“Do you want me to come to sit with you, or do you want to taste some falafel?”
Israeli chef Erez Komarovsky posed the proposition as a question, but it was quickly apparent it was rhetorical.
“Taste falafel,” said Zeev Sharon, one of the partners of the new, fast-casual concept Mint Kitchen. “Take the falafel. He’s really nice, but the falafel’s great.”
While Komarovsky has made a name for himself in his native Israel — described as a father of modern Israeli cooking, he opened bakery Lehem Erez — Sharon and the third partner, Assaf A. Harlap, never set out to specifically open a restaurant in New York. Rather, the two childhood friends, both entrepreneurs, stumbled upon the idea after deciding to work together for their next start-up. They took note of several trends in the city (where Sharon has lived for well over a decade; Harlap is based in Israel) — a move toward healthy eating and a redefinition of what constitutes as healthy, and more casual dining — and felt there was an opportunity for them to launch a concept that would fill that gap with the idea of scale of mind.
Located in Greenwich Village, the space is outfitted with natural wood tones and decorated with hanging lights and plenty of foliage. In addition to tables, the space offers stadium-style seating as a unique option. In the summer, the windows will open to the street. Opening in the competitive New York landscape allows the team to stress-test their concept before hoping to scale up.
“The options felt limited,” said Sharon. “There are a bunch of successful businesses that serve a salad, but salad only works for some people for some of the time, for some times of the year.”
“I call this the golden triangle of delicious, affordable and healthy,” Harlap added. “How do we crack this algorithm? For us, it comes back to our roots and our home and what we ate growing up, which was just vegetables, healthy food, and minimally processed,” he continued. “We went and basically looked for the best chef in the business, and we’re very lucky to have Erez.”
Shortly after offering up falafel, Komarovsky returned carrying a white lacquered tray rimmed in rich blue, on top of which he arranged peaks of green falafel, baked in a taboon oven (nothing is fried) and drizzled with lemon and tahini.
“OK, we are going to do it in the Israeli way — with your hands,” he said, setting the tray down. The chef, who lives in Mattat, a small mountainous town near the Lebanese border, is approached often with offers for projects but rarely says yes; he’s cooked around the world, but Mint Kitchen is his first culinary project in New York.
“I think its a wonderful project for me to bring the modern food of Israel — not the pita pockets — kind of a fusion of old, modern, traditional, innovative,” he said, explaining that their concept is similar to the restaurant offerings in Tel Aviv, with a focus on vegetable-forward, non-processed simplicity. “It’s tasty and it’s simple, it’s modest. We’re not trying to impress anybody with our knowledge of how to make cabbage into cauliflower.”
What does healthy and Israel-inspired fast cuisine translate into? Items on the menu include a falafel crusted salmon and an avocado ‘Caesar’ salad, which has been reworked as a vegan offering. Pita, not a focus of the menu, is done using spelt, and vegan chocolate truffles are given a healthy twist, incorporating tahini instead of cream or dairy, which also adds a “hint of Israel” to the item. In need of a salad, Komarovsky went out to his garden — which was integral to the menu development — and the assembled items became the Mattat salad of cabbage, roasted apples, almonds, pea tendrils and honey.
The restaurant is also giving back to its community, with a commitment to profit-sharing with its employees and offering a twist on the punch-card system: they’ve partnered with City Harvest, and for every 10 punches they will donate a meal to families in need. “Instead of getting that free coffee, we’re actually giving a much better gift, which is the gift of giving,” said Harlap.
And in case you were wondering… yes, the falafel was the right choice.
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