Brunch in Manhattan? It's Gotta Be Shakshuka, Give Hummus a Rest

The tomato (or spinach) filled masterpiece is seen by New Yorkers as a healthy foray into the Middle East and North Africa.

Efi Nahon knows a thing or two about shakshuka, that dish of North African origin loaded with tomato paste, eggs, peppers and onions. Nahon, one of the many Israeli chefs prowling New York, is the chef at Taboon, a Mediterranean-Middle Eastern haunt on 10th Ave. and 52nd St. He previously held that job at Barbounia and Bustan, also shaksuhka paradises.

“Shakshuka has become a very popular dish in New York,” Nahon says. “Ever since I came here I’ve seen it grow in popularity. It took time for New Yorkers to get used to it, but today it’s served in many Mediterranean restaurants.”

Nahon serves his shakshuka mainly during weekend brunches, where it’s the most popular dish. There are several kinds – the standard one, one with spicy merguez sausages, one with halloumi cheese and anise, one with mincemeat, one with spinach and mozzarella, and one with seafood. If calories are your thing, there’s one with chicken sausages and foie gras.

Chef Einat Admony has five restaurants in New York. At one, Balaboosta in Nolita, she serves a tomato shakshuka with a bit of spinach and merguez. At Combina, a restaurant of hers in Soho, it’s shakshuka with eggplant and red peppers.

And now she’s offering brunch at Bar Bolonat in the trendy Meatpacking District. One of the dishes she’ll be serving is shakshuka with spicy Moroccan fish (khreime), feta cheese, olive oil and hyssop (za’atar).

“Ever since we opened Balaboosta in 2010, shakshuka has been one of our popular dishes,” Admony says. “It’s a healthy option for breakfast, lunch or dinner. It’s tasty and contains most of the important nutritional ingredients.”

Shakshuka by Daniel Boulud, the chef at Boulud Sud near Lincoln Center, March 2016.
Haim Handwerker

This trend isn’t restricted to restaurants with an Israeli link. Take Boulud Sud near Lincoln Center, an expensive and prestigious restaurant run by the star chef Daniel Boulud. Here you can get shakshuka for lunch. With spring around the corner, the Middle Eastern dish will soon be replaced by ratatouille.

So before it was too late, I gave Bouloud’s shakshuka a try – and it was disappointing. With such a prominent chef, I expected much more.

First of all, his shakshuka is pale brown, and in many respects it tastes like ratatouille. It’s got lots of onions and eggplant.

The main problem was that it arrived lukewarm. The bartender called the manager and she offered to warm it up. We said we were in a hurry. She suggested we come again and they’d make sure to get the temperature right. Great.

And Boulud’s shakshuka costs $20. With service and tax that adds up to $25. For that price you could expect more.

At Jack’s Wife Freda in the West Village, which was lauded in USA Today, there’s a very popular green shakshuka. This is an American restaurant with a young and cheerful clientele and food part European, part Mediterranean and part Middle Eastern.

Three Israelis and their New York shakshuka business the Shuka Truck, March 2016.
The Shuka Truck (Courtesy)

I sat at the bar and ordered its acclaimed shakshuka – something of a disappointment here too. I was told it contained green tomatoes, green peppers and other greens. A fried egg floated on top; on the side was a toasted piece of challah.

It may be healthy but it wasn’t tasty. I stopped eating pretty quickly and a waiter asked if something was wrong. I didn’t make a big deal out of it, and to his credit, he said I didn’t have to pay. I paid the $12 anyway but definitely wasn’t going back. The owner is a South African, the waiter informed me, and his wife is Israeli.

The New York media treat shakshuka with respect. A few years ago The New York Times ran a big story on the dish. Nahon says he saw a morning TV show after Thanksgiving where they were teaching how to make it.

The goal was a dish that would be much lighter than the previous day’s Thanksgiving fare. Indeed, shakshuka is perceived as healthy since it contains only vegetables, two or three eggs, tomato paste and spices.

Shakshuka can be found across the city. In the West Village the restaurant Mémé Mediterranean is owned by the Israeli brothers Alon and Jacob Cohen. Alon says they serve shakshuka for lunch seven days a week.

“It’s a very popular dish that we serve with tahini, cumin and paprika; my mother makes it in Israel. These are spices people here were afraid of in the past but have grown to like and enjoy in recent years,” Cohen says.

“It’s the shakshuka we used to make at home in Israel, but here we serve it in a version more suited to American palates. When I make it at home I add more tomato paste, making it redder.”

Keep on truckin’

In recent years a trend has burgeoned in New York: mobile trucks offering sophisticated food. One of these is the Shuka Truck, operated by Gabriel Shalom, who used to work at Boulud Sud, where he made his share of shakshuka.

He thought it would be a great idea to open his own business. He recruited two friends who worked in real estate and they went from neighborhood to neighborhood in their truck. The business seems very successful, judging by the enthusiastic New York media.

I showed up one Sunday morning across from an Apple store on the Upper West Side where the Shuka Truck was scheduled to appear. The beast never showed up; it was in the garage for repairs. So I returned a week later to find both the truck and its Israeli operators.

Shalom and friends offer four kinds of shakshuka: a classic red one, a green one based on spinach, asparagus and zucchini, a hummus one, and a white mushroom one combined with blue cheese (which I liked less).

You can have it served in a sandwich (an enormous one) or on a plate. Yes, you also get Israeli-style salad, and during Hanukkah the requisite (delicious) jelly doughnut. Overall, a taste fest.

So look out for the Shuka’s Truck; sometimes the line of customers is long. The three operators say the work is hard. They have to get up early to make sure their parking spot isn’t taken. Again, on Sundays, it’s across from the Apple store.

In the near future they plan to open their first restaurant in Manhattan, though it’s not yet clear where or when. The only thing clear is that it will generate a lot of interest.

So will shakshuka succeed in New York the way hummus has? Unlike hummus, you still can’t buy shakshuka at a supermarket. It’s hard to sell high-quality shakshuka in a container, and as long as that doesn’t happen it’s doubtful shakshuka will attain hummus’ heights.

When I say this to Shalom he replies: “Just wait – I have plans in this area as well. Expect surprises.”