"In Israel, people came from all over the world," Ilan Cohen says. "So they brought their customs and flavors and kitchen dishes from Europe, from Morocco, from Greece. My father is from Syria, and my mother comes from Yugoslavia, with some Greek background. When I was growing up, we had tons of flavors in the house."
"Tons of flavors in the house." That'd be one way to describe Falafel Bistro, the tiny restaurant Cohen opened ten months ago in Coral Springs. The place has six tables and four stools at the bar, a small selection of wines lining a high shelf, a flat screen tuned to sports, and an eclectic soundtrack emanating from the stereo, ranging from Europop to acid jazz to Bolero, which climaxes, one recent afternoon, in a clangorous shriek of horns and drums. "What the heck are you listening to?" one customer asks nobody in particular. "It sounds like a zoo in here."
The menu is healthful, vegetarian, and kosher all the time, from breakfast through dinner. And like the flavors in Cohen's childhood kitchen, it's a melting pot of Middle East favorites. Yemenite classics like jachnoon ($6.50), a breakfast pastry served with whole hardboiled eggs, fresh crushed tomato sauce, and a spicy, green, cilantro-infused chutney, vie for attention with the Iraqi sabich ($5.50), a pita stuffed with roasted eggplant, tart cucumber salad, hummus, parsley, and chopped onions. You can get fresh daily soups — split pea, pumpkin, or white bean — or an omelet stuffed into a French baguette with a side of fries. Another baguette sandwich layers sun-dried tomato spread with feta, roasted red pepper, greens, and fresh basil; yet another grills the baguette with olives for a Medi version of toasted cheese. There may be pasta specials on the board or fish or, every Thursday, freshly made Moroccan couscous with vegetables.
Cohen isn't really a restaurateur; he's one of those rare types who opens a restaurant for fun because he digs cooking. He came to Coral Springs by way of Israel and Manhattan, where he still owns a security company. "Food is my love," he says. He likes to experiment — even on his customers. "Try it," he says to a guy sitting at the bar. "If you don't like it, you don't pay for it." He disappears back into the kitchen.
The guinea pig takes a slurp from a bowl of white bean soup Cohen has put in front of him. "The beans are hard," he says after a minute.
"Ilan, the beans are hard!" the waitress shouts back to the kitchen.
"THE. BEANS. ARE. HARD!!"
Cohen emerges wiping his neck with a towel. "You kidding me?"
Somebody else comes in and wants to know about the soup of the day. "It won't be ready for another half hour, maybe an hour," Cohen tells her. "The beans are hard."
The customer at the bar pushes away the soup bowl and orders a sandwich. "You're my favorite shiksa," he tells the waitress.
"Shiksa," she says half to herself, smiling, like she's testing the word. I like this waitress. She's 20 or so, with a round, shining face, and she calls me "Dear" and "Honey." She brings me a tall, cold glass of pomegranate lemonade ($1.75) with a few leaves of crushed mint floating in it, and when it's empty, she refills it without being asked to. I overhear her telling somebody she plans to be a doctor. She's taking pre-med classes at FAU.
I order the Yemenite jachnoon. Yemenite mothers traditionally bake this sweet, layered dough, called ajin, in a pot. The dough is rolled into logs and baked in a slow oven overnight, with eggs still in the shell nestled between the little loaves. The Jews who lived in Yemen until the rise of Islam in the Seventh Century, when they dispersed around the globe, had distinct culinary traditions that they follow to this day in India, Israel, the Middle East, and the United States: You eat jachnoon in the morning with tomato sauce or sour cream — sort of like the Yemenite version of chapatti or tortillas. Heavy, very chewy, slightly sweet from honey added to the dough — for me, jachnoon is an acquired taste. I didn't hate it, but I doubt I'd wake up craving it in the middle of the night either.
The falafel are a different story. These I might wake up craving. The gourmet falafel platter ($10.50) offers a choice — fried chick-pea balls made with cranberries, sun-dried tomatoes, pine nuts, or sesame seeds. I order the cranberry.
What's with the cranberries in the falafel? I ask Cohen when I call him the next day.
"I just woke up one morning and decided to do this," he tells me. "In Israel, falafel is the hungry people's dish. You grab it, stuff everything in the pita, then you go back to work. You eat it while you're working; in one hand, you have your sandwich. But I realized most of my customers are Americans, and you never see Americans, you know, walking around on the street eating a hamburger. They want to sit down, they want to eat everything with a knife and fork; the traditional falafel is too messy. So I basically opened it up on the plate, the way you'd eat a classic meat dish, with a touch of gourmet added.
"Think about it," he says. "Most savory dishes have a little sweetness. You add a little sugar to the pizza dough or the tomato sauce to break the acid. You put chocolate sauce on the pretzel. Or you eat chocolate-covered raisins with your popcorn at the movie theater. I thought a little sweetness in the falafel would be good, so I added cranberries."
It works. I like it. A little strange, maybe, with the sour pickle and the nutty, slightly bitter tahini, but good. You can stuff it into one of Cohen's homemade pitas, which have twice the heft of the grocery-store variety, to make a sandwich if you want to do it the Israeli way.
My favorite dish comes with a terrific Israeli salad of chopped cucumber, parsley, onion, and tomato with lemony dressing — it's the bourekas ($6.50). This flaky, rectangular phyllo pastry, stuffed with cheese and spinach, brushed with egg, and sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds, served with a hard-boiled egg and tahini, is a special Balkan/Turkish recipe from Cohen's mother. It has the kind of creamy, deeply satisfying mouth feel you associate with foods meant to put meat on your bones, to fatten you up and keep you healthy over long winters. Definitely mom food, and fantastic.
I didn't get to the malawach ($6.50), another dish you're not likely to find at many restaurants 'round these parts — it's the same pastry as the jachnoon, only rolled flat and cooked like a pancake, with crispy edges — you can eat it with honey and feta cheese or with the savory sides of tomato and cilantro sauce.
For dessert, Cohen makes his baklava ($3.50) and mini croissants (cheese or chocolate, $3) from scratch. A two-fruit smoothie (choose from bananas, pineapples, strawberries, or dates) is $5.50. Falafel Bistro ought to be a regular pit stop for vegetarians, for anybody who wants to eat kosher, for quick lunches and breakfasts, and for folks looking for alternatives to the usual menu of braised short ribs and calamari fritti. Come once and you're a regular customer — you can bet the shiksa waitress and Cohen will remember your face. Before you know it, he'll be practicing on you too. "Try it. If you don't like it, you don't pay." My guess is, so long as those beans are cooked through, you're gonna like it just fine.