Don’t mess with a formula that works. That appears to be the adage of Refael Hasid, who closed the Hill Diner on Court Street and re-opened in February as Miriam, a spin-off of his popular eatery of the same name in Park Slope.
“We’re continuing to tell our story,” said Hasid of the latest incarnation.
The “story” is Israeli-born chef Hasid’s modern interpretation of Middle Eastern cuisine. Using his mother Miriam’s recipes as well as his own, Hasid tweaks familiar ingredients of those countries, dipping into Africa and the sunny flavors of the Mediterranean. He ties all the influences together with French technique. Where else can you find a hybrid like “fenugreek aioli” (a Middle Eastern and Indian spice used to flavor French garlic mayonnaise)?
Unlike the original Miriam, where only wine is available, the new incarnation features a full liquor license. The bartenders make good use of their ample stock, using Hasid’s vocabulary of ingredients to full advantage. The “Arak,” a martini made with vermouth and arak (a spirit distilled from fermented coconut palm sap or a rice and molasses mash) is dry, smooth and faintly resin with a touch of salt. It’s an ideal primer for the complex dishes that await.
If you prefer wine, there’s a well-chosen international list with plenty of bottles in the $20-$40 range.
The room is sexy, thanks to earthy textures, warm colors and quiet music. To create the mood, Hasid gutted the cool, industrial-chic Hill Diner, installed a handsome mahogany and copper bar, and ringed the butter-colored walls with a band of blue-and-green mosaic tiles that sparkle like sun hitting water. Overhead, exotic Moroccan lamps cast diamonds of light on the inky ceiling.
The back room, sometimes cordoned off with a heavy velvet drape, sports a huge skylight and a floor-to-ceiling glass window with a view of the outdoor dining area.
We nursed our cocktails while dunking tender, crisp-edged “boreks” into three dips: a spicy “harissa” (a condiment made with oil, chiles, garlic and spices), a mild, sesame perfumed “tahini” and “skordalia” (a Greek sauce of garlic, lemon and nuts). The pastries possess a light, creamy interior of mild, tangy feta cheese, smoky roasted peppers and eggplant. The flavors of deepened with a touch of each sauce: the harissa adds heat, the tahini a cool nuttiness, and the skordalia a bright acidity.
Crisp little rolls of flatbread are filled with feta and given some heat with chopped jalapenos in the “grilled Jerusalem bread” starter. Hearts of romaine lettuce dressed in lemony vinaigrette and slices of peppery radish turn the dish into a bright salad.
The entrees are as varied and intriguing as the starters. Hasid has an affinity for seafood and vegetable pairings. One inspired couple is pan-seared scallops served over a delicate celery fennel puree drizzled with star anise-orange “gastrique.” a fruity and tart sugar-based sauce.
A simpler dish is the roasted “marjoram-crusted wild striped bass” set over a silky pool of cauliflower puree. In the oven, the herbs become smoky and fragrant, making an ideal counterpoint to the quiet personality of the fish. Sauteed green beans with a hint of garlic lend color and depth to the dish.
The “beer-braised short ribs” are heavy going and “ribs” is inaccurate. It’s a rib, and a big one at that. The meat spans the length of an oversized plate. I love cheap cuts of meat with plenty of fat; they insure moist, tender eating — but this piece was so unctuous that it made pork belly look like a Weight Watcher’s meal. With the fat scraped away (or piled on the side of the plate) the mineral taste was concentrated like the essence of the best, slow-cooked, silken steak you could dream of. A whisper of anise appeared in every few bites. Beside the behemoth rib sat a big square of straight up, just-like-Bubby’s raisin noodle kugel. (Since my visit, a spring menu has been introduced and, not surprisingly, the rib has been taken off the roundup. It will reappear as an occasional special.)
I’m not a lover of Middle Eastern desserts. They tend to be too sweet, and too similar; there are only so many honey-dipped, nut-covered cookies about which I can get excited.
But at Miriam, the house-baked baklava isn’t as cloying as one usually finds. And there’s an unusual spin on a Syrian dessert called “knafa” that was surprisingly subtle. Hasid spreads a layer of goat cheese and mascarpone over “kadaifa” (a soft, uncooked wheat dough, similar to shredded wheat) and bakes it. The pastry is crisp yet not brittle and the icing of cheeses faintly sweet. The serving is too large and, frankly, not interesting enough to hold anyone’s attention for more than a few bites. It would be ideal for three or four people to share.
The setting for the new Miriam may be more impressive than the original and the garden space doesn’t hurt. But what makes the original Miriam so popular hasn’t changed. The sequel serves the same innovative fare priced right (nothing is over $19), the menu is extensive enough to warrant return visits, and you can have a good time with the accommodating waitstaff. You’d have to be nuts to change that.
Miriam (229 Court St., between Baltic and Warren streets in Cobble Hill) accepts American Express, Discover, MasterCard and Visa. Entrees: $15.50-$19. The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. Brunch is available on weekends from 10 am to 4 pm. Subway: F to Bergen Street. For information, call (718) 522-2220 or visit www.miriamrestaurant.