Restaurant Review: Grill 212 – No Frills, No Tricks, All Flavor.

Grill 212  – view more picture!

Grill 212 just gave me a chance to enjoy the BEST Yemenite Soup!

The first time I stumbled upon this tiny spot on Manhattan’s Upper West Side was the day of its first birthday celebration; I must say I found it remarkable how precocious Baby Grill 212 was. Little Esther and Shoshana Blum, daughters of Rabbi Yonah and Keren Blum, Chabad Columbia, turned me on to it when they raved about their shnitzel on their brand new kiddie blog, so we decided to make a date out of it, the three of us. At first I thought I enjoyed my lunch so much mainly thanks to the petite freckled and bubbly Blum sisters’ delightful company, but quickly realized as we dug in that the beautiful spread laid out at our table had something significant to do with it. Attention all Sephardi expats, both native and honorary: This modest but genuine and hospitable Middle-Eastern table may well become your home away from home!

There are some restaurant trademarks  that couldn’t possibly escape this restaurateur: To begin with, Grill 212 chef-owner Riki is awfully nice and doting (her husband Moshe is very hands-on as well, but keeps a lower profile). She understands implicitly that every bit as much as the food, a warm welcome is integral part of the restaurant experience, an attitude she imparts wholeheartedly to her workers. Good service is half the battle. Culture of the house: A-Plus for friendliness and customer service.

But even more amazing is the food that keeps coming at you. Hard to believe so many wonderful dishes come out of this tiny place’s spotless kitchen, like so many birds out of a magician’s hat. With no professional cooking background or training to speak of, the owners at Grill 212 just seem to be repeating to themselves a ridiculously simple mantra: Cook for your customers exactly as you would for your home guests. And sure enough, it is not lost on anyone; it looks and tastes just like a home meal, and leaves you with the same comforting feeling. The bold and resolute flavors and fragrances surround you like a hug; Umami is the word that easily comes to mind. A cook after my own heart, and too busy and straightforward to fuss, Riki ignores all frills and garnishes, preferring to spend her energy and talent on real homemade Taam. This also explains why all cooking gimmicks and un-real food-like substances  (Thank you Michael Pollan for coining the phrase!) are totally and blissfully absent from all her dishes. The simple fact is, her soups are fabulous every bit for what they scorn as for what they include: All honest to Goodness ingredients, none of the degenerate members of the powder-bouillon-cube-consomme-stock-broth family that drive so many good dishes to the ground: Please! Her food is, well …. you have guessed it: food! Her candid and artless philosophy of cooking delivers an immediate reward which lands squarely on the contented customer’s plate. Go ahead and have a huge bowl of one of her wonderful soups for dinner: Yemenite meat soup, bean soup,  chicken soup, vegetable soup to name a few (some are constant offerings, and some appear on rotation). Enjoy it with a sizzling hot homemade laffa, the great pliable flat bread that becomes your dunking accomplice in ethnic eateries where slurping and bread-mopping are not frowned upon, with a bowl of halbah, a funky fenugreek-based condiment, and hot Schug, two staples in Yemenite cuisine. I watched with some longing as a young man delightedly mopped his laffa (all of it, lucky him!) into his Yemenite soup, to the last drop, and declared unabashedly he comes every day for lunch and dinner, trying everything on the menu, then starting all over again; he also loved his potato salad, which he slathered with Dijon mustard from a squirting bottle. A shocked double take informed me that, tfutfutfu, he was nice and thin! I will try hard not to hate him…. Now you know why some guys are not getting married so fast! Riki’s cooking lunch and dinner, he’s there!

To mention just a few favorites: Schawarma is spiced and cooked to perfection. Shnitzel, moist and crisp. Thick and juicy hamburgers that made me forget the indignities of some recent lackluster dining experiences on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Fork-tender grilled boneless chicken thighs. Shakshuka is a real gem, served in a tiny paella skillet. And there’s much more: Lamb and beef kebobs, falafels, and so on. In platters or in sandwiches, all coming with a self-service salad bar selection, all delicious, never too oily or salty: beets, cabbage, Israeli, roasted eggplant, tomato, potato, spicy carrot, shredded lettuce, dark-fried onions, hummus.

Although the menu looks heavily tilted towards meat dishes, fish eaters and vegetarians certainly won’t go hungry: Rice and beans, vegetarian soups, salad bar, falafel, shakshuka, sabich, pan-fried tilapia, roasted salmon etc…. are delicious daily offerings. All well priced across the board.

Desserts: Now that’s what blew me away. As a cook who is forever developing delicious and all-natural dairy-free desserts, as is amply borne out in my latest cookbook, nobody will ever hear me say, how can this or that dessert be so good without any dairy products? How, with only the best ingredients, best quality chocolate products, pure extracts, and so on, that’s how, so no surprise there. Rather, the question is: How does Riki come up with such delicious and exciting desserts with no training whatsoever in professional baking? Let me tell you a couple of them leave some of the desserts in several well-established professional counterparts in the dust. Even if all you want is dessert and coffee and no dinner, it is worth the trip from anywhere, and can be enjoyed solo between 11.30 am and 5.30 pm.

Please bear with Grill 212  a couple weeks as they whip up their printed menus and site into shape (remember, the baby is just one year old!), and call them for your next catered party: They really deliver!

Wishing them great success, keep up the delicious work!