Nature has found a home at Pergola. The spire-shaped little topiaries at the entrance are a telltale sign of what’s inside.
Inside, the most eye-catching right now is a vase of delicate cherry blossoms of the palest pink, perched atop the bar. At the entrance is a 7-foot clementine tree that loves the light and toward the back, in planters, the more resilient Zanzibar gems. All around, even on the tables where little ecosystems of succulents are nestled in glass containers, there’s something verdant and blooming.
In its previous incarnation, the space on 28th Street housed the Harry Vlachos flower shop for 50 years. Since last November, it has been home to a stylish restaurant and hookah lounge that serves Mediterranean fare; happily enough it fills a real need in the immediate neighborhood for a pleasant sit-down spot that is neither fast-food nor upscale. It’s telling that Pergola is about equidistant from a McDonald’s and the NoMad. The block is otherwise a restaurant desert.
The greenery is just part of its charm. The high ceilings, bi-level space, and 3,700 square feet—with enough room to drive a car into when its garage doors are thrown open during warm weather—give a feeling of spaciousness.
Anywhere else, that would be modest. But in Manhattan it’s a luxurious experience. Only when you settle into a banquette, surrounded by curtains the color of the earth, of deep rich soil and baked ochre, do you realize that your radius of personal space has for the first time in probably months expanded to beyond a mere few feet. Oh, New York.
Daytime is a mellow affair, with music to match. It’s easy to grab a quick lunch and still feel like you’ve had a little escape from the dull gray concrete streets (and maybe a dull gray cubicle.)
After work, crowds begin to pour in, and sweet scents permeate the air from the hookahs. Managing partner Sherri McGee, who has spent time in Egypt, said that in the Middle East, “Hookah is like tea. Everyone has them [hookahs] in their home. It’s very communal. When I go to Egypt, you go downtown, downtown Cairo, it’s all cafes, cafes, cafes, and it’s just hookah. They talk, they chat. It pulls the group together.”
Popular flavors include Blue Mist, a mix of different flavors, and apple. “It’s all natural, no tobacco, no tar. It’s a wet mix of that apple [or other flavor] with honey and molasses and it’s packed into the top of a hookah and covered with charcoal, and we smoke that.”
Evening lighting is somewhat of genius here; at night it drops to create a warm atmosphere, but most wonderfully seems to take about 10 years off everyone’s face. For instant rejuvenation, you now know where to go. For the hungry late-night crowds, the kitchen is open till 2 a.m., offering some of its most popular items on a concise menu.
Executive chef Nester Moina, previously of Nerai, creates dishes that draw across the culinary powerhouse that is the Mediterranean.
Shared plates are a great option.
One of my picks was the warm grape leaves (made according to the family recipe by the sous chef’s Egyptian mother), filled with tomato rice and ground beef; crispy phyllo cigars, filled with carrots, zucchini, and other vegetables, and served with a sweet and tangy sauce that includes figs and golden raisins. The crab cakes, which can be shared, made of crab meat and wild salmon, are delicious.
Traditional mezzes are here, too, of course: tzatziki of rich yogurt with cucumber, a baba ghanoush that’s on the less smoky spectrum, and a hummus that’s on the fluffier side, with less tahini.
The pita comes in two variations: a regular baked version, and an accidental, delicious version that stayed: deep-fried, dusted with spices.
As a nod to gluten-free eating, even the rustic flatbread pizzas are gluten-free and are surprisingly good. There is a variation of simple cheese and basil, and another with a colorful mound of grilled veggies—cherry tomato, zucchini, and eggplant. My favorite was the one with a bed of arugula, mushrooms, warm soft ricotta, shavings of parmesan and drizzled with just the tiniest amount of truffle oil. I find the aroma of truffles too overpowering most of the time, but this was beautifully balanced.
This spring menu, to be rolled out at the end of the month, showcases a penchant toward this combination of healthful and delicious.
Salads are already a strong suit, and very fresh, with the Pergola salad being a classic combination of blue cheese, caramelized walnuts, apples and greens. But among the new offerings is my favorite, the watermelon-feta salad: chunks of juicy watermelon, paired with creamy, mild feta cheese, with a light strawberry dressing. Scattered throughout are thin strips of mint, whose flavor linger on the tongue long after the bite. It’s about as refreshing as one could possibly desire.
The quinoa salad, with tomato, chickpeas, kale, cucumber, scallion, and topped with slices of avocado, is both superfood and delicious, dressed in olive oil and lemon.
Pastas, like the flatbread pizzas, are also gluten-free, and also exceptionally good. I had an orechiette, which had a bit more chew to it than regular pasta, but the toppings of grilled vegetables stole the show.
Among the entrees, the seafood grill is plenty filling. It comes with tasty greens, tender calamari, octopus, salmon, and plump prawns, served alongside melt-in-your-mouth zucchini squash and eggplant and greens.
Brunch is also served, including a traditional Arabic breakfast ($35) for sharing: with about a dozen offerings including falafel, feta cheese, baba ghanoush, and baklava. “It’s a big feast,” McGee said. In her memories of Egypt, everyone eats from the same plate, too. “It’s a little messy, a little loud, but it’s OK,” she laughed.
There’s also shakshouka, a dish of eggs served in a spicy tomato sauce, with grilled sourdough; there are more “brunchy” dishes as well, including a challah French toast and Pergola Benedict.
The loukoumades, pastries deep fried to a golden round puffiness, airy on the inside, but deliciously crispy, were doused with a honey syrup and crushed pistachios and powdered sugar. History has it that these were served to the winners of the ancient Olympics. The Greek poet Callimachus (310/305–240 B.C.) referred to them as “honey tokens.” They are light as air, but utterly addicting, with just the right amount of crispy bite and honeyed ooziness.
The cocktail list was created by Scott Fitzgerald of the Mulberry Project; it includes a Lavender Lime Collins (Tanqueray gin, Luxardo Marachino, soda, lavender-violet liqueur, lime, and thyme) and the Jalisco Rose (Tequila Cabeza, amber agave, fresh apple, fresh rosemary, and lime juice —$14/glass; a few cocktails are available by the pitcher, $70).
Small dishes $10–$14
36 W. 28th St.
Daily from 5 p.m.–2 a.m.