Middle Eastern Food has always been a favorite for me. There is something about the fresh, earthy flavors and the variety of textures that makes me want tabouli, or falafel, or schwarma almost every day. During our sophomore year of Undergrad, Audrey (the best roomie ever with some hot photo taking skiills–check her on instagram, she’s bergamotandnavy) and I used to make a lot of 2am runs to Jerusalem, the greasy hole in the wall across the street from our Morningside Heights apartment. We would stuff our faces with falafel, schwarma, and grape leaves before we banished ourselves back paper-writing purgatory (such was the life of Creative Writing and Art History majors at Barnard).
Until very recently, unless you happened to be near 104th St and Broadway, it was very unlikely that you would be able to satisfy your schwarma craving anywhere below 89th St (unless street cart schwarma satiates your craving, which for me, it most certainly doesn’t). The first time I went to Silvana, located at the very convenient W 116th St and Adam Clayton Powell Blvd, I went with Steph (aka @GFFoodieGuide aka my Harlem dwelling #GlutenFree Food Writer twin), and we were in insta-love. A bright, airy, and eclectically decorated space where almost everything in the place (except the huge plank communal tables) is on sale, the vibe was super chill and our fellow patrons were relaxing with small plates, lattes, and their laptops. We chose one of the communal tables and were brought menus by a friendly and attentive waitress who took our drink order faster than we could figure out how to pull out the stools attached to the tables.
Since both Steph and I are Gluten Free, deciding what to eat at most of the restaurants where we dine probably sounds like a doctorate dissertation for everyone within earshot. Because we were both anticipating exactly this type of conversation with our waitress, imagine how ecstatic we were when we discovered that as long as you don’t get pita (duh!), almost all of the menu is gluten free (and no–you don’t even have to worry about fryer cross contamination because they use separate fryers for their falafel!) Our server, who has kids that are also gluten intolerant, knew all about our dietary restrictions, which made us feel totally comfortable and taken care of without our typical long winded explanation and excessive mandatory apologies.
Since going for the first time in the middle of the summer I have enjoyed a meal or a snack at Silvana more times than I can count. Even though Frederick Douglass Blvd offers more meal options per square block than anywhere else in South Harlem, Silvana sits very comfortably at the intersection of affordable, tasty, and somewhat healthy, so I often vote to go there more than anywhere else on Harlem’s Restaurant Row. Offering a menu where many of the appetizers are repeated at entrees, Silvana might garner some criticism for a perceived lack of variety in comparison to it’s neighboring restaurants, but I am sure that the simplicity is what allows for the superb execution each dish.
Grape Leaves: I am a tough critic of Stuffed Grape Leaves. I have had so many bad ones that when I taste one that is tipping the scales in the positive direction I get super excited. Silvana’s Stuffed Grape Leave Appetizer effortlessly falls into the ‘good’ column; which I suspect is not because they have a top secret recipe, but because the grape leaves, like everything else in the restaurant, are made (or rolled) by hand from fresh quality ingredients. The rice stuffing was simple with a citrus bite, while the leaves were tender with a refreshing grassy flavor (and no tough and difficult to chew ribs running throughout).
Sharshuka: The first time I had ever had or heard of Sharsuka was at Zula Cafe in Santa Teresa, Costa Rica in 2010. Since then I have seen it turn up on a number of different menus across New York, often showcasing multiple variations of a dish whose basic components come down to some kind of tomato-based sauce and eggs that are poached in it. I have had Sharshuka at Silvana three different times, and twice my plate showed up looking like the above dish (with a smoother and spicy tomato sauce), and the third time I received a compilation of large dice red and green peppers, onions, and tomatoes cooked down into a chunky more mild sauce with less cheese. I was a fan of both versions of the plate, but preferred the above version of this Middle Eastern favorite because the highlight of the dish, the sauce, had more sweet and spicy depth which played well with the salty bite of the cheese. Knowing that Sharshuka is an easy dish to create, but a difficult one to master, I can only comment on the firmness of egg yolks, which overcooked because they were buried in that piping hot sauce because the plate stayed under the salamander for a minute too long.
Falafel Plate and Falafel Appetizer: Being one that sees having too much food as a far better problem than having too little; I advocate skipping the Appetizer and going for the Falafel plate. Though the main attractions (the fluffy and gluten free falafel balls sitting in a bed of creamy tahini) are the same, the Plate provides three colorful and exciting sauces (mint, mango turmeric, and spicy red pepper) and three different small side salad options. For our plate we got the fattoush, the hummus, and the Isreali salad, and the rice and lentils, all of which taste as if they were mixed in my non-existent Isreali Grandmother’s kitchen with extremely fresh and flavorful raw ingredients. Every time I have had them, the falafel have a crunchy golden brown shell while the inside is dense and textured, with an earthy flavor from the chickpeas and the fresh herbs.
Chicken and Lamb Schwarma Plates: Similar to the Falafel plate, all of the schwarma plates look like a painter’s pallet. Five tiny bowls (of your choosing) surround a heaping mound of spice rubbed and slow cooked sliced chicken breast or lamb shank. Having split these plates a number of times with each of my companion diners, occasionally the meat is somewhat dry, but it is always extremely flavorful and is fun to dip in the tahini, hummus, and whatever other tiny salad plates upon which you decide.