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Restaurant Review: Last Night a D.J. Saved My Dinner

When I read about the opening of Port Sa’id on Hudson Street, I saw the words “D.J.” and “4,000 square feet” and braced for the worst.

When a disc jockey plays in a restaurant that size, music enters a three-way race with the food and the conversation, and it almost always crushes them. Restaurant music tends to come in two flavors: It’s either thumping, bass-driven dance music that flattens everything in its path, or indistinct pop and rock that you can rarely make out no matter how loud it gets.

The right music at the right volume can be more than background noise, though. Port Sa’id is one of the few restaurants in New York City to understand this. The music, in different genres from night to night (and sometimes from minute to minute), is probably the most compelling part of the meal. But the cooking is direct and energetic and, unless you are there late at night when the D.J.s really do push the volume up, you can hear the people you’re with. The sound floats in the air, easier to hear than it is in much louder restaurants, and it seems to be pitched at every frequency except the conversational one.

Roasted lubina is served with tomatoes, tahini and zhug.Credit…Lanna Apisukh for The New York Times
Bryan Ling, at the controls, belongs to the audio collective that oversees Port Said’s music.Credit…Lanna Apisukh for The New York Times

The restaurant is in effect a remix of one in Tel Aviv, a 10-year-old collaboration between Eyal Shani, the Israeli chef who operates more than 40 restaurants in half a dozen countries, and Teder.FM, an online radio station whose signal provides the soundtrack. Port Sa’id became a nonstop festival of vinyl, where D.J.s choose an eclectic range of international music from shelves and shelves of records they play over precisely tuned sound systems. A major inspiration is the Japanese listening bar, hushed dens for record appreciation and drinking that thrive in Tokyo.

The New York branch of Port Sa’id opened in July. It has been less affected than Mr. Shani’s restaurants in Tel Aviv by the start of the Israel-Hamas war in October; the only obvious evidence of the conflict is an Israeli flag posted on the wall in the open kitchen below a sign reading, “We stand with Israel.”

Port Sa’id’s audio partner in New York is In Sheep’s Clothing, a record-freak collective which, among other projects, used to run a listening bar in the downtown Arts district of Los Angeles. The group schedules Port Sa’id’s disc jockeys and selectors, the term preferred by many turntable workers; keeps its library full of interesting, out-of-the-way records; and oversees the sound system, an instrument as carefully tuned as the Steinway D Concert grand pianos at Carnegie Hall. It also runs a small, quiet listening bar just off the dining room.

The restaurant’s chef, Victor Gothelf, works beside Nyota Moffatt, a cook.Credit…Lanna Apisukh for The New York Times

If you’ve been to Miznon or any of Mr. Shani’s other restaurants in New York, you know that his menus don’t really invite silent meditation. The one at Shmoné, overseen by Nadav Greenberg, offers a dish called “Veal cheek that reminds me that I am a genius.” A Port Sa’id dish called “sac de coq” is described this way: “Not what you think but the same pleasure made out of chicken.” All of his menus are printed in Comic Sans, the Microsoft font that looks as if it were designed by a clown locked in a motel room with a case of whip-its.

Even the more expensive places in Mr. Shani’s brood, HaSalon and Shmoné, work in a style that is fast, loose and the opposite of fussy. At Port Sa’id, where the kitchen is in the hands of Victor Gothelf, the prices strike me as very reasonable, all things considered. Almost nothing is more than $20 and the most expensive dish is $39, a whole lubina roasted with onions, tomatoes and long green chiles. Tahini has been spooned over the tail and a bright green shot of zhug tossed over that. Like almost everything at Port Sa’id, it’s messy in a way that invites you to make it even messier.

A counter extends along the dining room’s south wall, with diners sitting on one side and a dozen or so cooks and bartenders at work on the other. Separating the two sides is a wall of produce: tomatoes and lemons, heads of fennel, cucumbers and carrots stacked like fireplace logs, long green peppers, sheafs of herbs. The wall will shrink over the night as the cooks slice vegetables for a mezze plate with tart cracked green olives, and any number of other plates.

One of the more evocatively named dishes is a bowl of dips called “4 Spicy instruments That will stir your soul.”Credit…Lanna Apisukh for The New York Times

Tomatoes turn up again and again. They’re softened on the grill with onions and chiles and served with spiced minced lamb kebabs. They’re chopped to a juicy pulp to make a raw sauce for an excellent creation that Mr. Shani calls “minute steaks” — tender, fabric-thin sheets of rib-eye that acquire something like the crispness of bulgogi in a scorching pan. Tomato seeds, stirred with minced raw chiles, make a simple and surprisingly expressive sauce for Spanish mackerel.

Cooking that’s as pared-down as Mr. Shani’s can be unforgiving of small mistakes. One night at Port Sa’id almost everything — seared chicken livers, griddled sweet potatoes, slow-roasted eggplant — tasted flat. The missing ingredient must have been salt, although it’s a mystery how a squadron of line cooks working side by side can all forget salt at the same time. Other days, when the seasoning was less uncertain, lamb shishlik didn’t need anything more than its bed of fresh herbs. Even hummus under sautéed mushrooms was a real event.

Lamb kebabs are served with grilled tomatoes, peppers and onions.Credit…Lanna Apisukh for The New York Times
Tomato seeds with minced chiles make a sauce for Spanish mackerel.Credit…Lanna Apisukh for The New York Times

The dining room is laid out something like a camp mess hall, with wood tables covered in brown paper stretched out in long rows. Structural pillars are done in geometric Levantine tiles. In a large mural, Samy Elmaghribi, the Jewish-Moroccan musician, looks down on the crowd and strums an oud.

An American student I know who attends college outside Tel Aviv told me he was impressed by how closely Port Sa’id had recreated the atmosphere of the city’s big, busy cafes. He has not been back to Israel since July. When he returns, he may find that the atmosphere he was talking about belongs to another time.

Port Sa’id stands on the former site of the Paradise Garage, where in the late ’70s and early ’80s New Yorkers danced to Grace Jones, Kraftwerk, Sylvester and his backup singers, Two Tons O’ Fun. D.J.s were at the center of the action, and they made names for themselves more easily than they had at the clubs that came before. The In Sheep’s Clothing people are Paradise Garage scholars. Pages of their website are devoted to its turntables, tone arms, cartridges, amplifiers and greatest hits.

Like the one in Tel Aviv, the dining room in Manhattan is dominated by an image of the Jewish-Moroccan musician Samy Elmaghribi.Credit…Lanna Apisukh for The New York Times

I doubt that any restaurant will ever bring people together the same way the Garage did. Sharing a bowl of hummus is intimate, but not as intimate as dancing hip to hip as the sun comes up.

Still, it’s a cool feeling to eat grilled lamb and tahini while you try to figure out which version of Jorge Ben’s “Taj Mahal” is playing. (It was Yehudit Ravitz, singing in Hebrew.) It’s interesting to watch a roomful of diners swaying to vintage Jamaican reggae and dub and dancehall records that Shazam doesn’t recognize.

Quiet listening is an alien idea for many New Yorkers, who are adept at talking over jukeboxes, rock bands and the screaming wheels of the No. 6 train at Union Square. But listening bars are beginning to take hold at such places as Tokyo Record Bar, in Greenwich Village, and Honeycomb and Eavesdrop, both in Brooklyn. At Port Sa’id, people don’t stop talking fully, but they’re at least half-listening.

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