Even The Hummus Is Haute

Israeli chefs here are pushing past the old cuisine boundaries. Fried olives with organic labneh, anyone?

08/18/10
Staff Writer
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 Einat Admony’s new Nolita restaurant could pass for any of the stylish new spots that dominate the downtown dining scene: there is the rustic-chic wood ceiling, the exposed glass kitchen, the linen-less tables surrounded by well-appointed book shelves. Then there’s the clientele: trendy women in Grecian-strap sandals and funky summer dresses; guys with plaid shirts, skinny jeans and thick plastic-frame glasses.

And, oh yes, there’s the food: fried olives with organic labneh; honeydew and cantaloupe gazpacho; shrimp kataif wrapped in phyllo dough and sprinkled with flying fish roe. For an entrée, you can have “Lamb Two Ways,” one braised, another pan-seared and wrapped in spinach, both served on a rectangular plate drizzled with sunchoke puree.

If you’re not paying close attention you might miss one glaring fact: this restaurant is Israeli, with a name, Balaboosta, which means “perfect housewife” in Yiddish. And it is brought to you by the same chef-owner of Taim, the phenomenally popular falafel shop in the West Village.

When asked why she decided to open a full-fledged restaurant, one so self-consciously hip, instead of sticking with the tried-and-true recipes of Taim — namely, falafel and hummus — Admony said: “It wasn’t challenging for me. I needed to open a real restaurant.”

“Of course,” she added, “there’s still hummus and falafel” — or at least her gentrified version of it: the hummus is served unfinished and with a pestle, waiting to be mashed; falafel balls are drizzled with green tahini sauce and served on a pick.

“But there’s also the whole idea of the Mediterranean on the menu: lighter and fresher,” Admony said, stressing that her dishes are indebted to the flavors of the entire region, not just Israel.

And therein lies the tension between perception and reality, particularly outside of Israel, about what the country’s culinary scene is really about. The typical Israeli street food— falafel, shwarma, shakshuka — even sophisticated New Yorkers still crave. “Most Americans still want the stereotype of Israeli food,” said Joan Nathan, the prominent Jewish food writer and author of “The Foods of Israel Today.”

But “the modern Israeli chefs,” Nathan said, “are breaking out, and doing so at a feverish pace.”

In recent years, Israel’s more innovative chefs have moved far beyond falafel, hummus and pita — or at least creatively reinterpreted them — in the name of haute cuisine. The more prominent ones have even grabbed a foothold in the high-stakes game of international fine dining.

Earlier this year the Tel Aviv-based Yonatan Roshfeld (his Herbert Samuel restaurant is one of the city’s most popular) was named the top “rising star” on Food & Wine Magazine’s influential list of promising chefs. In the spring, Haim Cohen, Israel’s first celebrity chef, was invited to cook a dinner at the James Beard Foundation in New York, too.

And now Israeli cooks are looking for a permanent perch in the city. Cohen helped establish a restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen, Taboon, a few years ago. Not long after, Rafael Hasid opened his quietly sophisticated neighborhood spot, Miriam, in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Mimi Kitani started Mimi’s Hummus — the name is deceptive — in Brooklyn’s Ditmas Park last year. And Barbounia, an upscale restaurant in Gramercy, brought in the Israeli chef Efraim Nahon, formerly of Taboon, in 2008.

“As you can see, we’re already exporting some of this cooking to you in New York,” said Janna Gur, a prominent food writer in Israel and author of “The Book of New Israeli Food.” She said that chefs like Cohen, Roshfeld and Eyal Shani were among the first to meld haute cuisine with more plebian Israeli staples, like lentil dish megadarra and the bulgur-based kube. But even these days, she said, modern Israeli cooking is still essentially new: “We’re not really sure what Israeli food is,” she said. “We’re constantly creating it.”

Surely, the biggest Israeli-influenced spot to hit New York is Balaboosta, led by the former Cohen acolyte, Einat Admony. In June and July, Sam Sifton of The New York Times and Adam Platt of New York magazine — two important tastemakers — gave it very strong reviews. Both cited Admony’s impressive pedigree as well: she’s worked in premier Manhattan restaurants like Danube and Tabla, giving her resume an added local boost.

