Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Simcha Hopes to Bring Sharon Food Scene to New ‘Heights’

For a town steeped in Israeli heritage, it’s downright shocking that Sharon has for so long failed to land a restaurant that pays proper homage to the exotic Middle Eastern/North African cuisine of its ancestors. That is, until now. Simcha, lovingly named after chef/owner Avi Shemtov’s (a Sharon native himself), and in Hebrew translates to ‘joy,’ recently opened its doors in Sharon Heights (historically, a revolving door of fledgling shops and countless Asian restaurants; hopefully, the eatery will reverse this trend) following its initial manifestation as a Roslindale pop-up. Prior to that, Shemtov – whose father, Yona emigrated from Israel to the States to fulfill his dream of becoming a chef – served more traditional Israeli cuisine (think falafel and shawarma) out of his highly successful Chubby Chickpea foodtruck for nine years. Simcha’s menu, however, veers more towards what is best described as modern Israeli cuisine (i.e.: not your average bubbe’s receipes from the Old World). Think sharable, Middle Eastern-inspired tapas and you’re on the right path.

                Step inside, and the restaurant’s cozy, swanky interior will surprise you. Behind a frosted glass window (in which the skyline of the city of Jerusalem is deftly painted) and a black curtain, you may initially think you’re walking into a secret speakeasy establishment. To the right, there’s a mid-sized bar dimly illuminated by funky lamps that playfully and proudly display Jewish star insignias. The main dining room is tiny, yet intimate, seating roughly two dozen patrons. The restaurant’s name is boldly painted along the left wall, along with the mysterious punim of a woman (my guess is it’s Shemtov’s grandmother). The restaurant’s inviting color schemes are beige and brown (including the brown formal table cloths), replicating the color of plump, airy, warm, and incredibly delicious complimentary pitas that are served piping hot out of the massive giant oven from which smoky aromas permeate the air.

                Shemtov’s creative menu is broken out into three sections: Salatim (small bites), Mezze (larger, sharable tapas), and Something Larger (entrée-size). Starting with the Salatim, while the hummus ($13) is light and creamy, consisting of Maine soldier beans tinged with tahini, garlic and evoo, it’s disappointingly bland and could benefit from additional seasoning. Also, there could simply be much more of it rendered on the plate to support the three aforementioned pitas (it’s barely enough for two). I’m always of fan of establishments that utilize locally sourced products, and Shemtov makes fine use of nearby Ward Farm’s carrot sticks ($13). Perhaps, though, the menu item should be labeled carrot stick (singular). While I admired the char on the vegetable and the unique flavors stemming from orange blossom syrup and Moroccan spices, it appeared that one carrot was sliced into several scrawny sticks. Carrots are a relatively cheap vegetable to purchase, so why is Simcha skimping on portion size here? I experienced this very problem with the seared eggplant ($12), pan seared and whose flavors generally popped with roasted red peppers and smoked onion puree with balsamic. But if you asked me if I could delineate between a trio of Indian, Thai and Chinese varieties that the menu insists are there, then you’re a more astute diner than I (one version was decent while another was excessively bitter to the degree of burnt).

                Mezze fare better, including a generous portion of calamari ($16), whose fresh tentacles and rings have a nicely balanced texture between the crunchy crackle of a lightly breaded exterior and the squishy tenderness of the fish’s interior. The dish is further enhanced by a welcomed, heated spike of zhoug, a chili-pepper and garlic infused hot sauce originating in Yemenite cuisine. My personal favorite menu item is Shemtov’s innovative Middle Eastern riff on traditional French fries, this time served up as fried rutabaga ($9), doused with a delectable pomegranate molasses sauce that I was reluctant to share. Short rib poutine ($13), however, was another downer given its (sense a theme here?) inadequate portion of chickpea polenta fries topped with meat that (you guessed it) lacked seasoning that would have invigorated the otherwise creamy potato slivers that were nicely plated tic-tac-toe style.

                Having sampled the Yemenite fried chicken ($24) entrée, it’s easy to understand why it’s Simcha’s staple dish (although it doesn’t quite reach the flavor profile pinnacle that those wonderful rutabaga fries had achieved). The bird is brined and battered in chickpea flour, unapologetically cooked in gluttonous schmaltz (chicken fat) to moisten and enhance the white and dark meat’s flavor, and dipped in a vibrant, zesty pool of red zhoug.

                Desserts were a mixed bag. A semi-dry chocolate lava cake was much too hastily brought tableside (our generally knowledgeable and affable server, during his lone misstep of the evening, stated that it was a leftover slice from an anniversary cake baked moments before), whereas a giant, marshmallow-infused whoopie pie drew praise across our table. Regardless, it was a bit baffling that none of these selections drew from Middle Eastern influences.

                A small, select list of cocktails were well executed (including a spicy jalapeno infused margarita and a refreshing bourbon blended with brown sugar lemonade with candied lemon peel), but at $13 a pop, I would expect a far more generous pour of alcohol in my concoction in lieu of over half of my glass packed with ice. An interesting offering of craft beers – both canned and on tap – span across the New England region, including a double IPA from Fall River.

                I am rooting for Simcha to succeed. The town of Sharon has been clamoring for an upscale eatery for years and it appears to have finally arrived. Shemtov and his energetic team are undoubtedly giving Simcha along with the local dining community their best shot. With some minor tweaks in the kitchen and a slight reduction in price points to more accurately reflect their portion sizes, this eatery will then become a simcha to behold.


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