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Thrilling new Middle Eastern cooking on a tahini factory floor

Thrilling new Middle Eastern cooking on a tahini factory floor

The shawarma plate at Parallel, a loud, chaotic and in many ways extraordinary modern Middle Eastern kitchen on Geary Avenue, is not your average shawarma plate. The lamb shank in the dish is braised for seven hours before being pulled apart into succulent, warm-spiced, sizzly-crusted pieces. In place of the expected rice or pitas, the starch is a decadently creamy pool of fresh kernel corn polenta, stirred through with sheep’s milk labneh that’s made in-house. That lamb and the labneh corn are dressed with hard-roasted Brussels sprouts and sliced hot peppers, with charred red onion and dark-seared mushrooms glazed in lamb stock. And over top of all that is a quilt of greens: arugula, cilantro, scallion and downy-edged mint. Each bite tastes as vivid and surprising as an acid trip.

Parallel’s falafel, too, have exactly nothing in common with your typical falafel. They’re as wide around as cue balls, and coloured, from hard time in the deep fryer, more burgundy than the usual brown. But it’s when you cut one open that the marvelling starts. On their insides they’re deep, spring garden green, and far more light and tender and loosely packed than falafel have any business being. They taste of fresh-picked herbs and bright green peppers, like peculiarly gossamer and radiant little dumplings, but dressed with sweet whipped tahini and encased in shells of savoury crunch.

Yet what’s even more inspiring than those two dishes’ originality is the departures they mark. At Parallel, they do things differently. Lunch or dinner here is easily among Toronto’s most exciting new food experiences, even if in some ways it can be one of the city’s most maddening too.

The restaurant, which is set in a one-and-a-half-storey industrial space just east of Dufferin Street, is owned and operated by Alon, Guy and Aharon Ozery, brothers who grew up in Israel and Toronto. Their roots run deep in the food business. In the 1990s, Alon, Guy and their father, Al, ran a bustling pita sandwich spot on Yonge Street, north of Wellesley, called Pita Break. Their pita bread, which they made in-house, became popular enough that they started to sell it off-site. More than 20 years later, Ozery Bakery, as the brand is now known, sells breads and crackers, whole-grain lavash, pre-sliced sandwich buns and fruit and grain “morning rounds.” The company has become a major concern, with contracts across the continent and more than 250 workers on its payroll.

Parallel began as an effort to start a high-quality tahini business. The brothers had grown up eating fresh sesame butter in Israel, Aharon said in an interview, but they could never find the quality they wanted here. “In the Middle East it’s such a basic ingredient in anything you eat—it’s like in North America how you use peanut butter or olive oil.”

They began to source the prized sesame seeds from Ethiopia’s Humera region, steam-roasting and milling them in ever-bigger batches. Eventually, the brothers found a two-tonne volcanic grinding stone from the Syrian Golan Heights. They shipped it here and installed it in the space on Geary Avenue. It’s been used for making tahini for at least the last 150 years, Aharon Ozery said.

The restaurant was intended as a way to show off their tahini, but that intention expanded after they hired Tomer Markovitz, a 29-year-old chef from Tel Aviv. Mr. Markovitz spent much of his childhood sailing around Turkey, Greece and Cyprus with his family, and the food of the region, and of his family, formed a core part of every day. His family’s background, and its food, was Libyan and Italian, Hungarian and Austrian. “It’s a mishmash,” he said on the phone. “That’s Israel in a nutshell.” His Libyan grandmother spent five hours many mornings rolling fresh semolina couscous by hand, he said.

And so Mr. Markovitz started cooking. His dream in life in his early twenties was to move to New York to open a panini stand. Instead of that, he got a job in a kitchen in France and then cooked his way around the continent. Dreams evolve. Five years ago, he met someone; two years ago they relocated to Toronto. “I’m in my safe-haven now,” he said.

His meat dishes, like that lamb shawarma, are the exceptions at Parallel. The chef’s cooking is almost exclusively vegetarian, particularly at lunch. (At lot of Parallel’s lunch menu is vegan, in fact.) It’s fresh and bright, built on whole grains and vegetables, herbs, legumes and inordinate amounts of labour. Everything they serve here save the pitas is prepared in-house, from scratch, he said. As a friend of mine, a former chef, said at lunch one day, “These guys must have a prep cook who does nothing but pick fresh herbs.” This in itself is an extraordinary commitment, particularly for a place where none of the dishes at lunch cost more than $15, and the nighttime menu tops out at $22.

And the company’s tahini, which is light and sweet, like a sesame-flavoured froth, thrums like a driving bass line through most of Parallel’s dishes.

In Mr. Markovitz’s superlative lunchtime mix of hummus and fire-roasted vegetables, the company’s plain tahini appears as a shimmering, blonde-hued levee above the smooth blended chickpeas. We dipped into that tahini first, and then the hummus, and then the green, intensely garlicky zhug at the side of the dish, and then those hard-roasted vegetables. In the haze of urgent face-stuffing that followed, I’m pretty sure I quadruple-dipped.

