Hamifgash offers tasty Israeli, Turkish fare in casual setting

Hamifgash's mixed grill dish.
Hamifgash's mixed grill dish.
Posted: May 01, 2009

The past few years, we've seen an explosion in restaurants offering small plates with global flavors. Our tastes include sushi, tapas and even Peruvian Chinese.

Now, with national attention on Zahav and a loyal local following for the BYOB Kanella, we've landed squarely on pan-Middle Eastern fare.

If you want to try Israeli and Turkish cuisine in a more casual setting without the white tablecloth, try Hamifgash, on Sansom Street near 8th.

Hamifgash means "meeting place." Esther Cohen downsized from her former Cherry Hill establishment, Maxims, to a more intimate venue, and added her son, Shai, to the kitchen.

The restaurant is also certified Glatt Kosher, signifying that the meat has been butchered and inspected according to traditional laws.

For those who aren't observing religious customs, you can still enjoy the quality of the meats that have been handled with such care and attention.

But don't look for butter on your bread or cream in your coffee - there's no dairy.

One of my favorite Middle Eastern dishes is Shakshuka ($5.75), and this one met my expectations perfectly. The eggs were poached to a just-set yoke in a spicy tomato sauce.

Esther Cohen says the secret is in cooking the tomato sauce very slowly.

It's a dish that will start the day with a kick.

For appetizers, the taster thumbs-up went to the Imam Bayildi ($5.95).

Perfectly roasted eggplant was stuffed with sautéed onions, green peppers, tomatoes, garlic, pine nuts and tasty little morsels that Esther Cohen describes as very tiny grapes.

All this is topped with a beautiful preserved lemon slice, and freshly grilled bread made the perfect accompaniment. Minor complaint is that the dish should be served room temperature - taking the chill off will bring out these fabulous flavors even more.

We also tried the Bourekas ($4.75), a pastry filled with your choice of spinach or potatoes. My tasters and I loved the idea of starch on starch and opted for the potato. Lightly seasoned and crispy, it was a good side for sharing.

The Hummus ($4) is billed as the "Best in Town." Of course, almost every Middle Eastern restaurant calls its hummus best in show. This could be a contender, though, with a rich earthiness that I found surprising and welcome.

The Split Pea soup ($3) was the soup of the day. It was filling, but lacked the richness I crave in split pea. Still, it would satisfy on a cold day.

The platters ($10.95) all come with a salad of chopped greens and a side of rice flecked with toasted orzo.

There's also a salad bar with offerings of marinated vegetables for an additional dollar, or you can make a meal of the salad bar for $7.95. This is a place where carnivores and vegetarians can happily co-exist.

Pita-bread sandwiches ($7) are stuffed to the gills with chopped greens and a delicious tahini-based sauce. And, oh, the pita bread! It's sourced from an unnamed bakery and delivered fresh every morning. The freshness makes all the difference.

Tasting favorite on the meat side was the Hamifgash Kabob platter. Lamb patties flavored with garlic are grilled, but remain juicy.

We tried the Shawarma (a formed roll of chicken meat cooked on a rotisserie, just as a Greek Gyro is) both as a platter and a pita sandwich.

It was moist with lots of crusty bits and is a winner either way.

Dessert offerings include a choice of several pastries. The Baklava ($2.95) showed off a perfect contrast of crunch from the layers of phyllo and the sweetness of the syrup.

It would have been wonderful with a cup of strong coffee, but instead I was served instant. The teas, however, offer a lovely, fragrant herbal apple imported from Israel.

Esther Cohen is both in the kitchen and waiting tables, which makes for slow service. But, the kitchen is open to the restaurant and watching it all come together under her watchful eye just adds to the meeting place theme. *

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