I don’t watch cooking shows—it’s too torturous to view larger-than-life images of delicious looking food you can’t eat—so I forget that a chef’s celebrity status, even far from Los Angeles or New York, can drive patrons through the door.
But seeing frequently televised chef Jenn Louis in a pinstriped apron, darting around her new restaurant, Ray—which replaced her old restaurant, Lincoln—chatting with customers and employees like an affable blue jay, it’s easy to imagine that her personality motivates visits as much as her telegenic food does.
The space doesn’t look much different than Lincoln: an L-shaped floor plan with an open kitchen and a bar; high, angled ceilings; exposed rafters; tall glass windows and garage doors rolling open to the street—basically, a lot of air and light, even on cloudy days (although there are a couple of cozy booths tucked away next to some classic arcade games like Donkey Kong). But in the kitchen, Louis has turned her sights on Israeli cuisine.
Israel’s history means it unites Jewish and other culinary traditions from around the region and the world, and Ray’s recent menu shows off various influences (with, naturally, a Pacific Northwest angle), including a Yemenite Braised Chicken, a greenly fresh-tasting sort of stew, warming but not heavy on these unexpectedly cool early summer evenings ($18); an eggs and tomatoes shakshuka available for one ($13, +$4 for merguez sausage) or in a table-feeding order for four ($40, +$16 for merguez); and a dripping shawarma burger that splits the difference between US and Israeli street food with two thin lamb patties, iceberg lettuce, and a garlicky Libyan Jewish pilpelchuma ($9).
Other excellent small options include an exceptional, fairly simple octopus; a spicy chilies and lamb flatbread; a lemony cucumber/radicchio spring salad—colorful, with a snappy texture and bright flavors, but underwhelming to eat, given the rough-chopped sameness of its ingredients ($11); and a coffee braised egg, served with the beautifully coffee-tinted shell on and a bit of za’atar (a thymey herb and spice blend), it’s one of the better hard boiled eggs in town, though the $5 price tag makes it feel a bit like paying extra to peel your own egg.
Two shareable veggie standouts still have my mouth watering: a warm, oily wedge of cabbage, roasty sweet and spiced with turmeric, caraway, and orange, satisfyingly layered and fun to pull apart with a fork and knife ($9); and a boat of Brussels sprouts stickily caramelized with cashews and grapes ($12).
There is, of course, hummus—an array of hummus options, in fact, in a “hummus +” section on the menu, some featuring additions like labneh (a sour yogurt cheese) and Brussels sprouts ($13) or different kinds of hummus, like beet or carrot, the latter of which is served with seedy, spicy dukkah, and a tender, deeply flavorful braised lamb ($15).
Wednesday nights at Ray are Israeli Fried Chicken Night: two boneless thighs, Israeli salad, shawarma fries, and pilpelchuma aioli for $20 (thighs à la carte: $7). So juicy from a buttermilk bath that it’s almost more buttermilk than chicken and held in a crispy breading sprinkled with sesame seeds, it’s a delicate fork-and-knife affair, plenty for two to share, with a couple of added sides. The shawarma-seasoned fries (also on the regular menu for $8) are topped with garlic cloves and jalapeño, and while I’m a staunch resister of anything more than salt on french fries, I have to admit these are tasty, especially with that spicy pilpelchuma aioli.
Those fries, the burger, and a few of the other plates can be found at a discount during a 5:30-7 pm happy hour, along with modest drink discounts. The cocktails are interesting, if often a bit sweet, and standouts take a Levantine turn: a White Russian with tahini called an “Askenazi (Russian Jew)” ($12), or a date mojito with plenty of mint and some datey grit ($10). Draft beer, a Mediterranean-leaning wine list, cider, and even a solid bottled Lebanese beer called 961 Lager round out the bar.
All this casual-influenced food, the bright, airy environment, and Louis’ own visible buoyancy lend Ray a comfortable, inviting air. So maybe I could stand to go back and watch some of Louis’ TV appearances on cooking shows without running the risk of trying to take a bite out of my laptop screen. But instead—and I advise you to do the same—I’ll just stop in at Ray for a bite and a quick game of Donkey Kong.