For the four hard years after he moved to Canada from Israel, Sasi Haba, the son of a baker, let the traditional bread oven he’d brought with him moulder outside in his backyard. Mr. Haba, who had settled in Montreal with his wife and four children, worked as a mover, as a renovator, as a construction hand – as “everything except a thief,” he said on the phone this week.
Mr. Haba’s father, like his grandfather and his grandfather’s father, wasn’t an ordinary baker. The family had built its reputation in Baghdad, where, until they fled in the early 1950s, they were part of the city’s once-large Jewish community. Their specialty was laffas, the crisp-tender-chewy and heat-blistered flatbreads that are a national food of Iraq.
In 2008, Mr. Haba gave up on Montreal and relocated to Toronto, but still he ignored the oven. He took a job building swimming pools. He stuck with the pool job until fall came and the pool company ran out of work.
On the phone one day, Mr. Haba’s father asked him, “Listen, you brought the oven with you?” He offered to fly to Canada, to teach his son to make proper laffas, to help build a bakery. “You cannot lose from bread,” he said.
And the old man was right. Dr. Laffa, the cheerful and perennially busy North York restaurant and bakery that Mr. Haba built with his business partner, a baker named Yoram Gaby, is not merely, by most accounts, the best kosher place in the city, it’s also one of the most unique and charming Toronto restaurants of any sort. And wherever you live, those laffas alone, which are served mere seconds after they emerge, smoky and steaming, from the restaurant’s two tabun ovens, are more than fair compensation for the drive.
The menu is equal parts Iraqi and Israeli. From Iraq, in addition to the laffas, there are the sandwiches called sabich that are made from vegetable fritters, roasted eggplant and hard-boiled eggs. Heavy, spiced beef dumplings called kubbe are wrapped in semolina dough and served in broth with simmered celery and turnip.
From Israel, there are chopped cucumber and tomato salads, vinegary coleslaw, enormous chicken-schnitzel plates served with rice or hand-cut fries. (Though schnitzel is typically identified as a German dish, Ashkenazi Jews brought it from Europe to the Middle East.)
Much of the rest of the menu is a synthesis of tastes: whole eggplants grilled over charcoal, then split in two and drizzled with creamy sesame tahini (order one; the texture is melting and the flavour extraordinary); some of the city’s best shawarma and falafel; the remarkably tasty hummus that Mr. Haba makes fresh each morning so that it’s mild and pleasantly sweet with only a hint of a (properly) bitter backnote.
At lunch and dinner, the room is packed: with tables of Hasidim in long, grey beards; modern orthodox families; tables of young, fit men who speak English with thick Hebrew accents; secular Jews whose deepest affiliation with the faith is likely Harbord Bakery downtown. (Plenty of Iraqis, both Christian and Muslim, also visit, Mr. Haba said.) The customers talk between tables, about their grandchildren, about the cooking, about persistent medical conditions. The takeout line during dinner hour snakes back from the tandoor-like ovens where Mr. Haba and Mr. Gaby bake their laffas at breakneck pace, to nearly out the door.
The servers, many of them teenagers from Israel, are friendly and casual. They put a trio of little dishes on the tables soon after their customers sit down, including deliciously sour sliced pickles, and simmered carrots that come scattered with parsley and dusted with North African spice. The laffas, which are lain over the tops of wicker bread baskets (they don’t come even close to fitting inside), don’t stop arriving until the customers are full.
The plain hummus, slightly chunky in a ring at the perimeter of the plate, smoother and creamier in its centre, is the best I’ve had in the city, but then the special “Dr. Laffa hummus” – it includes spiced beef and pine nuts – is also extraordinary. The salads are fresh-tasting, crisp and multicoloured, brilliant when scooped with a handful of bread.
The classic Middle Eastern and North African baked tomato-and-eggs dish called shakshuka is good here, though not outstanding. The spicing is too mild (the chopped tomatoes would benefit enormously from a bigger dose of harissa, the Tunisan spice mix made from coriander, cumin, caraway, chile and garlic), and the eggs are cooked too hard. The version with merguez sausage is much better, and worth ordering. (For exemplary shakshuka, buy Jerusalem, the new cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. It’s easy. You can make it. You owe it to yourself.)
I’ve never had a creamier, smokier, sexier baba ghanouj than Mr. Haba serves with the combo salad – not in the Middle East and not here.
But at Dr. Laffa, the bread is the star. It’s puffy at the edges, thinner toward the middle, so hot when it first arrives that you can only lean forward and luxuriate in the yeasty steam.
Mr. Haba said that he and Mr. Gaby are looking for a second location, farther south, closer to Forest Hill.
I don’t doubt they’ll do well with it, even if I’m fond of the original, which is set in a warren of low-rise industrial buildings, and where even the “tow-away zone” signs are written in Hebrew lettering.
To eat there is both to escape the city and to feel even more a part of it, and to be grateful that Mr. Haba got into his father’s line of work.