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Dagon is the city’s best new restaurant to arise out of the pandemic and my favorite new Upper West Side place since the millennium. A kaleidoscopic whirl through modern Israeli cuisine, where hummus and falafel meet the pungent pleasures of the Arab Middle East and North Africa, it hits the spot for a Manhattan craving something new and wonderful after many beloved places closed.
I flipped for the food in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Acre and Golan on a 2019 trip to Israel. Dagon’s sun-drenched flavor constellations brought back the pleasure. Plus, unlike many recent “openings,” Dagon is made for grown-up dining, with a comfortable setting and a civilized sound level. The well-trained, cheerful floor crew know their harissa from their horseradish.
Transporting Dagon’s “Somewhere in the Mediterranean” theme to Broadway at 91st Street took two long years. Owner Simon Oren was ready to launch it in March 2020 when the pandemic struck. He began gearing up a second time when low-capacity indoor dining was permitted last Oct. 31 – but the door slammed shut again before Dagon could open.
At last it’s here. Oren owns a dozen successful Manhattan spots, including long-running hits Barbounia, L’Express, Marseille and Café d’Alsace. Many of his places endure for decades. But Dagon might not have seen Day 1 if he didn’t have a caring landlord – well-known hotelier Ira Drukier.
During the year when Dagon couldn’t open, “He never pushed me on the rent,” Oren said. “He understood our trouble. He basically said, ‘Pay what you can, when you can.’ ”
The result: a gently exotic eatery in a neighborhood where many locals favor familiarity on the plate over even modest departures. For timid tastes, Dagon’s heart- and soul-satisfying duck matzo ball soup, where ground duck is rolled into the matzo and used for the consommé, might be too radical.
“At the end of the day, they mostly want comfort food,” Oren chuckled. But he pointed out, “I know the Upper West Side,” where he also runs south-of-France themed Nice Matin and none too exotic Five Napkin Burger. “I think the neighborhood’s hungry for a new, adult restaurant.”
Dagon’s a buzzing oasis on an eerily quiet stretch of Broadway, drenched in cheery colors and furnishings — polished Moroccan floor tiles, white-and-black banquette coverings and green and blue accents.
Executive chef/partner Ari Bokovza, born to a Tunisian-Israeli father, is French-trained and has worked in Barcelona, Spain, Israel and New York. He was chef de cuisine for three years at Danny Meyer’s the Modern.
Oren pursued him “for 10 years,” he said. “I tried to bring him to Barbounia but he was always busy with other projects.”
There are just five “small plates” ($14-18) and five entrees ($27-35), plus mezze ($8 each, three for $18), breads (including a gigantic, yeasty Jerusalem bagel baked into a log rather than twisted as it is in Israel) and salads. With such a limited menu, Bokovza, master of a gas-fired taboon oven, brings to life one of the world’s most dramatically transformed cuisines.
“Thirty or 40 years ago, Israel was very limited,” Oren said. “Then, chefs began traveling around the world and created the new Israeli cuisine.”
I loved supple short ribs braised in a tagine and impossibly juicy-throughout harissa barbecue chicken. Bokovza sends the often bland snack dish known as a Moroccan cigar to finishing school: the ground lamb sausage that fills the pastry enjoys an infusion of fresh herbs, potato, turmeric, cumin and egg.
Star sommelier Aviram Turgeman presides over a well-priced lineup of menu-appropriate wines, cocktails and beers. I was surprised to find mineral- and fruit-rich chardonnay from the Yarden winery, which I last enjoyed in the Golan Heights.
But Dagon’s best surprise is that it’s here at all – an inspiration for every restaurant struggling to survive the worst time in our history.
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