Just so we’re clear, despite its name, which means “father” in Hebrew, Aba is not an Israeli restaurant. Israel is too polarizing: too much nasty politics, too much war and death and religious strife, too many things you’d rather not argue about when you’re about to spend a lot of money on a really nice dinner. So even though hummus, falafel, labneh, kefta, and a bagel are all on the menu, Aba is a Mediterranean restaurant with, our waiter informed us, “a California accent.” I think what he really meant is that Aba serves the cuisine of a mythical golden land where all is peace and prosperity, where the land and seas offer nothing but bountiful harvests, and where the inhabitants end each day with a glass of wine on the terrace where they can admire the city lights and congratulate themselves on how marvelous their lives are.
As it happens, Aba has a magnificent terrace, and it faces east toward downtown (and Jerusalem!), where the city lights twinkle the most. I have seen people arrive at 4 PM, when the restaurant opens, just so they can get a prime seat. By 6 PM, when most working stiffs are finally free, it’s packed, largely with the sort of beautifully dressed and groomed people you usually see at West Loop restaurants where it’s impossible to get a reservation at a normal dinner hour less than a month in advance.
Alas, summer will end all too soon, but whoever decorated Aba prepared for that inevitability: the inside looks like a terrace too, full of skylights and potted plants. There are pillows on the banquettes so you can lounge in classic Mediterranean splendor, or, if you prefer, like at a Passover seder—although there’s no Manischewitz on the wine list. Instead, you can sample varietals from all around the Mediterranean—including Israel, but also Greece, Morocco, and Lebanon, whose Massaya winery, as one of my dining companions discovered, produces a very nice rosé. But the champagne buckets were in heavy use: while the terrace is a place to toast being alive for another day, the restaurant is for serious celebrations, birthdays and anniversaries and engagements.
If you’ve been to chef C.J. Jacobson’s other Lettuce Entertain You restaurant, Ema (which means “mother” in Hebrew), you’ll be familiar with a lot of the items on the menu at Aba, especially those you can eat with your hands. But Aba is more formal than its spouse: it serves only dinner, and the meats and garnishes are fancier—steak instead of lamb, fig relish instead of pepper dip—to justify the higher prices. Both restaurants specialize in small plates or, in Mediterranean, mezze. You are encouraged to order two or three things for each person at the table. Putting together a meal feels a bit like reading a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Sea or land? Cooked or raw? Animal or vegetable? If you choose wrong, will you get a subpar meal and endless regret? The good news is that almost everything I tried over my two visits was excellent.
The one exception was the hamachi, served raw, sitting in a puddle of aji amarillo pepper sauce and sprinkled overenthusiastically with coarse salt. I was also slightly disappointed by the Everything Jerusalem Bagel because it hadn’t been boiled and therefore wasn’t properly chewy, but it came with a side of labneh topped with a lovely dab of honey to cut the sourness. And because Jerusalem is in Israel, which, in the Bible, was described as a land flowing with milk and honey. But I digress.
By far the best bread at Aba is the za’atar- dusted flatbread that’s served with the hummus—and anything else, if you so desire. It comes to the table warm, and it’s dangerously addictive. I really wish Aba and Ema would produce a little tinok, or baby, for carryout versions of their hummus and stracciatella, mostly as a vehicle for that bread. If they did, I would eat it for lunch, well, maybe not every day, but a lot. The hummus is smooth and creamy with a touch of salt that made my dining companion resort to scraping it off the plate with her fork. And then there was the stracciatella, which I was initially reluctant to order because I thought it was soup and it was summer. But the term “stracciatella” contains multitudes: in this case, it turned out to be a plate of burrata with sherry vinegar and perfectly ripe tomatoes that inspired some embarrassing happy-food noises. (It can also be chocolate chip gelato. Moral of story: when someone offers you stracciatella, investigate.)
Most of the menu is made up of items you’ve already had before, but they’re better here, and the small portions make them seem even more precious. The grilled lamb chops are both tender and beautifully caramelized, and excellent for gnawing. The falafel are crispy and spicy, without the mushiness and overspicing of lesser specimens. The kefalotiri, or fried cheese, comes to the table with less drama than the flaming fried cheeses of Greektown, but as my dining companion pointed out, how can you argue with cheese sprinkled with more cheese?
The true test of a restaurant, however, at least according to that same dining companion, is its scallops. Most chefs either undercook them so they leak or overcook them so they have the texture of rubber. Chef Jacobson may have issues with bagels, but he knows scallops. His are perfectly browned on top and soft inside, like little bivalve pillows. This is how we learned that Aba is a good restaurant.
Aba also has good service. Servers and runners and bussers swarm through the dining room, some wired with earpieces. But when it got really busy, they seemed slightly panicked. They swarmed faster. They had places to be! One busser was so grateful that my friend stacked our plates so they’d be easier to carry that he gave us dessert. I resolved henceforth to always stack my own plates in restaurants, not because I expect to be rewarded, but because he seemed sincere in his belief that my friend had done him a real service. It made me wonder if there was some dark, seedy side of Aba just like there always seems to be in novels and movies set in beautiful, golden Mediterranean/Californian places.
But if there was, I didn’t see it. Instead we ate our scallops slowly and sighed and dreamed of a life in which we could eat such scallops regularly. And then we realized that each scallop was $9, which put them into the realm of luxury, and this made us sad. And so we ate more bread. v