While it took me almost six months to get to it, Chicago stubbornly avoided the modern Israeli cuisine movement in the United States for more than a decade after its primary domestic proponent, Michael Solomonov, opened Zahav in Philadelphia in 2008.
Well, OK, Lettuce Entertain You dipped its toe in the hummus a few years ago with Ema and its brother, Aba, but not atypically, those were relatively restrained expressions of the vibrant syncretic collection of diverse traditions that are continuing to define the idea of modern Israeli cuisine, a still uncategorizable alloy of Middle Eastern traditions with those of the broader worldwide Jewish diaspora popularly brought to the rest of the world's attention by English-Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi in the early part of the century.
Galit, which opened in Lincoln Park in April, is the first and so far only endorsable example of it in town. That it's on point is not surprising, because chef Zachary Engel was a line cook at Zahav in its early days, and later was the chef de cuisine at Shaya in New Orleans, itself a monument to this way of eating (at least until founding chef Alon Shaya left and later in a lawsuit lost the rights to his own name). Anyone who'd ever eaten at Shaya greeted the news of Engel's arrival, along with One Off Hospitality vet Andrés Clavero as general manager, with Pavlovian anticipation.
You could say we were starving for it, given the difficulty of reserving a table at Galit a half year out, though these days it's easy enough to walk in early or late and find a seat at the kitchen counter. That's where all the action is anyway. Here, if you're positioned just right, you can watch the fresh pita balloon like pufferfish in the oak-burning pizza oven at the rear of the kitchen. This mesmerizing trick was introduced to Chicago last summer at Pacific Standard Time, and then I said the pita could stand alone as a marketable concept.
It's even better at Galit. Just as at Shaya, the first role of the pita is performative: the sight of these steaming, charred ovoids is preceded by their fresh, yeasty smell wafting across the dining room. But the bread itself is different. Engel says that toward the end of his time at Shaya the restaurant was dabbling with fresh-milled flours. Here he's using part heirloom Turkey Red flour, resulting in a darker, more flavorful bread, and a 48-hour bulk fermentation, which results in a heartier, yet softer crumb.
While pita is the vehicle for Engel's menu at Galit, the centerpieces are a variety of hummus presentations along with a handful of small side dishes known as salatim: spreads, dips, pickles, and vegetables, together easily forming a complete meal conducive to sharing and lingering. Maybe that's why it's so hard to get a seat.
Shallow craters of hummus are so smooth and dense they seem supernatural, containing say, fatty brisket and orange-glazed carrots, or trumpet mushrooms, collards, and crisp-fried chicken skin. Even the masabacha, a textural variant in which whole chickpeas mingle with the spread, is presented as something remarkable, draped with a blanket of tahini infused with minty anise hyssop.
The salatim, which are stable for now but likely to vary in the future, include labneh, so thick and tangy it feels alive, pooling in olive oil and sumac, sesame, and locally grown hyssop—as midwestern as za'atar can get; ezme, a thick Turkish dip of tomatoes, peppers, and ground walnuts; tiny vinegar-cooked cipollini onions; and green beans charred in the oven and tossed with smoky Urfa biber chile. These little dishes, along with a hummus ensemble, are the essential orders at any given visit to Galit.
What makes an outing more complicated is allotting your remaining digestive real estate among the 15 or so larger-format meze cooked "(mostly) over coal)" or over two custom-built kebab boxes in the base of the hearth. These range from glazed carrots with Bulgarian feta and the Egyptian nut-and-spice blend dukkah to fried redfish with a spicy Tunisian sauce and avocado-preserved lemon to a sirloin with baba ghanoush paired with hot Georgian ajika sauce.
Certain Israeli-associated staples set outstanding standards. Shatteringly crisp falafel open onto moist, fluffy chickpea clouds vivid green with herbs, served atop labneh compounded with amba, funky fermented mango spread. Shakshukah, served with a folded shroud of za'atar-smeared laffa, is a formidable skillet of roasted sweet potato and eggs coddled in tomato sauce so bright it would blind you were it not blanketed in cilantro, dill, parsley, and green onion tops. "We go through 30 pounds of parsley a week," says Engel. "And we don't have tabouli."
Even something as seemingly pedestrian as stuffed cabbage is extraordinary: lamb kebabs seasoned with paprika, cumin, and black pepper are swaddled in cabbage leaves and immersed in sweet, hot harissa heavy with pomegranate, oregano, and orange and blanketed in tangy lebneh, the ever-present foil for much of this explosively flavorful food. With this "the immigrant Jews of Romania and Bulgaria have a place at the table," says Engel.
More fleeting dishes—like a stack of heirloom tomatoes dotted with intensely green tomato foam and meaty roasted okra and sprinkled with pulverized Persian dried lime and green coriander—show the year-round potential of this seasonally driven kitchen.
A largely Middle Eastern wine list is supplemented by a regional selection of the anise spirit arak (from the West Bank, Lebanon, and Israel) that may help a lemon-and-honey-drenched basbousa-semolina cake go down easier.
Only by virtue of menu placement is that dessert one of the underdogs vying for your attention at this singular outpost for one of the world's most exciting—and developing—cuisines. You can't eat it all, but you'll feel compelled to. v