That's why when I got word of a new dedicated gluten-free restaurant opening in Manhattan, New York City, I was elated, but also a little apprehensive. When the bar so elevated by these other restaurants, could this new one possibly compete?
Enter Arba, which is a modern Israeli restaurant that believes in melding passion and prime ingredients to serve Mediterranean fare that anybody can enjoy. With an adventurous seven-course tasting menu that's entirely gluten-free, an evening out at Arba is not merely a dinner, it's truly a culinary passport. With the highest of expectations, I made my reservation and eagerly counted down the days until I could see for myself what Arba had to offer.
From the moment you step foot in Arba, you are greeted by welcoming staff and it's easy to feel at home in their warm and intimate space. By day, it serves as Modern Bread & Bagel, a bustling bakery, but by night it feels like the city's best kept secret. Though steps from Central Park and the bustling Columbus Avenue, once you enter Arba you can leave all that behind.
Arba's menu is crafted around the seasons' freshest flavors, which means that the menu changes on a weekly basis. I say that because I dined there on May 26, which means what I enjoyed in the following review has likely changed.
Upon being seated, you are asked whether you would like to enjoy the menu a la carte or partake in their signature seven-course tasting where you can select items from each section on the menu for $59 ($49 for an all vegan version). Though I wasn't intending to do the latter originally, there were just too many things calling my name on the menu, so I did not need much persuading from my waitress to go all in for the feast.
First CourseThe first course of the meal is Abra's signature bread basket, which not only looks and smells amazing, but features a variety of warm, freshly-baked breads to try. My favorites of the selection were the crunchy seeded cracker, which was oh-so-satisfying to enjoy and the wonderfully soft and fragrant focaccia. There was also a couple slices of a hearty grain bread which was good, just not as incredible as its counterparts.
While the bread is certainly the star of the course, it came accompanied by hummus and an herb and olive oil based dipping sauce. The third sauce on offer that night was yogurt-based, so I opted for two of the latter offering. The humus was luxuriously creamy and smooth with lovely notes of lemon, garlic, and tahini in the chickpea swirl. My favorite of the two sauces however was the herbal one, because it made for the best dipping companion for the bread and had a wonderful fragrant flavor from the fresh herbs and olive oil.
It took much restraint not to eat every last crumb of bread right away, but I knew I had to pace myself because the feast was just beginning. As my waitress presented the next course, the starter, I knew I made the right decision because it looked and smelled incredible.
I chose the asparagus with orange-cilantro salsa, because it teamed up three of my absolute favorite foods. The perfect spring asparagus paired beautifully with the bold flavors of the cilantro-orange salsa. This citrus-cilantro pairing is not the most obvious one, but it definitely works with sweet, savory, and sour notes delivery a satisfying symphony of flavor. Although big on flavor, I also appreciated that the dish was light, rendering it a perfect choice on a warm evening.
The third course was a soup course, and here I got to choose between two options: a smoked eggplant and arugula or a jaffa style fish soup. I chose the latter option, and loved the delicious, rich broth that had robust flavor owing from the tomato and fish-based broth. I was glad I still had bread to nibble on in this course because it paired well with the soup.
Fourth and Fifth Course
As you can see, by this point my bread basket was diminished but luckily still had a few slices left for pairing with mezze course. With the tasting menu, you have the luxury of choosing two dips or spreads to enjoy. I immediately gravitated to the eggplant, mint, and blueberry dip when reviewing the list and my waitress suggesting pairing that with the hummus with olive oil and green tahini as a second dairy-free option.
The true star of the blueberry dip was the semi-dried berries which pack an intense flavor into each chewy bite-sized berry. I wasn't won over by the consistency of dip however, because it reminded me of oatmeal and just didn't have the same magic as the asparagus-salsa pairing that wowed me earlier in the meal.
The hummus in this course was good, but after enjoying this style of spread earlier in the meal, I regretted not choosing a different mezze so as to get another chance to taste another creation from Arba's creative culinary team.
Sixth CourseFor my main course, I chose the halibut in heirloom tomato sauce. The presentation of the dish is artful, and the portioning is quite generous. I really liked the robust, flavorful sauce that covered the tender, flaky halibut. The pairing is quite simple on paper but oh, so effective thanks to clearly fresh ingredients. Roasted mini potatoes fan out from the fish, but by this point in the meal I was beginning to hit a wall after all the food I had consumed to this point (no regrets though!). Because of this, I only ate a bite or two of those because I wanted to save room for the final course: dessert!
Sadly most of the dessert offerings contained dairy, so my only option was fresh berries with a drizzle of honey. However, this proved to be the perfect finale for the meal because it deftly proved the point of Arba's whole conceit: high quality ingredients can and should be showstoppers.
The intensity of the berries' flavors augmented with the added sweetness from the honey satisfied my sweet tooth without weighing me down. At the point where I couldn't bear to eat another bite, the berries were a perfect end to the meal and left me actually thankful I couldn't partake in their other options.
I eagerly anticipated my visit to Arba but completely underestimated just how magical my dinner would be. The whole team, from the front-of-house workers to the kitchen staff, know how to make you feel at home with food that is comforting and cooked with care and completely safe to eat for gluten-free diners (and those with other restrictions). Arba's menu and approach to cooking is the ultimate counterpoint to anyone who says gluten-free food is bland or boring.
While not intending to do the full tasting menu when I walked in, I'm so glad I did because my appreciation for Arba grew with each creative and inspired course. While I loved some dishes more than others, I can honestly say that each of the seven featured food pairings that inspired and thrilled me. If you are in the restaurant's vicinity and have a budget that can accommodate this experience, Arba's tasting menu makes for a night to remember in New York City that has no parallel.