Happy things can occur when chefs release themselves from the confines of tradition. Sure, there is risk in deviating from established culinary norms. It’s not “authentic,” some might argue. But there is reward: that of creating something new.
That’s what Brandon Hughes has done as executive chef at Aziza, the recently opened modern Israeli restaurant at Westside Provisions District, and with the encouragement of owner and Israeli native Tal Postelnik Baum.
“You will never hear me call anything in this restaurant ‘traditional,’” Hughes said in a phone interview after my visits. “I am not Israeli, not Jewish. I am going to take that cuisine and do what I do.”
“That is the beauty of Israeli cuisine: combining cultures and creating something new — a new voice,” Baum said in the same phone call.
Hughes created that new voice by starting with key Israeli ingredients, sauces, spices and dishes. He’s also taken into consideration the bounty of our regional agricultural products, and married the two through techniques — perhaps even ethos — learned while cooking in Atlanta restaurants like Aria, Bacchanalia and Baum’s own Italian eatery, Bellina Alimentari at Ponce City Market, plus brief experiences in Michael Solomonov’s boundary-pushing modern Israeli restaurant Zahav in Philadelphia and with Erez Komarovsky in the acclaimed chef’s private home kitchen in Mattat, Israel.
What emerges is a shareable plates menu that is (mostly) recognizably Israeli, yet appropriate to Atlanta in 2019.
This voice is expressed in delicious ways, starting with hummus, a spread made from ground chickpeas, sesame seeds, olive oil, lemon and garlic. At Aziza, hummus is offered two ways: topped with a heap of savory shredded braised oxtail (my preferred order) or earthy roasted maitake mushrooms studded with pomegranates. The hummus is pastier than I prefer (too much tahina, not enough acid or oil), but the add-ons lend character (The oxtail also settles Hughes’ desire for a tagine on the menu; he surmises that diners don’t want to pick through the bones. I’d be willing, though.). These hearty additions also give us reason to request round after round of blistered, puffy, wood-oven baked laffa flatbread to swipe up the dip until nothing remains in the earthen serving bowl.
Kibbeh, a dish of minced lamb and bulgur wheat, is often stuffed into a shell of dough and fried. Other versions also exist. At Aziza, it is kibbeh nayyeh (meaning “raw”), featuring the chopped uncooked lamb as a tartare with super-fine bulgur and Aleppo pepper seasoning, garnished with sumac-scented onions. Hughes takes a refined route by bringing bulgur into the picture a second way: as an airy, cracker-light crisp just sturdy enough for scooping the raw meat mix.
The halloumi salad is one of the best examples of how Hughes has incorporated local, seasonal ingredients onto the menu. The cubes of grilled cheese — golden outside, melty inside — are paired with peach slices and tomatoes of all colors, shapes and sizes — including tiny pearls of currant tomatoes custom-grown at a farm in Alabama. The mélange is tossed in a delicious vinaigrette seasoned with dukkah. That nut-spice blend is normally made with sesame seeds and almonds. Here, pecans are an appropriate replacement. With peach season done and tomatoes soon to cease, halloumi will stay on the menu, but its plate partners will be replaced.
Aziza is not just about local, but also about keeping up with the times. Toast is everywhere these days. Here, it’s called Akko Prawns. This seafood dish, whose name references the Israeli port city, boils down to big shrimp on big toast with big flavors. But it’s more than that. The grilled bread is made by incorporating the restaurant’s falafel mix (a recipe that hails from Baum’s grandmother, and the only non-modified Baum family recipe) into challah dough. (For falafel, head next door to Aziza’s counter-service sister spot, Falafel Nation.) On top rest four hefty prawns ladled with what would otherwise taste like a spicy Creole sauce were it not for cilantro and Persian lime.
Not all dishes are as successful in bringing a fresh take on Israel to the South. Roasted eggplant, also cooked in the mesmerizing glow of that wood oven, was dry and deflated. Octopus is super tender on its own and interestingly paired with sunchokes prepared two ways — confit and fried chips. But that’s only one half the plate. The other side is a pool of midnight black squid ink tahini that does little to advance the dish.
A fillet of trout with potato kadayif (picture the latter as mashed potatoes inside a sphere of shredded wheat cereal, then fried) was a double-dose of dry and needed a sip of wine to go down.
Credit beverage director Demario Wallace for a wine list worth exploring. By-the-glass options include ones from Israel (the Canaan red and white blends are both fine table wines), Lebanon and Greece, all reasonably priced between $11-$14. Most recently employed at Watchman’s Seafood and Spirits (the folks behind Kimball House), Wallace was previously in New York, including among the crew from noted cocktail den Death & Co. His mixed drinks are fun, fitting-to-concept, balanced and delicious: Ain Sakhri Love is an Israeli take on Spanish sangria; Break of the Strait is like an Israeli martini; Near East Old Fashioned comes with a tableside pour of house-made coffee bitters from a Turkish coffeepot.
Settle in with one of these sips and a starter of soft kubaneh (Yemeni pull-apart rolls) served with schug (a spicy tomato-based hot sauce) as you fall under the alluring spell of this sunken, intimate space (located directly below Marcel steakhouse) whose design features (a low ceiling, thick wooden doors, muted color palette of brown and green color) are subtle reminders of Aziza’s Middle Eastern inspiration. Gentle light emerges from overhead woven basket fixtures, but it’s the glow of that wood-burning oven in the open kitchen that will captivate you.
Aziza means happiness in Arabic. Attentive, friendly servers do their part to keep you happy, and are pleased to explain dishes and ingredients that might take you to unfamiliar territory. The best way for you to achieve happiness is to order “The Full Experience.” For $65 per person (at least two of you at the table have to agree to it), you get bread, hummus (don’t forget, make it the oxtails), two small plates, two entrees (make it the duck breast and the braised lamb shank) and dessert (the least impressive yet fussiest and most discordant among courses offered here).
Aziza joins a growing roster of restaurants around the country that explore the possibilities of modern Israeli cuisine. Aziza has a ways to go to reach the caliber of places like Zahav in Philly or Shaya in New Orleans, but it’s exciting to have this new voice emerge here in Atlanta.
Overall rating: 2 of 4 stars (very good)
Food: modern Israeli with Southern inflections
Service: enthusiastically hospitable, well-versed on the menu
Best dishes: Breads (kubaneh and laffa). Hummus No. 1. Kibbeh Nayyeh. Halloumi. Watermelon. Akko Prawns. Braised lamb shank.
Vegetarian selections: Breads (Jerusalem bagel, kubaneh, laffa). Okra. Baby Lettuces. Halloumi. Watermelon. Roasted Eggplant.
Price range: $$$-$$$$
Credit cards: all major credit cards
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays; 5-9 p.m. Sundays
Children: not recommended
Parking: free garage parking
MARTA station: Midtown
Wheelchair access: yes
Noise level: low
Takeout: not recommended
Address, phone: 1170 Howell Mill Road, Atlanta. 404-968-9437
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