A new vegetarian, Israeli-inspired restaurant called Shook Kitchen, opened at 77 Portland Street in Toronto. The name “Shook” comes from the Israeli word for an open-air market, also called a “souk” in Arab countries. Hanif Harji, one of Toronto’s most successful restauranteurs, has another restaurant to add to his successful list. It may seem surprising that someone with a Muslim-Indian from Africa who grew up in Canada in an Ismaili family knows anything about Israeli food, but Harji has put his time in studying at two of the best-known restaurants, Zahav in Philadelphia and Ottolenghi in London where he’s gained an understanding of the latest trends and how to execute them. Those are two outstanding establishments when it comes to Modern Israeli cooking.
Unfortunately, he had a tough time launching Shook. He opened for six months in 2019 and had a fire, which forced the restaurant to close for a year. Then, the pandemic hit. He is finally opened to a packed house. As always, he has a stunningly designed space. Shook has a market-inspired interior that seats 78 people and features a beautiful custom-designed chandelier with woven baskets, lots of greenery, dried bouquets, herringbone tiled floors, and floor-to-ceiling windows with high ceilings and exposed black-painted ductwork. They have attractive booth dividers and a completely open kitchen where you can see the food preparation going on. There is also a lively patio that seats an additional 42 outside and a small retail space when you come in selling preserves, spices, cookbooks, and wares.
We went for brunch on a Sunday. The menu was more limited then but read beautifully. It had salads, pancakes, chocolate babka, various egg dishes, and a red and green shakshouka. They also offered smoothies, specialty coffees, and wine and cocktails. The food is designed to be shared family-style.
Everything is cooked over an open fire in a wood-burning hearth. One thing they did extremely well was their homemade pitas. They were made to order and came piping hot to your table. They were brushed with oil and dusted with herbs and seeds. Our favourite dish was the breakfast hummus with hard-boiled eggs, avocado, cherry tomatoes, and toasted crunchy chickpeas. They use a lot of dill, mint, pistachios, pomegranate, and feta in their dishes. Our server Patti was very enthusiastic and all the staff are very friendly.
The presentations were all creative and Instagram-worthy, and the food was acceptable … but … and, please don’t send me hate mail, as I know this is a beloved restaurant by many …. the food was fine, it just didn’t, “schmeck”, for me (Yiddish speakers know what this means). Maybe it is just because I’ve been to Ottolenghi and to Zahav, as well as a range of restaurants in Israel, so maybe I am jaded with these experiences to make comparisons to. Even Miami has Motek and Abba Telavivian, which I think are far superior.
The restaurant is going gangbusters and it will be extremely pleasing to vegetarians.