Jan. 28, 2005
Hummus takes Manhattan

By URIEL HEILMAN
NEW YORK

As a longtime resident of New York with roots in Jerusalem, one of the things I most look forward to on my visits to Israel is finding the hidden hummus gems in the rough of some of the country's grimiest neighborhoods. The more delectable the hummusiah, it seems, the grungier the neighborhood around it. In Jerusalem, I usually head to the souk at Machane Yehuda; in Tel Aviv, I have a favorite place in Florentine, an industrial zone just a few minutes away from the city's hideous central bus station.

In between visits to the Promised Land, however, I have a serious problem satisfying my hummus cravings. Whenever I try to order hummus at American restaurants, I'm inevitably disappointed. Waiters arrive with a plate of lumpy, brown mush that bears as much resemblance to the warm, fresh chickpea blend I have come to expect and love in Israel as does a pita to a bagel.

Like so many of my co-religionists, I have had to make do with the supermarket variety, of which only Sabra salads and Hummus Miki offer acceptable fare. All the other hummus brands in America turn what they call hummus into a cruel joke. They advertise hummus with lemon, dill, roasted red peppers, onion and garlic, but it's nothing more than a pasty dip no self-respecting Israeli or Arab would ever allow on his own table.

So imagine my surprise one recent Saturday night when wandering around the West Village in Manhattan to find a sign reading "Hummus Place" wedged between tattoo parlors and shady-looking nightclubs.

Taking care not to get too excited, I popped my head in, saw a bunch of kipot and was greeted by a warm Israeli-accented "Hallo." The smell of fresh hummus hit my nose and a plate on its way out of the kitchen looked like it bore the genuine article. A quick look at the menu confirmed my hopes.

As it turns out, Hummus Place, at 99 Macdougal St., is one of at least two new hummusiahs in Manhattan; the other, run by the same owners, is in the East Village, at 109 Saint Marks' Place. Both are in densely Israeli-populated neighborhoods (Israelis are, after all, village people).

"In Jerusalem there's Pinati, in Haifa there's Sa'id-this is our hummus," said Nitzan Raz, the Israeli owner of the two hummusiahs, which he says are New York's only eateries devoted entirely to hummus.

"Other Israeli restaurants sell hummus, but we sell only hummus," Raz said. "The concept is like a hummusiah in Israel."

There's not much on the menu at Hummus Place. There are three kinds of hummus: foul (pronounced FOOL), which is served with fava beans; masbacha, which is full of whole, warm chickpeas; and tahini-a blend of hummus with a generous dollop of tehina in the middle.

There's also Israeli salad and soup of the day; fresh lemonade (with nana, of course), tea (also with nana) and Turkish coffee, plus Israeli malt beer and nectar drinks. But that's it.

Served in large bowls, the hummus comes warm and fresh. All the hummus at Hummus Place is served with two thick, fresh, warm pitas (from a bakery in Brooklyn) and some zesty s'chug (hot sauce). Along with some Israeli pickles, olives and a pieces of fresh onion (and a hard-boiled egg upon request), you can have a delicious, filling meal for under $5.

Raz says the restaurant makes the hummus fresh every half hour and never serves any leftovers from the previous day. Once hummus hits the fridge, it loses its flavorful soul, Raz says.

A seven-year veteran of New York and a professional chef, Raz, 33, says he decided to open a hummus place in the city because he needed a place to eat good hummus without having to go all the way home to Israel.

He teamed up with his army buddy, Ori Appel, and the pair went to Israel for three weeks to learn how to make the ubiquitous chickpea blend. Their quest took them everywhere from the Golan to Nazareth, and when they returned to New York they were ready to give it a go.

Importing as many of the ingredients as possible from Israel, Raz and Appel opened their first store about four months ago.

So, can a hummus place make it in a city famous for pastrami sandwiches and bagels with a shmear?

"We've discovered there are a lot of Americans that like it," Raz says, estimating that his clientele is about 50 percent Israeli. But business so far has been only fair; the owners hope it will pick up once winter ends and the neighborhood streets get busier.

The store advertises as kosher but has no kosher certification and is open on Shabbat. The proprietors say the restaurant is fully vegan, serving neither meat nor dairy.

At Hummus Place, as at other Israeli restaurants in New York, the conversation inevitable returns to the universal question for Israeli expatriates: When are you going home?

Wiping my plate clean as I got ready to leave the warm atmosphere at Hummus Place and head back into the frigid New York air, I overheard two Israeli customers discussing the issue.

"I tell people to go to Israel for the sun, the beaches, the hummus," one said wistfully. "But now there's hummus here."

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Hummus Place on MacDougal can be reached at 212 533-3089. Neighborhood delivery is free on orders over $8.