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Mediterranean Meal at Vareli in Morningside Heights

29 Sep

In a neighborhood filled with debt-strapped students, newly-opened Vareli has a tough road ahead. Westside Market owner George Zoitas and chef Amitzur Mor, of Food Network’s “Chopped” fame, have teamed up to open this new “Mediterranean-inspired” spot that’s a step up for the restaurant scene in Morningside Heights that’s dominated by chains and diners.  Hopefully Parents Weekend Season will sustain them through the fall, because Vareli has a lot of potential.

My Trusty Sidekick and I decided to check out Vareli last Saturday for a little date night action. Here’s the breakdown:

Location: 2869 Broadway at 111th Street, Morningside Heights

In one word: Mediterranean

Food: We started by splitting the Tomato Salad appetizer ($13), made up of big sesame-roasted croutons and thick slices of local heirloom tomatoes marinated in oregano and sherry vinegar, garnished with slices of red onion and jalapeño, morrocan olives, and a handful of delicate sprouts. It was delicious.

When I go out to eat I try to order things I couldn’t necessarily prepare at home, so I have to say, I wasn’t on board with this appetizer initially. But, the flavor and texture combination won me over. Sweet and slightly garlicky, the heirloom tomatoes had amazing natural flavor that worked well with the light and slightly tangy marinade. Combined with the heat of the jalapeños it was a party in my mouth. I also loved the croutons which were crunchy on the outside and softer in the middle.

See the sesame seeds roasted with the croutons? They must have been roasted in a little bit of olive oil because they had a great nutty and fruity flavor.

For my main course I ordered the Pan Seared Scallops ($23) with leeks, asparagus, pearl onions, and peas, all sitting on a lovely drizzle of breakfast radish and asparagus coulis and garnished with fresh flat leaf parsley and little bit of dill.

A coulis is a very thick sauce made from puréed and strained vegetables (or fruits, in the case of desserts). This one, made from aspargus and breakfast radish, gets its orange color from the breakfast radish.

The scallops were very well prepared–seared perfectly on the outside and tender and juicy in the middle.  I really loved the slightly carmelized flavor of the roasted veggies, especially the pearl onions.

The dill was a delicious surprise, and, with the parsley, added a bright freshness to the dish.

Trusty ordered the Sautéed Dorade with Gigante and Fava Beans, Kalamata Olives and a Roasted Red Pepper Coulis ($22).

Look at that giant bean peeking out from under the fish!

Trusty was kind enough to permit me a bite or two of his fish, which I really liked.  If you haven’t tried dorade before I think you’ll probably like it. It’s a small white fish with tender meat and a rich flavor similar to Red Snapper–very unoffensive. Traditionally a fish from the Mediterranean sea, in the past decade the dorade has become available in NYC mainly via Israeli cooperative Ardag (some interesting info on their operation here).
The fish was tender, seasoned well, and tasted delicious with the roasted red pepper coulis. (I want to try making a coulis at home. Anyone have any good recipes?) With the hearty and starchy fava beans this dish was a little bit like a lighter, fish-centric version of steak and potatoes.

Before we visited Vareli I had scanned a few Yelp reviews and knew that their Chocolate and Toffee Bananas dessert ($7) was coming up big. So, to end the meal we decided to split this. Man was it good.
This is the dessert to order at Vareli–you don’t even need to look at the menu. The dense dark chocolate mousse, nestled on a pool of delicious, rich toffee-banana pudding and slices of carmalized bananas dusted in chocolate slivers is divine.

Check out the density of that dark chocolate mousse. Mmmmmm.

Definietly a great end to our “date night,” until Trusty joking offered me his hand and said, “Well, it was nice to meet you” and pretended to imply that there would not be a second date.

Drink: Vareli has a great (and ginormous–3 pages!) beer menu with tons of affordable $5 options. If you’re not in the mood for beer, you’ll get good value with one of Vareli’s 1/2 Liter Carafes for the table.

Service: For a newly opened restaurant, we agreed that Vareli’s service operated very smoothly. Our waitor was attentive and personable, and our water glasses were well tended.

Vareli's 20 foot copper bar has the potential to become pretty much the only classy late night hot spot in the neighborhood.

Scene: When Trusty and I do date night, we do it right. I.e. we’re trained to go for the early bird special, even if there is no special being offered.  Hopefully we’ll snap out of it once we finish grad school. In this case, we showed up at Vareli for 6:45 reservations on a Saturday night. Even at this early hour, the restaurant was quite crowded. There were a few other couples, some young families, and what appeared to be several groups of professorial types (“It just irks me to see the comma used in that manner” was overheard. No joke.)

The soft, low lighting and wine barrel tables makes for a rustic feel that’s on the cheesy side, but overall Vareli’s look is inviting. Check out the long polished copper bar–very posh for Morningside Heights. I can see this quickly becoming the spot for unofficial Columbia GSB happy hours.

Dress: No dress code, really, but the dressier side of jeans and top will work best since this is a pricier place in the neighborhood and people are bound to dress up a bit.

Delivery: Not available.

Cost: By calculations we were in the range of around $70-$75 (about $35 per person).  Of course after Trusty’s line he got to pick up the check.

Students of Morningside Heights, never fear. If you don’t $35 bucks to splurge on dinner in the name of Date Night you could do Vareli on the cheap. Their menu has lots of Mediterranean-inspired small plates to share, as well as some less expensive entrées, including lamb and beef burgers that are getting great reviews on Yelp.

If you like, try: Kefi in NYC’s Upper West side, Masouleh in Chicago’s Roger’s Park