One day, to establish a flavor baseline for the city’s hummus, I hopped on my bike and pedaled to several iconic spots. The weather was sweltering, the perfect time to test the creamy chickpea dip redolent of wind-whipped sands and the merciless desert sun. My first stop was Taïm, a small storefront just off Perry Street specializing in flavored falafels run by Israeli chef Einat Admony. Pooled with olive oil and rimmed with sumac, the hummus was liquid and salty and nutlike. It was tendered with a pita brushed with olive oil and za’atar that served as the perfect flavor foil. At historic Mamoun’s on MacDougal Street — where hummus was popularized in the ‘70s, becoming an instant hit with students, vegetarians, and bohos — the product was pastier and more richly flavored, tasting pungently of cumin, lemon, and garlic, though the cardboard pitas were a disappointment.
A short ride against traffic brought me to Hummus Place on 7th Avenue South just off Bleecker Street. Founded a decade ago in the East Village, it was one of the first places in town to suggest that hummus could be the centerpiece of an entire menu — an idea that Dizengoff was later to adopt. At Hummus Place the product flaunted its slippery texture and strong olive oil taste, but offered little else in the way of flavor thrills. Which brings us to the whole point of this round-up. Several times sitting at Dizengoff’s curving red counter I’ve heard customers exclaim, "This is the best hummus I’ve ever tasted!" And I wondered, "Could it really be the best?"
Located in one of the food court areas of the Chelsea Market, Dizengoff is a Philadelphia import, part of chef Michael Solomonov and business partner Steve Cook’s expanding restaurant empire there, which includes a sit-down Israeli restaurant, a Jewish Eastern European tapas joint, a doughnut and fried chicken carryout, a first Dizengoff, and, until a recent sale, an American-style barbecue. New York’s Dizengoff seats around 20 at a counter that undulates alongside a kitchen with a flaming metal oven. Above the counter are ranked cans of Israeli pickles. But the oven is the center of attention, and from it fly thick and lightly charred pitas that vie with the hummus as the most important part of the meal. They arrive steaming, packaged in formfitting paper bags.
Yes, it’s the best hummus in town.
But how is the hummus? Elemental might be the best description. The flavor is limited to a single strong and lingering note: cumin. The texture is fluffy; almost unbelievably so. In fact, as you sit mopping it from the inside of your black plastic container with a torn fragment of pita, it threatens to detach itself and ascend to the ceiling. Yes, it’s the best hummus in town. In addition to the flatbread that comes alongside, you also get a chopped Israeli salad, a slender cucumber pickle or two, and some house-pickled onion swatches that, as the counter guy hastened to tell me one afternoon, "should be used as alternate scoops for the hummus."
By itself, hummus would forever remain a condiment or a side dish. So what goes in the middle for your further dipping pleasure is of supreme importance. This is the responsibility of chef/partner Emily Seaman, who, in the early days of the Chelsea Market Dizengoff, was seen heroically pulling pitas from the oven. (When she’s not making them, they are sometimes not as good.) Five hummus variations priced from $10 to $13 are available, but part of the genius of the place is that the roster is always shifting, making a visit to Dizengoff a culinary adventure. Many, like tahini, fava beans, or a soft-boiled egg (which sometimes comes with potato chips) are entirely predictable.
Others that aren’t have included zucchini with hazelnuts, sliced avocado with peanut harissa, and romanesco — that green fractal vegetable in the cauliflower family — with toasted pine nuts. If you’ve gotten the idea that Dizengoff is a vegetarian joint with lots of vegan options, you’re right. But additionally offered is one meaty topping per day, at the highest price tier. In the early days it was lamb. Which was also a bit of a disappointment because it was lamb stew rather than a charcoal-grilled kebab, which is the more conventional accompaniment. Currently, the choice is coarsely ground chicken in red oil with Persian spices, which is beyond delicious. In fact, it’s my favorite topping of all those I’ve tried over the last four months.
That’s pretty much the extent of Dizengoff’s menu. From 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. you can also enjoy shakshuka ($10), eggs poached in a tomato-chile sauce, served with the aforementioned pita. There’s also a rotating selection of composed cold dishes, called salatim ($4 each, 3 for $11 with pita). These run from the exciting (matbucha, a braised tomato salad) to the not-so-exciting (stewed cabbage, wherein the vegetable was undercooked, making it a slog to eat). Predictably, the hummus itself remains the superstar of the show. (In case you wondered, Dizengoff is named after a trendy street in Tel Aviv.)
Cost: Dinner for two, including two hummus set meals and sodas or bottled water, with tax but not tip, $30.
Sample dishes: hummus with chicken, shakshuka, kohlrabi salad
What to drink: Dabouki ($10 per glass) is an excellent dry white wine that comes from an area northwest of Bethlehem, made by Salesian monks since 1880s. Also available are beers and frozen lemonade.
Bonus tip: For an extra dollar you can have a coffee-boiled egg added to your hummus, adding a novel extra texture.