It’s taken a while for the demanding landlord to find a tenant he liked to fill the space at the corner of 77th Street and Columbus where Isabella thrived for 30 years. Many applied. Most struck out. And then it took more months than imagined for the build-out. 8th Hill was scheduled to open last fall. Construction stretched through spring and then a final leak. At last the doors flung wide at the end of May.
Tables are spaced far apart…possibly too far apart to make enough money to pay the rent.
The puffy little rounds of Turkish bread arrive warm in a white napkin bunting.
Now here we are at a large round table in the corner. I propose that my friends let me order and that we put everything in the middle to share. They’re so busy catching up, nobody seems to mind at all. Warm discs of puffy bread arrive hidden in napkin folds, with saucers of butter and crumbs of cheese. The bread is addictive. Too good to ignore.
I pass the grain salad – a mix of bulgur, parsley, onion, tomatoes, chive, pomegranate seeds and pine nuts.
Is the kitchen slow? Are the servers too newly hatched? Does it take negotiation each time to get spoons and forks for starters we’re sharing? Never mind. I’ll start the grain salad on its rounds by helping myself first to the mix of bulgur with parsley, onion, tomatoes, chives, pomegranate seeds, mulberries and pine nuts, all of it spiked with a splash of ginger and lemon juice.
They’re the same spreads you find in most Greek and Turkish restaurants, but each one has a different flavor.
Main courses are priced in the thirties. I decide to go mostly for cold beginnings with a mix of hot mezze and save my pals on the bottom line. The small bowls of Mediterranean appetizers – hummus, baba ghanoush, tzatziki, dolma, roasted eggplant – are each very special, with flavors unlike the usual.
We share the marinated artichoke with shallots, carrots, ginger and cherry tomatoes.
The chickpea puree, is rich with tahini, garlic and lemon. The roasted eggplant in painted with yogurt and pomegranate seeds added to the essential lemon and garlic. The tzatziki is a smothering of yogurt, cucumber, butter and mint. Grape leaf rolls are studded with pine nuts, currants and herbs. I take a spoonful of eggplant and then another. The small bowl keeps finding its way back to me. As so often happens, I’ve eaten too much bread. But I’m still interested in the marinated artichoke with carrots and cherry tomatoes.
These calamari rings are different. There is a textural surprise. We finish the last one.
The Spanish octopus is flanked with beet purée, fingerling potatoes and lemon.
It’s fortunate that I only ordered the platter of calamari and an offering of octopus for our second round, ignoring the more expensive entrées that we would be too full to handle anyway. There is something unique about the fried calamari rings, a textural surprise. Dana takes another and then another. They are too good to leave behind. The octopus is also compelling. Just octopus. Not everyone loves octopus but those of us who do, balance it out.
Mucver is hredded zucchini pancakes with feta mousse and artichoke hearts.
Delicious small pastry-wrapped manti are filled with spiced beef and served with yogurt and tomato sauce.
A few nights later, I’m back with another crew, most of them adventurous enough to be seduced by the mucver – shredded zucchini pancakes with feta mousse and artichoke hearts. Not everyone has tasted manti but most of my friends are game. 8th Hill’s pasta-wrapped manti are small, filled with spiced beef and served with yogurt and a painting of tomato sauce. They get passed around twice and I help myself to the stragglers.
The lamb shank, basted with dried plum juice, sits on a nest of barley-like grain called keskek.
On a recent rainy evening, the house was scantily filled but it was still difficult to get our waiter’s attention.
On this very rainy evening, the place is not as full, but the kitchen seems even slower. Or maybe it’s our waiter, who has to be summoned when we’ve sat a while ready for the table to be cleared. He finally arrives with the lamb shank and dana kaburga – chewy, braised beef short ribs, no relation to our Dana. Both meats sit on mounds of a delicious, barley-like grain called keskek. The lamb gets a boost of savor from being basted with dried plum jus.
Dana kaburga (no relation to our Dana) is braised short rib, also served with the grain keskek.
Our server seems overwhelmed by the fact that the table needs to be cleared again when his hands are full of dessert. The date palm coconut ice cream with honey and the pear confection are both more pleasing then the shredded pastry kunefe with cheese and pistachio which is dry even with its plop of kaimak. I try to order the sacher chocolate cake but everyone protests. “It’s Austrian not Turkish.” I don’t need to be authentic. I need to be happy. Maybe another time.
Kunefe is a shredded pastry with cheese and pistachio. A plop of rich creamy kaimak definitely helps.
I give our waiter my credit card and tell him I want to pay 3/5 of the bill and two of my friends will each pay 1/5. Sharing dinner we’re spending $55 each with tip. He looks stunned as if I’ve kicked him in the shin. I watch him struggling at the computer for several minutes. Finally he returns with three bills of $46 each for me and two for my friends.
Date palm ice cream is definitely more appropriate to the theme than sacher chocolate cake.
I start to explode. But it’s late and we’ve already been here three hours. “Give me the bills,” says Dana. “I’ll write a third of the tip on each one.” I think how lucky I am to have Dana. She’s fun. She eats whatever I want to order. She remembers the umbrella I forget I put under the table. She flags a taxi and takes my arm to avoid a puddle at the curb and a bicyclist about to run me over.
The rain has stopped. I like knowing I can return for this exotica so close to home. All is well.