By Mattie John Bamman @ravenoustravelr
The nationwide surge in new Israeli eateries hit Portland hard in 2017, when Ray, Aviv and John Gorham's Shalom Y'all Southwest threw open its doors. Its executive chefs had a lot to work with: Israeli cuisine draws from myriad regional influences—Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, North African—that have folded into one another over centuries like phyllo dough.
Part of the Toro Bravo empire, Shalom Y'all's new eastside location—opened in February in the former Taylor Railworks space—features the lengthy menus of small plates, appetizers and entrees Gorham's restaurants are known for. Working with local farms, executive chef Kasey Mills expanded his lunch and dinner offerings at Shalom Y'all Southwest, while retaining the core healthy salads, hummuses, falafel, shaksuka, and meaty and vegetarian entrees. He also added weekend brunch.
Compared to Shalom Y'all Southwest's tiny, seductive digs, Shalom Y'all Southeast is an airplane hangar. The revamped dining room is more open and bright than in its previous iteration, but it maintains the hip industrial look—and the loudness, owing to the low ceilings.
Over three visits, I found the freshly ground spices, silky hummus, falafel and labneh I craved. The tahina, tahini-based sauces, were refreshingly green. The pita, baked to order, warm and steaming. But the menu had missteps.
A timidly flavored dressing couldn't bind the fresh vegetables, herbs and three freekehs in the Greens and Grains salad ($10). A brunchtime strawberry shortcake ($10) was diminutive and disjointed, the honey-infused labneh and juicy strawberries defeated by the cornmeal biscuit's grainy texture and orange zest. The malabi ($8), a panna cotta-like milk pudding, featured "rhubarb" and "almond crumble," according to the menu, but arrived submerged beneath a purely rose-flavored syrup, with one, maybe two crushed almonds on the side.
Shalom Y'all excels at the staples of Israeli cuisine. Order the Shalom Y'all plate ($14) for a tour de force—freekeh tabbouleh, labneh, tahina, house pickles, pita and perfectly crisp and astonishingly fluffy, parsley-green falafel. You'll taste these components again and again as you work through the menu.
The labneh topped with fried marinated artichokes ($11) delivers a comfort-food kiss. The stuffed pita offerings are inspired. The chicken shawarma makes a case for its $12 price tag, with roasted cabbage, coarsely chopped house pickles, red onion, jalapeño and juicy pieces of campfire-smoky chicken, all held together with more tahina.
The "crispy trout" ($18) was a surprise star, its lush pink flesh infused with wood smoke atop just-seared asparagus, scallion and kale, with an aioli-like green tahina. The Shalom Y'all kitchen team clearly knows how to cook over an open wood flame, the smokiness binding the menu as much as tahini.
Barman Jamal Hassan's cocktails were another highlight. The Ayran Gin Fizz ($10), a smoothie-like adult beverage combining gin, lemon and Mediterranean Exploration Company yogurt, is a potent hangover cure while you wait for your food.
Shalom Y'all has all the components of the restaurant group's next big hit, but it doesn't go far enough. In ways, it feels derivative of other Toro Bravo restaurants. Variants of shakshuka, the poached-eggs dish turned into a Portland icon by Tasty N Sons, and several dishes directly credited to Mediterranean Exploration Company—MEC Fennel Salad with candied pecans, MEC Lamb Chops—and many more that feel like overly familiar riffs on its mezze plates.
A trout hash during brunch seemed to prove the point. Served with the same just-seared asparagus and kale as the dinner entree, with the addition of crispy potatoes, it would have been more appropriately dubbed trout rehash.
In the past 24 months, Toro Bravo Inc. has potentially overextended itself, opening or relocating six restaurants. With a thoughtful menu revamp, maybe Shalom Y'all can still catch its breath.