But in 2005 she struck out on her own, opening the upscale falafel joint Taim, with her husband, Stefan Nafziger, a Bouley restaurant alum. And it has made her a culinary star in her own right, with such notables as Sarah Jessica Parker and Chelsea Clinton having stopped by recently.

“Taim was a very simple idea: to do really great street food,” said Nafziger, “But after we did that,” he added, “[Einat] really needed to cook.”

Though Admony is extremely proud of Taim — she is even working on a new food-truck version to premiere later this year — she feels that cooking only falafel and the like is ultimately selling herself short. When she first got a job at Danube a decade ago, she remembers her bitter reaction to advice from her mother to open a falafel shop instead. “I was insulted,” Admony said, “I was in fine dining and she wanted me to make hummus.”

But in a sense, her mother was right. Taim became a spectacular success, and New Yorkers don’t seem to tire of Israeli street food: Hummus Place opened its fifth location last year; Nanoosh is another newly popular falafel shop. Then there are the Israeli chains Crisp and Maoz, which continue to expand around the city.

Even Mimi’s Hummus, a sophisticated neighborhood restaurant in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, which serves entrees like trout with tomato ragout and couscous, can’t seem to escape its namesake dish. The name of the restaurant, Kitani added, would only help draw customers in. “People come and think they’re going to get traditional Israeli food,” meaning hummus, she said. “But it’s not what they think. We want to show what young Israelis, at least from our experience, really eat.”

Which means that hummus and shakshuka — an un-fancy tomato-based stew — are still on the menu. But a gussied-up babaghanouj Kitani calls “eggplant caviar,” with parsley, tahini and honey, is on the menu, too. And the restaurant’s design itself would make any sophisticated restaurant goer feel at home: sepia-toned photographs line the walls; vintage glass bottles hold fresh-cut flowers; and Juliette Greco plays on an iPod, giving the place a Parisian feel.

Sophisticated restaurateurs in the city say they fight other battles beyond misperceptions of what Israeli food is. Old political fights, for instance, don’t go away: Rafael Hasid, the chef and owner of Miriam in Brooklyn, said two Arab students recently planted pamphlets on his window mocking the very idea that hummus and falafel were “Israeli.” And a Jewish left-wing activist called him not long ago asking whether his Israeli wines were grown on Palestinian territory. But he’s learned to temper his anger: “I don’t fight anymore,” Hasid said. “I have a restaurant, I’m not a politician.”

Every owner interviewed also cited another common misperception: that their restaurants are kosher. They are not. Almost all of the restaurants mentioned at length here do not use foods that Israelis have long avoided — which is to say, pork. But that, the owners say, is mainly a cultural holdover now; there is nothing religious about it. None of their meat is kosher, for instance, and at places like Taboon, there are plenty of un-kosher seafood dishes: sautéed calamari with sage and garlic; sea scallops in kaffir lime butter; shrimp kadayif, wrapped in crisp vermicelli dough and drizzled with tahini.

“I call it ‘Middle-terranean Cuisine,” said Ayala Hodak, the co-owner of Taboon. “We’re really combining all of the elements of the Mediterranean together.” Much like at Balaboosta, a smattering of undeniably Israeli foods dots the menu. But there are even more flavors from the greater Mediterranean region. That variety of influences has added to the ambivalence some owners feel about calling their food “Israeli” in the first place.

About Balaboosta’s menu, Admony said, “I don’t see it as Israeli. There’s a lot of Israeli elements, I can’t deny that. But I also have a lot of Mediterranean influences, too.” But she said that some posts on food blogs questioning her pride as an Israeli were entirely unfounded. “Some Jews got very upset when I opened this place, like I had no pride.”

That was ridiculous, she added, noting her list of Israeli wines and clearly designated Israeli dishes. While she spoke, a partner in the soon-to-be-finished Taim falafel truck stopped by; “Taim,” she mentioned, as an aside, means “delicious” in Hebrew, implying that if she was embarrassed about her Israeli-ness she’d never choose that name to begin with. And about her new restaurant Balaboosta, she added: “I feel that my food here is much more eclectic [than simply being ‘Israeli’]. But you can feel the Israeli roots everywhere.”

Last Update:

08/18/2010 - 07:35

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