Until a few months ago, Stamford was a two falafel town, Myrna’s Authentic and Layla’s Falafel. That’s why I was thrilled this fall when I began to hear rumblings of a new contender for the Stamford, Connecticut Middle Eastern heavyweight title. Tabouli Grill had entered the ring -- with gloves on.
“Oh, you’ve got to try it,” cooed one of my Stamford girls. “It’s so fresh,” declared another, “I’m there once a week” and the holy grail of suburban dining, they deliver too!
Though the restaurant is a newbie, Judy Roll, the owner, is no food industry newcomer. She is CIA trained, world traveled and has spent 25 years honing her culinary skills. She had an LA stint, including a pastry chef gig at Spago. And closer to home Stamford locals fell in love with her at the Sweet On You Bakery & Café. “After years of eating, experimenting and dreaming” about her ideal restaurant Tabouli Grill opened its doors in a busy strip mall near the intersection of High Ridge and Long Ridge roads.
Walking into the sparsely decorated but warm space, the first thing I notice is the crowd. On a Tuesday at 12:30 this place is filled to capacity. It’s not just the lunching ladies of Stamford, there are business men, college kids, a young mom and her tot and of course me and my CTBites posse. We came en masse to so we could order big and we did not disappoint!
As we were seated, a nosh of sweet pickle slices and salty pickled cabbage were set out along with a thimble of spicy cilantro jalapeno dip. Unfortunately, there wasn’t any bread for the dip, but a taste on the fork gave me something to look forward to a bit later.
A great feature of Tabouli Grill’s traditional Mediterranean menu is the definitions and descriptions on the backside. After a quick discussion, the ordering begins…
Round one: Hummus, Baba Ganoush and Tabouli served with truly exceptional pita bread. So exceptional, in fact, that we had to inquire. The pita is not house made, but brought in from Israel, according to our server, baked off somewhere in Brooklyn and delivered to the restaurant fresh daily. It’s not a flimsy wafer of pita; it’s thick, full of leavened holes and the perfect accompaniment to the meze course. It’s great alone, but even better slathered in the succulent house olive oil or toasted and toting a sample of the aforementioned dips.
Tabouli Grill’s hummus is a bit of a lightweight. The texture is great, creamy and light, but it’s lacking in depth of flavor. A little garlic, lemon and salt would go a long way in carrying this chickpea blend to the big league. The tabouli, on the other hand, is a direct hit. It has tremendous flavor. Most tabouli I’ve encountered is drier, as a rice might be prepared, and until now I’ve found it just right. But this tabouli is very moist, almost wet, with lemon juice and olive oil and it brings a whole new dimension to this traditional grain. Tons of fresh parsley, bulgur and just the right amount of seasoning really delight the palate. A house speciality, and one that came highly recommended, is the vegetarian chopped liver. Garnished with crispy caramelized onions and served with perfectly seasoned toasted pita chips, we are not wooed by the first bite. Oddly enough, though, a few more bites and we find we can't eat just one. The piece de resistance of the appetizers is most definitely the Israeli “nachos” (seen above). The baked pita chips are covered generously with tomato, cucumber, feta, red onion, black olive and lebneh, a traditional garlicky yogurt dip. It’s a great play on nachos and you don’t feel like you’ve entered a new weight class just for eating them.
Round Two: Israeli Salad, Israel’s answer to Italian bread salad. It’s not easy to find ripe tomatoes in Stamford in December and Tabouli Grill clearly did not. Still, this hearty chopped blend of cucumbers, red onion, cabbage and parsley is full of flavor and large enough to share before my group re-enters the ring for Round Three.
Ding. Out come falafel, kofta, a crispy fish pita and a sabiach pita sandwich, which according to the menu is “all the rage in Israeli street food”. Our table neighbors are both repulsed and in awe at the shear quantity of food we intend to consume. Not one to throw in the towel, I systematically work my way through each dish. The falafel is not inspired, it could use a bit more yogurt and cucumber dressing, but others at the table were impressed with the texture of the fritters and enjoyed their understated seasoning.
The kofta, a spicy ground beef patty, livened up with za’tar is tasty, and the fried fish pita is very well seasoned. The best sandwich by far however, is the sabiach. Perfectly grilled eggplant, hummus, Israeli salad, tahini and a hard-boiled egg are piled high in a pita pocket. The flavor combination is perfectly balanced and our forks bob, weave and hover for one more mouthful before declaring the meal a success.
One would think that by now we’d be down for the count, but there’s no way to gracefully bow out before sampling the highly recommended desserts. A peanut butter and jelly bar and carrot cake whoopie pie, while not regionally traditional, are quite divine. And then there is the baklava. Very generously filled with walnuts and honey this rich sweet pastry is a TKO. A few girls are loosening their belts at this point, but I leave feeling like a true heavyweight champ. Lucky for Stamford, Tabouli Grill is a real contender.
Tabouli Grill 59 High Ridge Road, Stamford. 203.504.8888