The ultimate Hole in the Wall Restaurant occupies a tiny store front on 9th Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen. There are only eight tables inside the narrow restaurant, with the front part acting as both a display and makeshift hostess stand. To get to the bathroom, you must maneuver your way through the kitchen as the single chef helps to move tables out of the way to help you reach your destination.
Once you look past the tiny nature of the restaurant, and are situated on the either the an extremely high bench or low seat, the food here is as authentic and delicious as it comes. The cuisine is considered Druze, which is a variation of Middle Eastern, combining Israeli, Lebanese, Jordanian, and Syrian food. Extremely thin (nearly see-through) and slightly charred pita bread distinguishes Gazala’s from any other Mediterranean spot in the city.
Their BYOB policy also adds to the enticing nature of this small restaurant. They have an Upper West Side location, as well, but that spot does not have the same liquor situation. My Mom and I were able to sip our wine of choice from home, without any added corking fee.
I had asked the waitress to explain some of the menu and specials of the day. She was extremely unenthusiastic and with her slight accent it was hard to fully understand her descriptions. I asked again, and she wasn’t very quick to explain the dishes again. Unfortunately, Gazala’s is not known for their award winning service, but you get what you pay for.
We decided to start off the meal with homemade stuffed grape leaves, filled with meat, rice and spices.
These homemade grape leaves include so much flavor in each little wrapper. The fresh cucumber sauce adds a burst of freshness to each little package. The rice, spices and meat mixture is carefully wrapped into the grape leaves and cooked until slightly warmed all the way through. They are addicting and so different then the generic packaged kinds you find at a buffet. It’s a light way to start off the meal.
Next, we turned to babaganoush, a charred eggplant dip. The dip is served with the paper-thin, light pita bread.
The Babaganoush has an unusual smokiness to the dip, since the eggplant is lightly charred before being pureed and topped with olive oil. Instead of using utensils, the extremely thin bread acts as the vessel to pick up the babaganoush. It’s a seemingly mid-evil process, but in this setting it’s totally acceptable to get a little dirty and use your hands to eat.
Next, we opted to ordered a dish that Gazala’s is known for, the Bureka. It’s a flaky phyllo dough twist, shaped to look almost like an enlarged, stuffed bagel. The dish is off the menu, but made special every day. On today’s date, the stuffings were goat cheese and spinach, an ideal combination.
The flaky, crisp exterior has the seasonings of an everything bagel. With a sharp knife, you cut the circular bureka into slices, allowing for the steam to come out of the fluffy pastry and reveal a thick layer of goat cheese with speckles of bright green spinach. I could easily eat this dish for breakfast (and did with the leftovers) with the crunchy, sweet everything pyllo dough acting as a bagel and the goat cheese acting as the schmear inside. The addition of the spinach and the hummus on the side adds a burst of freshness to an otherwise heavy dish. The cabbage and corn slaw on the side gave was delicious, with hints of acidity, sweetness, and tons of crunch. It seems to take the place of traditional Middle Eastern combinations which heavily utilize parsley, cucumbers and tomatoes in salads.
Finally, the main course of the meal were the Lamb Kebabs. There are a variety of meat options, but the most prominent protein on the menu happens to be lamb, leading me to believe this is what we needed to try.
The lamb is served off a skewer and in relatively thin slices on the plate, which is definitely different then a traditional kebab. However, it makes up for the misleading label by packing tons of flavors into each piece of meat. The outside of the lamb has a smoky char, but still maintains a juicy, light pink interior. Dipping the lamb into the tahini sauce adds additional elements of flavor and juiciness to the meat. I found the sides to add to the portion size, but didn’t necessarily lend much to the dish. It was really all about the lamb.
Looks can definitely be deceiving, but trust your instinct, pick up your favorite bottle of wine and try Gazala’s Place. All of the dishes provide a unique twist to classic Middle Eastern favorites, especially with their ultra-thin pita bread. It’s a great spot to pick up dinner or to enjoy a quick, inexpensive bite that will hit the spot and provide lots of great left overs for the next few days.
Gazala’s Place – 709 9th Avenue – New York, NY
Location: Hell’s Kitchen
Perfect For: Dining Solo, Quick Bite, Take Out, BYOB, Cheap Eats
Reservations: Not Necessary
Favorite Dishes: Bureka, Babaganoush, Lamb Kebab