If you’re like me you’ve probably been
to enough pita palaces to know the menu blindfolded - babaghanouj,
hummus, all the usual suspects. The decor consists of a weaving
hung on the wall, lots of tables that are too small and unstable
to be comfortable and a soundtrack that whines non-stop in the
background. The food is familiar and often good, but don’t expect
Rose Water might be considered a Middle Eastern restaurant too. Middle Eastern spices season some of the dishes and there is lamb on the menu, but to compare this small wonder to traditional Middle Eastern places would be like comparing Philip Roth to Danielle Steel - they’re both writers, but ...
Chef Neil O’Malley, formerly of Oznot’s Dish in Williamsburg and Savoy in Manhattan, and manager John Tucker, also of Savoy, opened Rose Water last spring with a formula for success that tapped directly into the collective dining needs of the community. They understand that to be challenged once in awhile is a good thing, that not having to compete with a shrieking soundtrack should be a given, that a room need not be cutting-edge contemporary to feel sophisticated and that a staff that really understands what goes into a dish and can guide diners, is their greatest ally.
Take the decor for instance. The walls are painted a pale sea green. The tables are small but comfortable and the banquettes are covered in a nubby fabric that feels cool against the skin. Silverware is heavy; napkins are linen - can you see where I’m going with this? O’Malley and Tucker understand that it’s the little things we notice and that keep us coming back. The evening I was there, the crowd seemed relaxed and enthralled with their meals. Many tables had diners passing their plates back and forth, saying, "Try this!"
O’Malley has a knack for combining lots of ingredients and blending them harmoniously. Black pepper, coriander and sun dried tomatoes appear in one tuna dish, and a cinnamon-ginger vinaigrette is served with the duck confit. There’s a meze plate and a cheese plate, and if it all sounds like too much of a good thing, it’s not. This is adult food, handled imaginatively and in the case of spicing, with great restraint.
Restraint is also shown in the presentation of the food. Thought has been given to the arrangement of the food on the plate, but the presentation is not overdone. I was relieved not to see little dots and blobs of sauces self-consciously ringing the plates, or towering constructions of ingredients that should be presented along with a "how to" manual before anyone attacks it with a fork.
The freshly baked potato focaccia will be filed away in my gastronomic memory bank under "great breads I have loved." Dense, moist, chewy with an onion topping both oily and salty - it’s addictive.
Of the five appetizers, four were stellar and one was pleasant but didn’t rock our world. We started with the fattoush. This salad of watercress, impeccably fresh mussels, tiny green olives and bits of preserved lemon was as refreshing as an ice-cold vodka on a hot night.
I don’t know what Freud would say, but since my evening at Rose Water I’ve dreamed of the sardines every night. A special appetizer, these oversized Spanish sardines were first brined so that after grilling, they remained moist on the inside and crusty on the outside and were served over greaseless eggplant "fries."
The bluefish in vinaigrette was served with a light, garlicky tzatziki sauce and tasted nothing like the bluefish I make at home.
Chewy morels, also a special, had a rich wine sauce redolent of garlic and were served over slices of the focaccia.
I found the appetizer of delicate pasta in a light, lemony sauce, plum tomatoes, fava beans and corn too subtle. Next to the macho sardines and those "fries" it came off as a well-mannered runner-up.
A person who dreams of sardines would apparently have a seafood bias, but I won’t walk away from a good steak. The skirt steak, marinated with zaatar seasoning (thyme, salt and sumac), grilled and served very rare with kale and a multi-dimensional romesco sauce (tomatoes, red bell peppers, onion, garlic, almonds and olive oil), will sate any red-meat cravings.
Pork chops, delicately flavored and tender with a crunchy breadcrumb topping, came with a side of vinegary, slow-cooked onions that has a sweet/sour combination that I love.
Monkfish was served with tomato-nectarine salsa and a coconut-lace pancake. The monkfish was peppery and the salsa spiked with fresh ginger that made it practically dance off the plate. The pancake was almost transparent and very tender.
By the glass, the half bottle or the bottle, Rose Water’s wine offerings are a carefully selected and interesting global tour with lots of choice bottles under $30.
It is hip in some food circles to claim to enjoy desserts that are "wonderful and not at all sweet." But if I have to guess whether to have my tart with a cup of coffee or as a side dish with my lamb chop, then I’d rather not be hip. Some of the desserts at Rose Water will satisfy my "not at all sweet" friends, though. They’ll enjoy the cheese plate with fruit and the house-made yogurt with roasted apricots.
For dessert purists there’s a chocolate torte with cherry rhubarb compote, and a lemon cake, but the one dessert that really put the exclamation point on our meal was the ginger panna cotta with blueberry sauce. Light, just sweet enough, with a silky texture and the heat of fresh ginger - it’s swoon worthy.
There is construction being done on the street outside the restaurant, but don’t let that stop you from a great meal. The construction crews are long gone by the time you’ll sit down for brunch or dinner. It’s business as usual inside, and even outside the restaurant, large tables of diners, lit by tiki lamps, were having a great time oblivious to the rubble around them.
Rose Water (787 Union St. at Sixth Avenue) is open daily for dinner, and brunch on Sunday from 11 am to 3 pm. Entrees: $13.50-17.50. Rose Water accepts MasterCard, Visa and American Express. For more information, call (718) 783-3800.