It certainly never occurred to Meir Dizengoff, Tel Aviv’s first mayor, that one day his name would appear on a hummus joint at New York’s Chelsea Market. Actually, it’s named after him indirectly – it’s named after the Tel Aviv street.
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Either way, the restaurant opened a few weeks ago and many New Yorkers are already waiting in line to taste the food of star chef Michael Solomonov, who has built his very successful career on Israeli food.
Solomonov doesn’t hide behind the terms Mediterranean or Middle Eastern food. He calls his food Israeli, and it doesn’t matter whether you think there is such a thing. His food is considered elite.
Solomonov made his name in Philadelphia at his restaurant Zahav, where reserving a table is no mean feat. Dizengoff’s Philadelphia branch was his first Israeli hummus shop. Now that he has opened the New York branch, the stuff is being called in the media “the best hummus in the world.”
Solomonov was born in Israel in 1978 and his parents moved to the United States when he was 2. His brother, serving in the Israeli army, was killed on the northern border in 2003. Michael suffered from depression and addiction to drugs and alcohol, but he overcame them – a great deal due to his gastronomic work.
In recent years, Solomonov has become a celebrity chef. He has won a number of awards from the James Beard Foundation, America’s most important culinary institution. Recently a documentary was made about him; he has become one of the hottest names in the business.
So what is it about Dizengoff that has made it such a hit? Well, to begin with, it has around 20 seats alongside a red counter. The manager, Colin, once worked in Asian restaurants and has now changed direction. And yes, he knows who Dizengoff was.
The place serves a number of types of hummus; the $10 basic serving is hummus with tahini, served with flat pita bread baked in the restaurant. The Israeli salad and pickles come from the Israeli Osem and Galil food companies.
Hummus is also served there with fava beans and almonds ($12), or with French fries or chicken ($13). They also make salads – though they use the Hebrew word salatim – with eggplant, garlic, cauliflower, amba made from pickled mango, lemon and more. They serve lemonade and beer, along with four Israeli wines including Tabor and Somek ($10 to $12 a glass).
So is Dizengoff’s hummus really the best in the world?
It’s dangerous to express an opinion on hummus. The responses can be very emotional, something akin to political arguments among Israelis. But I’m willing to take the risk.
I don’t think Solomonov’s hummus is the best in the world; I don’t even think it’s the best in New York. I think the hummus served at Taboon, Barbounia or SoomSoom – and you know what, even at Aroma on 72nd and Broadway – are much better.
Still, if Israel had its own version of the French Legion of Honor, Solomonov would get it – whatever the quality of his hummus. What Solomonov has done for Israeli food is certainly exceptional. He has raised it up from being ethnic food or a specific niche of already popular Mediterranean cuisine and made it a high-class cuisine.
Solomonov has done in the United States what Yotam Ottolenghi is doing in London. He has taken Middle Eastern food and broken out of the ethnic-restaurant mold.
Solomonov is the trailblazer. He has won James Beard awards for his food. Last year, his cookbook on recipes and culinary stops in Israel even won.
Without a doubt, Solomonov’s food has won incredible recognition from the U.S. gastronomic establishment. Even if some people say New York has better Israeli food than Solomonov’s, he has raised Israeli food to its highest levels.