review, was disappointing. I liked the cute single-serving pan. I thought the layout with the pita and the salad was efficient. But then, yikes! A hair was baked right into the shakshuka. Of course they were apologetic and remade it for me, but when they did, the eggs were way undercooked.

I was going to say you can’t spell Taboonette without “booooo,” which is my reaction to this place, but it might be even more apropos to say you can’t spell Taboonette without “net,” as in “hair net,” as in, “Hey employees of Taboonette, you should all be wearing hair nets.”

So many shakshukas, so few Sundays.

Shakshuka shiksa has me completely freaked out. She just sent me not one but two lists of the best shakshuka in NYC. The Grub Street list alone has 12 places I’ve never even heard of—and some would require a field trip out of my comfort zone, to Brooklyn. Then there’s another listfrom some outfit called “My Jewish Learning.com.” How am I ever going to hit all these spots? My head is exploding. So many shakshukas, so few Sundays.

Within a few-block radius of my apartment there are two Israeli-owned joints, Nish Nush and Aroma. Of course I don’t have to eat the whole serving so I can probably hit those two in one morning. But then there’s Café Petiscoand Méméwhich (I’m told) both deserve my full attention. And don’t forget the restaurant emeritus Balaboosta, whose menu lists “pilpel” and “chuma” as two of the ingredients in its dish. Whaa? Everyone has their own spin. I want to try all of it. Everywhere. The list never seems to stop. You could go meshuggenah from all this shakshuka.

Stay tuned as I’ll be following up with more reviews, as well as a video component where we visit a commercial kitchen to watch this dish prepped from aleph to tav.

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