That tahini runs through Mr. Markovitz’s simple chopped salad, also. Its ingredients—tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion, scallion, herbs, chickpeas, tahini and an egg—are simple enough that I nearly gave the salad a pass. Don’t make that mistake. Like so much of what they do here, it’s a marvel of texture (the cool crunch of cucumber cubes against the whipped nutty creaminess of that tahini) and seasoning, of crunch and salt, richness and acidity. It eats like a defibrillator for your mouth.

Parallel’s beet tahini appears as a hot pink squiggle on another of the kitchen’s salads. And the smoked tahini made a perfect bed, alongside a bushel’s worth of herbs, under the whole-roasted European sea bass served as a special one night.

I was just as enamoured with the chef’s arais, a grilled sandwich of sorts filled with lamb and beef kofta. And his shakshuka, the classic, region-wide dish of eggs poached in spiced tomato sauce, is smooth textured and softly smoky, more Libyan in its absence of onion and hot paprika, the chef said, than you’d typically find around the Middle East. (As for its smooth texture, Mr. Markovitz said, that’s a legacy of his time in France.) No matter its origin, that dish too is very much worth ordering. That’s assuming you can secure a table and the attention of one of Parallel’s service staff, of course.

This, at least for now, is the downside to eating at Parallel. The place doesn’t offer comforts that many Toronto diners might expect. To secure a table at dinner, for instance, expect a wait. Parallel doesn’t do reservations for parties smaller than eight people. The restaurant, which opens for dinner at 6 pm, was rammed at 5:55 the last time I went. (Lunch is generally easier.) The service staff, though kind without exception, often seem stretched. “It definitely gets chaotic,” one of them told us one evening.

Occasionally they’re seriously ill-informed too. On one visit, a server told us that the bones in the whole sea bass we’d ordered were entirely edible. They were no such thing; those bones were as hard and jagged as shattered plastic; I’d hate to see them find their way into any customer’s throat.

And though the food typically arrives quickly, service here can also stall at times into annoying waits.

My first time at Parallel, it took 20 minutes to get our bill. The second time, at lunch, it took nearly 15. Getting this sort of basic thing right would make Parallel a vastly more impressive place. (Aharon Ozery said on the phone that the brothers have already begun retraining staff with the help of a restaurant service consultant. They want to bring the service to the level of the food, he said.)

Which leads to the other issue some diners may struggle with: the music here, which defaults to thumping nightclub techno, can become oppressively loud, especially above the background noise. Parallel’s polished concrete surfaces don’t do much to soften the sound.

Yet through another lens, Parallel isn’t all that loud—an alternate term might be “energetic.” And the service style, many might argue, is far from inhospitable. A lot of restaurants in Israel are loud and raucous. Or as a dinnermate of mine, who had returned a few weeks earlier from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, put it, “If these guys are doing authentic, they’ve got the sound right.”

It’s a vibrant place, and the volume, to us it’s perfect,” Aharon Ozeri said. “It’s a cultural thing for sure.”

If you’re sensitive about noise and crowds, best to visit at lunch, preferably after 1 pm. If that isn’t possible, maybe just suck it up and give the place a try.

Parallel

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217 Geary Avenue, Toronto

416-516-7765

parallelbrothers.com

Cuisine: Middle Eastern

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AtmosphereA glass and concrete industrial space and tahini factory, filled with ravenous, happy, loud-talking diners. Friendly but occasionally slow and bumbling service. Don’t miss the video and art installations by partner Aharon Ozery.

SoundWHAT’S THAT YOU SAID? It can be quieter, if you’re lucky, at lunch.

Drinks: There’s a full espresso menu at lunch and brunch, as well as sodas, smoothies and good draft kombucha. At night, the focus shifts to shots of arak, as well as a couple bottles each of red and white wine and a trio of local beers, though there are plenty of non-alcoholic options too.

What to eatThe day and evening menus are different, but be sure to order a hummus, a dish with grilled vegetables and a chopped salad if it’s available. The falafel are also worth travelling long distances for, and be advised, you’ll want to order anything that comes with lamb.

What the symbols mean:

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Vegetarian options available

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Dining and restrooms are wheelchair accessible

Critic's Pick

Critic’s Pick. Our recommendation for a restaurant that doesn’t offer full service.

1 star

One star (out of four). A good restaurant. Recommended.

Two stars (out of four). A very good restaurant.

Three stars (out of four). An excellent restaurant.

Four stars (out of four). An extraordinary restaurant.

Chris Nuttall-Smith is The Taster’s editor-in-chief and founder. He’s worked as food editor, chief critic and dining columnist at Toronto Life, restaurant critic for enRoute (he wrote the magazine’s celebrated Canada’s Best New Restaurant list in 2009), and more recently, national food reporter and Toronto restaurants columnist for The Globe and Mail. Nuttall-Smith’s writing on food, drink and other subjects has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Esquire, New York magazine, Toro and Lucky Peach. He’s also a resident judge on Top Chef Canada.