80 Albion St Surry Hills, NSW 2010
|Opening hours||Mon 7.30am-3pm; Tue-Fri 7.30am-10pm; Sat-Sun 5-10pm|
|Prices||Cheap (mains under $20)|
Somehow it seems right to have to sidle down a narrow passageway sandwiched between a 120-year-old church and a redeveloped 19th-century inn to find Shaffa, Erez Nahum's take on Israeli street food in Surry Hills.
In his home town of Tel Aviv, the best street food pops up in tiny corners and hidden alleyways, and getting lost is all part of the plan.
It's not your traditional Israeli menu by any means, but the language it speaks is the same. You'll need to know your nishnush (snacks) from your matok (sweets), and that the word katan designates small dishes and gadol, big ones.
On a weekday lunch at Shaffa, however, it's all about the flatbreads, one of the great pillars of Israeli cuisine. The soft pita pockets form a big, sloppy, satisfying, two-hander sabich, stuffed with your choice of short ribs, chicken shawarma or lamb kofta.
The absolute best is roasted cauliflower ($14), layered with chopped boiled egg, hummus tahini, pickled red onions, zhoug and amba, an addictive mango pickle warmly flavoured with curry spices.
One sabich and a Goldstar beer and you're out of here for under $25. You can also have the ingredients on a plate as a salad, with pita on the side. Don't.
Shaffa comes in two parts, inside and out. There's a small open terrace under a 10-metre high glass roof, with tables and counter seats lining a busy open kitchen; and a cosy dining room that feels like a cave dug from sandstone, with a golden, backlit bar.
Under nishnush (snacks, remember?) you'll find pastry cigars stuffed with chicken, while katan (small – and that's the last time I'm telling you) lists king fish sashimi with harissa and olives.
Bigger dishes (gadol, sigh) could be Black Onyx hanger steak with fava bean puree, pickled onions and brown butter, or saffron and yoghurt chicken shawarma with sumac onions.
Coffin Bay oysters ($5 each) come with arak and "the best part of the salad", a reference to the vinaigrette left in the bottom of the salad bowl. Nice idea, but I find the dressing muddy and discordant.
Israeli cuisine is naturally strong on vegetables and grains, so it's no surprise there are meat-free options, from hummus (of course) to "cauliflower textures" with garlic labneh.
A vegan take on kibbeh nayeh, usually raw, minced meat, sees two small fingers formed of lentil and beetroot ($17) that mimic the texture of meat but feel oddly insubstantial.
Nahum even deconstructs the sabich, serving it breadless. The Almost Sabich ($20) has a Sephardic-style brown egg, stained with onion skins, surrounded by tahini, charred eggplant, pickled radish, sumac and – oddly – crisp-roasted rounds of potato.
Bread is such an integral part of this sort of dining, I miss it like an old friend, so I order kofta shipud ($35) because it comes with a brown paper bag filled with scrunchy laffa flatbread.
It all seems to take forever and a day – perhaps the order was not relayed – but gee, it shouldn't be this hard to catch an eye in order to even ask if your main course is still coming. More head-turning and eye-catching, and a smooth and full-flavoured 2017 Zenato Valpolicella ($75) is on the way.
Finally we are swiping bread into yoghurt-tahini sauce, wrapping kofta, crunching on chunky pickles, and going in for more of a creamy emulsion of preserved lemons that packs a brilliantly sour punch.
It's the first time the bitsiness of the presentation has fused together, each distinct ingredient playing its part.
There's little point in staying for dessert, as the Tel Aviv knafeh, that famously cheesy pastry dessert soaked in rosewater and honey syrup ($18) has sold out, and staff members – while friendly and easy-going – don't seem terribly interested in clearing the table.
For me, the strongest option at Shaffa is the weekday lunch, where flavours are simple and clean, and the Israeli voice is the loudest.
Vegetarian: As you'd expect in an Israeli restaurant, some good meat-free options.
Drinks: Original cocktails (Levatine Sour, Bedouin Old-Fashioned) and a limited global wine list.
Cost: Lunch about $30 for two plus drinks; dinner about $100 for two plus drinks.
Pro tip: Order anything that comes with amba, a sweet-and-sour, curry-spiced mango pickle.