At Timna, the Middle East Visits the East Village
At Timna, in the East Village, the loveliest dish is little more than a handful of vegetables and grains. Stubby carrots and fat disks of butternut squash arrive with deep black ruts from a charcoal grill, cooked until just relaxed, yielding without devolving into mush. Beneath is a sprawl of farro, halfway between firmness and fluff.
This is good, straightforward cooking. The surprise: Swooped around the plate are raw tahini and date molasses, whose crossing vectors of earthy and sweet summon a nostalgic pang for peanut butter and jelly. It’s a strange, childish comfort, abetted by sage leaves flash-fried so they shatter on the tongue like the most fragile of potato chips — only with a latent, grown-up streak of bitterness.
Timna refers to both a city in the ancient Yemeni kingdom of Qataban, on the frankincense route, and a valley in southern Israel once home, it is believed, to King Solomon’s mines. The chef, Nir Mesika, has his own strands of history in the region: He grew up in Israel and can trace his ancestry to Egypt and Morocco.
His cooking is strongest when he draws from memory. As a child, he made kubaneh, a Yemenite-Jewish yeast bread, with his mother, whose father was a baker for the Moroccan king. Her version was the size of a pie, left in the oven overnight at low temperature and placed at the center of the Sabbath table.
Mr. Mesika puts the buttery dough — somewhere between brioche and challah — in a flowerpot so that it blooms upward. The loaf is dusted with sesame seeds, like a bagel, and accompanied by labneh made from goat-milk yogurt, tangier and thicker than cream cheese. (Also present, but of less interest, is a side of crushed tomatoes.)
Almost nothing else on the menu is so simple or so satisfying. Cured tuna is laid over black-quinoa tabbouleh as a kind of precarious sushi, intercut by leatherlike tabs of beets and beset by tzatziki suffused with celery and freckled with jellied ponzu. Quenelles of steak tartare, separated by tiny wobbles of eggplant purée, form an inlet around gazpacho. The yellow coin of a quail egg yolk lurks in there, too, not quite enough to go around.
Each element may be delicious, but it’s hard to find a point of focus as the dishes grow increasingly baroque: brine-poached sweetbreads marooned in a potato vichyssoise and a crashed surf of parsley milk, with twists of sunchoke chips; portly scallops over untidy folds of lasagna sheets cooked in lobster bisque, with nubs of lamb-belly pancetta like a conga line of fat and salt.
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Mr. Mesika cooked in Tel Aviv and Milan and at the low-key Zizi Limona in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. In April, he opened Timna with Amir Nathan and Ori Apple, in a space that was formerly a hummusiya, part of Mr. Apple’s mini-chain of Hummus Place restaurants. (Full disclosure: Four years ago, Mr. Apple’s wife was one of my daughter’s nursery-school teachers.)
The dining room, once bright and ornamented with crockery, now has the tone of an underlit grotto, with scraped-down brick and overgrown herbs spilling out of wooden boxes. Spiky little air plants mark each table, a reminder, Mr. Mesika said, of life in the desert. Also from the desert, with a wink, is octopus, tenderized with dark beer, then buried in coals in the Bedouin style.
Main courses are mostly fine, if more thrilling in description than execution, like lamb saddle with Persian lemon dust, or East-West duck. I preferred the lentils simmered in lamb jus to the lamb itself, and zucchini blossoms stuffed with shrimp mousse to the bland fish they attended. One evening, lobster was nearly ruined by a polenta of alarming sweetness; not even the small wonder of a poached egg, perfectly fried, could redeem it.
Mr. Mesika does better with less fuss. His so-called Chinatown salad is an unexpected pleasure, ignoring borders, tumbling a Japanese tempura of haricots verts over glass noodles in pesto laced with fish sauce and palm sugar.
He also makes the desserts, which may explain the vegetal yearnings of the crème brûlée, overcome by a turfy undertow of porcinis. Better to end as you began, with that beautiful bread of his ancestors, rising from its terra-cotta pot like a thunderhead.