By Ava Stryker-Robbins
Most restaurants crave attention. Their flashy awnings shine bright lights, and their presence is obvious from the sidewalk. Shalel is different. Behind a small corner and beneath a staircase sprinkled with rose petals, it is a hidden restaurant with a romantic, peaceful ambiance.
Shalel features dishes from across the Mediterranean coast, including several tagines—a North African stew with spices—served over couscous. The lamb kofta tagine has an exquisite flavor, with many spices—cardamom, cumin, clove, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, maize, turmeric, and more—greatly enhancing the meat. Koftas are similar to meatballs and are found in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Northern Africa. The lamb kofta tagine is served with chickpeas, vegetables, Palestinian maftoul (similar to couscous), and berbere-Kashmiri chili broth. The flavor palette is not just tasty, but unique.
Shalel was opened 23 years ago by Vassilis Katehis, and the lamb kofta tagine has been served since the restaurant opened. Katehis’s friend gave him the recipe, which, he said in a phone interview with WSR, originates from Morocco in the 1800s. The kofta is halal (acceptable according to Muslin law). The dish is popular partly because it is “easier to eat and share as the meat does not contain bones,” Katehis said. “People like to share dishes. That’s why they come here.”
Katehis is from the Greek island Erikousa. He learned how to cook from his mom and never attended any form of cooking school.
The underground location of Shalel was not accidental. Katehis likes to keep a low profile so that the majority of customers are locals who can return and form relationships with the staff; “not that we don’t like tourists, but we prefer to contribute to the people in the neighborhood…it’s very important. It’s community,” he said.
The restaurant’s seating is intimate and calm, with many tables having isolated locations. One table is alone in a dark room right next to a fountain. The underground space is still an ongoing project for Katehis and others at Shalel. “We constantly try to make it a little bit better,” he explained.
Katelis is proud of the restaurant and the dishes it serves; “It makes me extremely happy that I’m able to provide to the neighborhood and to our customers,” he added. Shalel is willing to make” more time-consuming dishes with costly ingredients” in order to ensure the best possible quality for his customers.
The Lamb Kofta Tagine costs $29.
The Dish: Lamb Kofta Tagine
The Restaurant: Shalel (65 West 70th Street at Columbus)
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