Shmulik Avital, an Israeli whose parents are Moroccan, is one of those people who turns his fantasies into reality. For example, a passionate motorcycle rider, he left a long stint at the well-known eatery, Westville, and lit out on a six-month solo voyage on his ‘bike’ to Mexico and South America. This is the kind of once-in-a-lifetime adventure you do before settling down and fulfilling another fantasy, which he did last May, opening his own restaurant. And since he is also a passionate movie lover, particularly of films produced by Sam Spiegel (Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai, On The Waterfront, and The African Queen, among others), he named his new restaurant, Spiegel. Eventually, Avital – who has put a great deal of himself into the look, feel and ambiance of the place – hopes to run some of his favorite movies on the screen above the bar.
Spiegel is the kind of informal, but lovingly created neighborhood eatery – open breakfast through dinner – where you can have a great cup of Verve coffee (Espresso, American, Cappuccino) and home-made croissants in the morning, amble over to a gallery or The New Museum during the day, return for a hearty brunch/lunch, take in a movie at the Sunshine, almost around the corner on Houston, then return for dinner.
Spiegel offers an international seasonal menu — from Couscous and Fish Tacos to a Schnitzel plate and Hamburgers — with lots of salads and vegetable options: organic ingredients but nothing fancy or pretentious. And the prices are very reasonable.
The space, formerly a deli, is dominated by a large, u-shaped bar — perfect for single diners or friends who want to hang out over a beer or glass of wine – surrounded by small oak tables that can be pushed together for families and larger parties.
My favorite appetizer, out of those served to us at a press dinner, was the Stuffed Mushrooms ($8) with an unusual and delicious cream cheese and spicy smoked salmon dip. A couple of orders of those Mushrooms with a glass of rose wine from Provence – Maison Bourron Syrah/Grenache (2013) — at the restaurant’s Happy Hour (which runs from 4 to 8 p.m. every day) would make a fabulous and inexpensive pre-movie snack.
Next came Baked Feta ($8), which to me tasted more Italian than Moroccan – and consisted of slices of Feta baked on top of a peppery tomato stew with bits of eggplant and Kalamata olives. What made it special was the small cast-iron pan in which the ingredients were baked and served, giving the tomato sauce that dark, crusty edge that only appears in cast iron.
Though the Zucchini Fritters ($8), with an arugula salad and Tzatziki dip looked luscious, the Fritters were curiously under-seasoned and a bit on the heavy side.
Israelis, as most people know, love chopped salads and eat them for breakfast, lunch and dinner. If you want salad as a main course, Spiegel is the place for you.
I preferred their Kale-Radicchio-Alfalfa Sprouts bowl ($10) – it’s a generous portion – dotted with raisins, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, topped with sliced egg and avocado and bathed in a pomegranate vinaigrette to The Spiegel Chopped($10). The Spiegel, though healthy and generous, was fairly bland and needed more herbs, spices and a punchier dressing to make it special.
Of the three entrees offered presented, the Grilled Salmon ($18) was the one I’d go back for. The large slab of salmon was perfectly cooked and sat on top of a delicious mix of crispy smashed potatoes and – a subtle touch – roasted fennel. Loved the fennel. The salmon itself was crowned with a warm tomato chimichurri, arugula and crispy garlic salad: a rainbow coalition in one plate and easily a whole meal in itself.
Schnitzel ($15), I discovered, is a popular dish in Israel but it’s never been one of my favorites though others in our group enjoyed it. Here it’s served with a tahini sauce, jasmine rice and chopped Israeli salad. Certainly a good value.
The Couscous ($14), a vegetarian dish, was a disappointment. I love couscous, properly cooked, but this watery version — swimming with overcooked carrots, fennel, celery, cauliflower, zucchini and chickpeas — reminded me of the bad old days of English nursery food.
On the other hand, I loved the three vegetable side dishes – cumin-dusted Moroccan carrots ($5), Marinated Beets ($5) and Broccoli with Tahini ($5). My advice, go for the side dishes. That includes Spiegel’s exceptional twice-fried French fries ($5). They can be ordered alone or with any of the many sandwiches and burgers – veggie, classic, and the Kipling (feta and tomato sauce) — offered for $11.
If you crave a sweet, rich dessert, there are three to choose from. I preferred the Apple Tart to the flan and very light mousse.
Spiegel, as I suggested, is a great neighborhood place to hang out, meet for drinks, and eat what I’d call elevated bar food. The wines are as affordable ($8 to $10 a glass) as the food.
Photos by Eleanor Foa Dienstag
26 First Avenue at 2nd Street