The rich and tasty flavors of the Mediterranean come to Stamford
Photograph by Gus Cantavero
While musing on food, I sometimes think that the USDA food pyramid needs to be redone. Forget the building blocks with its fruits, meats and sweets. A far more accurate rendition would include what most of us actually eat. I believe it comes down to brown foods, beige foods and white foods, the whole pallid color spectrum of mashed potatoes, steak and vanilla ice cream.
This “deep thought” occurred to me again while sitting at a table at Tabouli Grill in Stamford. Eating here was like leaving the black-and-white world and suddenly seeing it in Technicolor. The vibrant dishes coming from the kitchen were as bright and cheerful as confetti.
There are any number of falafel outlets and pita joints in Stamford, but the food offered at Tabouli Grill is in another realm. This is serious (if unpretentious) Mediterranean cooking at its best. The mastermind behind the good food is Judith Roll, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and a pastry chef who cut her kitchen chops working with Wolfgang Puck. After traveling all over the Middle East—from Israel to Turkey, from Greece to Egypt—she has edited the best dishes from these regions for her pretty little restaurant at Bull’s Head Plaza.
Some of the foods offered here will be familiar: hummus and Greek salads, chicken kabobs and baklava—and they are the best renditions of their kind, to be sure. However, Tabouli Grill also shines presenting lesser-known dishes.
Begin your meal with Israeli “Nachos,” a large platter of baked pita chips, cubes of tangy feta cheese, briny black olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion and a dipping sauce called labneh (a tangy yogurt with fresh herbs). Don’t overlook the Israeli Salad, a gorgeous kaleidoscope of color and taste: chopped tomato, cucumber, red onions, red cabbage and bright green parsley simply sprinkled with olive oil, salt and lemon juice. Our curiosity was piqued by an appetizer called Vegetarian Chopped Liver. Ever dubious about mock foods, we thought this mélange of vegetables not only tasted like real chopped chicken liver but also made eating healthy and fun.
The sandwiches at Tabouli Grill are a delight. Some are simple (Grandma Minnie’s Tuna Salad in Pita) and some have higher aspirations, such as the Pan Roasted Salmon with cilantro, red onion, tomato and za’tar (a spice blend of sesame seeds, hyssop and sumac). Our surprise favorite among the half-dozen sandwiches listed under Halavi was the rather exoticsounding Sabiach. Currently all the rave in Israel, the Sabiach is a fresh split pita bread stuffed with ingredients from the sparkling Israeli Salad blended with hummus, tahini, sliced hardboiled egg and slices of roasted eggplant.
The kitchen turns out wonderful side dishes too. The Hand Cut French Fries (sweet potato and regular) are both hot and fresh. Megadarra, a bowl of lentils and rice with caramelized onions, is flavorful and pleasing.
Soups are what mama would have cooked if she only had the time. Each day Judith prepares her special soups, giving choices to those craving meat and others craving a vegetarian option. We loved her rendition of a hearty split-pea soup. With sweet-potato fries on the side, it turned into a warming meal.
In all, a minor miracle happens when you eat at Tabouli Grill. Food that is both delicious and savory turns out to be healthy at the same time! This is the type of food we all should eat: no preservatives, fresh and clean, copious veggies, grains and grilled meats. It makes eating healthy a delight instead of a chore.
Be sure to leave room for something sweet. There is a huge, honey-oozing block of baklava, a lovely poppy-seed cake with a thin layer of cream cheese frosting and a knock-your-socks-off ice cream that tastes of sesame-spiked vanilla with ribbons of halvah running through it. Judith also produces a fun whoopee pie and a big chewy cookie studded with M&Ms.
Aside from enjoying fine food at reasonable prices, it was a kick to see our waitress approach the table when we were first seated. Her name is Ya’el, and she is Judith’s eight-year-old daughter. Ya’el handed us the menus with the serious focus of a refined hostess. She carefully brought us glasses of water, and after turning over our care to a grown-up waitress, she pranced away, her little legs covered in bright red tights.
Tabouli Grill is an easy place to love. It is not about gimmicks or corporate menu planning. It is the heart and soul of a passionate chef who has translated her world travels into a concise culinary travelogue for all of us to enjoy.