Last week, my friend Howie told me he enjoys reading the South Philly Review over coffee at La.Va Café. He is a fine theater critic and was my favorite editor when I covered ballet and dance for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
However, La.Va is more than a coffee shop. It offers BYOB dinner and serves as a gathering place for its neighbors.
It’s a marvelously funky space with exposed brick walls, crystal chandeliers, ceiling fans, tie-back drapes that may have been confiscated from Grandma’s parlor, a large Victorian sofa set near a window and colorful artwork painted by local artists.
In short, this was no Starbucks.
The owner is from Israel, so I was not surprised to see a Mediterranean-inspired menu with a touch of Morocco.
Edward and I took a roomy glass-topped table next to a window. Our server opened our Malbac and brought us wine glasses.
A number of small appetizers I enjoyed in Israel were on offer along with entrées. We began with homemade hummus ($6), a glorious rendition of that tasty spread that has become a restaurant staple. The chickpeas were pureed to perfection along with the right dousing of fresh lemon juice and olive oil. We each received a small bowl filled with warm pita triangles.
We chose among the “mazot” offerings ($2 each), which I liked since we could build our own appetizer of grape leaves, mushroom salad and baba ghanoush.
Stuffed grape leaves are served throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. Four plump, little bundles were filled with seasoned rice, topped with olive oil and served cool.
I should have asked about the mushroom salad. I assumed it would consist of mushrooms dressed in olive oil and lemon juice. It was a mix of chopped, hard-cooked eggs and sliced mushrooms tossed with mayonnaise. It was underseasoned and needed some salt.
I make chopped eggplant all the time but never add tahini, which is a thin paste made from ground sesame seeds. This version of baba ghanoush was light and luscious, the addition of tahini imparted a nutty flavor.
I have never seen burekas on a Philly menu, but I enjoyed these savory pies in Israel. They are fashioned from flaky phyllo dough formed into a round shape and stuffed with anything from ground lamb, beef, mushrooms or vegetables.
Vegetarians will enjoy this version ($7) since it was filled with mashed potatoes and topped with mushroom sauce. Although the pie was tasty, I found the mushroom sauce made the pastry soggy.
Unfortunately for us, the entrées fell desperately short in eye appeal, flavor and texture. I chose the traditional couscous ($18) while Edward decided on the Moroccan-style braised spicy salmon ($14).
My dinner consisted of a boney chicken leg set atop a mound of couscous, along with big chunks of sweet and Yukon gold potatoes, a large dark vegetable that turned out to be a mushroom and a piece of what I thought could be eggplant but Edward claimed was zucchini.
This tagine should have been vibrant with spices and fragrant herbs. I took a few bites but could not eat it. Two small side dishes came with the platter. One was a mix of cold mashed carrots and sweet potatoes. The other consisted of raw red pepper slices and carrots topped with olive oil.
Edward received a 4-ounce, slightly overcooked salmon filet set on couscous with cooked carrots and red bell peppers. Adding salt and pepper did little for the fish and vegetables.
We shared chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream ($7) that turned out to be a dark chocolate cupcake with not-at-all-sweet chocolate icing and two small scoops of ice cream topped with chocolate sauce.
When we received the check, my dinner was deducted from the total.
It was an uneven experience, but La.Va provides a place for patrons to plug in their computers, have a bite to eat or just a cup of coffee and enjoy the atmosphere.
Two tips of the toque to La.Va Café.
2100 South St.
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