Tiki Taka Grill
646 University Ave. (Hillcrest)
Prices: Appetizers and salads, $5.99 to $15.99; entrees, $11.99 to $24.99 (Lunch specials: $8.95 to $10)
By Frank Sabatini Jr. | Restaurant Review
No, it is not a Polynesian restaurant, which many will easily assume from the name. Instead, prepare your palate for some of the most beautiful everyday meals from a world away. Israel to be exact.
The new Tiki Taka Grill in Hillcrest breaks the norm from everything that came before it in their location: Z Pizza, Viva Pasta and most recently, Porkyland. It is also the first eatery at this address to provide full wait-service and a host station outside the door.
Owned by two young Israeli men who are global soccer fans, they named the restaurant after an intricate soccer maneuver used often by the Spaniards on the playing fields. Being the sports fan I’m not, the term “tiki taka” initially had me imagining pineapple fried-rice and fruity Mai Tais.
A visit begins with a large complimentary disc of puffy laffa bread, covered in herbs and fresh from the grill. It is accompanied with little bowls of lightly dressed cabbage, super-garlicky Israeli salsa and chickpeas sitting in a pond of tahini and olive oil. Their flavors were terrific and the presentation colorful.
Laffa is used traditionally throughout the Middle East for grabbing, wrapping and sopping a wide variety of foodstuffs. It arrives to the table continuously throughout your meal. The bread is marvelously chewy in parts and delicate and crispy where it bubbles. Fear not, the crumbly mess you leave behind after repeatedly ripping into it is part of the dining ritual.
Growing up in Israel, co-owner Itay Cremisi said that Friday dinners were “full of salads.” Thus, he makes available an assortment of tapas-sized medleys to get you started. Some are made with Moroccan carrots and chopped chicken livers; others involve spiced cherry tomatoes and tabouli. Roasted eggplant cloaked in a puddle of tahini was particularly ravishing, offering a balance of sweet and zingy flavors nurtured by the bread.
We also chose a full-size Israeli salad that my companion raved about when visiting before me. Everything in it is finely chopped: red peppers, cucumbers, onions, parsley and tomatoes, leaving you with a confetti-like pile of fresh organics elevated by olive oil infused with mint and lemon.
Hummus comes in six different varieties, ranging from classic or with the addition of mushrooms, pine nuts or shawarma. We zeroed in on the hummus with coarsely ground beef, a novel presentation that featured a mound of meat and pine nuts encircled by the creamy bean puree. Along the way, we detected the occasional flavor of lamb, although our knowledgeable waiter, also from Israel, insisted that the spices used in the beef were tricking our taste buds. Either way, carnivores will love it.
The falafel combo was also a winner. It comes with a choice of sides that include mashed potatoes made without butter, but which tasted rich and homey nonetheless. You also get four crispy falafel balls containing a fair dose of herbs, given their parsley-green interiors. The silver dispenser of tahini on the plate added swank to the presentation.
The menu progresses to grilled items such as chicken and ribeye skewers, lamb chops, New York steak and pan-fried schnitzel made with breaded pounded-out chicken. We opted for a long metal skewer of chicken thighs that were juicy and flavorful as expected, dipping some of the pieces into a bowl of spicy homemade harissa sauce that was put on our table earlier.
“The food here is a taste of home,” our waiter said while tending to us with the efficiency you would experience in fine-dining establishments. In addition to excellent service, the hospitality factor runs high as the staff affectionately begins showering you with bread and dips the moment you’re seated.
We finished with malabi, a custardy dessert plated prettily with rose water, coconut and pistachio nuts. Its consistency is a little thicker than flan, although light enough to fully devour after gorging on Tiki’s clean, healthy meals. If you are a fan of Middle Eastern cuisine, this kitchen exposes you to the subtle recipe permutations straight from Israeli households.