The Brooklyn Papers / Jori Klein

"It is not a falafel house!"
says Refael Hasid, owner of the Middle Eastern cafe Miriam, which
opened on Fifth Avenue last month.

He means it. There isn’t a falafel, a scoop of baba ghanoush
or a grape leaf in sight. You won’t find shaky tables or whiny
music sawing away in the background either.

Miriam is a modern cafe that references the Middle East, but
isn’t cliched. The cafe’s walls are painted subtle tones of yellow
and soft green; a long bar paved with soft blue and green tiles
runs along one wall; and Moroccan-style lamps cast tiny diamonds
of light on the ceiling.

Like the setting, Hasid, who is also the chef-owner of Hill Diner,
in Cobble Hill, brings a highly individualized take to Middle
Eastern cuisine. Miriam’s recipes (deftly executed by chef Ido
Ben Shmuel), and those borrowed from the cafe’s namesake – Hasid’s
mother, who is "a very good Israeli cook," says Hasid
– are familiar and exotic, sometimes subtle and often astonishingly

Take the ceviche. This dish of fish and shellfish "cooked"
in citrus juice and served cool or cold is always ideal on a
sultry night. Hasid’s version starts with small pieces of lean,
sweet grouper marinated in lemon and lime juices. He gives this
Latin American dish a Middle Eastern spin with ginger, a bit
of garlic, ripe tomatoes reduced to a velvety puree, cilantro
and parsley. He tops the fish with surprisingly delicate, crisp,
pickled garlic that, when thinly sliced, resemble tiny gingko
leaves, and slender batons of lightly cooked beets that add an
earthy note.

The cool fish and warm spices, the tang of lemon and the sweetness
of tomato add up to one big mouth party.

Not every dish I tried had the "wow" factor of that
ceviche, and only one disappointed – an over-salted chicken "shawarma."

A small, but well-chosen and affordable, wine list and little
touches, like unusually delicious pita bread, make this cafe
a gem.

Before the starters, slices of dense, chewy pita splashed with
olive oil and sprinkled with marjoram, arrive still warm from
a short sit on the grill. What that bit of heat does to the bread
is something just short of magic. With the bread comes a small
dish of green olives and another holding Israeli pickles that
resemble cornichons (tiny gherkin pickles), but are slightly
larger and not as pungent. It all adds up to a lot of happy chewing.

A piece of that bread pairs beautifully with the Mediterranean
salad. The appetizer has many of the components you’ll find in
most chopped Israeli salads but with a twist. Mixed with the
small chunks of cucumbers and vine-ripened tomatoes, are little
cubes of fried eggplant. The eggplant’s slight oiliness and softness
contributes a lush note to the crisp vegetables, as does a sprinkling
of very creamy, mild feta cheese. Served in a flattened mound,
encircled by long slices of grilled eggplant, the salad’s pure
eye candy, too.

Another winner is the mix of fried artichoke slices, sauteed
mushrooms, arugula and bits of crisp string beans tossed in a
well-balanced sherry vinaigrette.

The chicken "shawarma" (meat seasoned with "baharat,"
a blend of sweet and hot spices in addition to herbs, garlic
and vinegar), was almost as attractive but not as successful
as the salads. Instead of thin slices of the meat, Hasid cuts
it into big squares. They’re moist inside, tangy from the grill,
and served atop slices of that pita moistened with rich chicken
stock. But too much salt atop the chicken made eating more than
one piece tough going.

There were no flaws in the dramatically named "Arak Flamed
Seafood Skillet." Hasid uses a rich lobster broth tinged
with "arak," a spirit with a delicate anise flavor,
to sauce a melange of tender mussels, rings of calamari, buttery
sea scallops and sweet shrimp. The sauce’s clean lobster flavor
and that bit of licorice flavor enhance each sea creature, drawing
out the sweetness of the shrimp, the winy taste of the scallops,
the delicacy of the squid and the brininess of the mussels.

Rosewater is an ingredient that people either like or abhor.
I happen to love its perfume scent and flowery taste, but it’s
not a smashing success in an overpowering, crayon-red sauce atop
Miriam’s "malabi," a delicate pudding flavored with
almonds. The lush figs stuffed with goat cheese in a light sauce
of the same fruit are a better choice for dessert.

As you walk along Fifth Avenue, you’ll see bistros of all persuasions,
Italian cafes and more Thai places than a neighborhood needs.
Many of the eateries are very good.

None, though, serve up the sort of nuanced, personalized Middle
Eastern fare that you’ll find at Miriam. None have the belly
dancers that shake their stuff on the weekend evenings either.

Hasid may be a modernist, but he isn’t afraid of a little drama
if it means a good time.


Miriam (79 Fifth Ave. at Prospect Place
in Park Slope) accepts American Express, Diner’s Club, Discover
and Visa. Entrees: $11.50-$18. The restaurant serves dinner daily
and brunch on weekends from 9 am to 3 pm. For reservations, call
(718) 622-2250.