A Bit of Middle East in the East Village

The delicious chick pea dish is moving on up and capturing the hearts and stomachs of New Yorkers.

NEW YORK - Two small hummus restaurants bearing the name Hummus Place - one in East Village and the other in West Village - have become a pilgrimage site over the past two months for Israelis living in New York. Israeli tourists who cannot manage for a week or two without hummus also visit these eateries. Israelis are claiming that this is the first time that someone in New York has managed to duplicate the familiar flavor of the hummus spots in Israel. There have even been some who claim, jokingly or seriously, that now there is no reason to visit Tel Aviv.

The success of Hummus Place has also found expression in the New York media. The New York Times, New York Post and Daily News have all written about the restaurant, and the Village Voice and New York Magazine even gave it rave reviews.

The man responsible for all this is Ori Apple, 33, formerly of Kibbutz Maoz Haim. Apple came to New York following his army service to see the world, as he puts it, and found himself at the French Culinary Institute, the top-flight cooking school in Soho. After that he tried to find work in the local job market. He worked for several restaurants and a catering company, until he concluded that if he wanted to do something unique, it had to be hummus.

First, he conducted a survey, with assistance and good advice from his friend and now co-owner and chef at Hummus Place, Nitzan Raz, who also spent several years working in successful New York restaurants such as Nouveau, Jean Georges and Sushi Sam.

"We visited a lot of restaurants in Israel and tried to learn as much as possible," says Apple. "We didn't try to steal their secrets, just to understand the principles. Once I thought you just mixed hummus and tehina and that that was it. Suddenly I began to understand that there are many different types of chick peas, lots of spicing options and dozens of ways to make hummus.

"Hummus is a very delicate and sensitive matter. In the end we concocted the hummus that we like best. I don't know how to define its flavor. Some people say it reminds them of Galilean-Lebanese hummus."

Tehina under curfew

The menu at Hummus Place is limited and the prices low compared to those common in New York restaurants. Apple offers hummus masbacha - topped with soft, whole chick peas, hummus with fava beans, hummus with tehina, soup and Israeli salad, which he calls health salad. Prices range from $4.00-$4.50 per serving. There are no desserts, apart from one wonderful cookie with date filling. In America health foods are gaining a following, explains Apple, "and hummus is a very healthful food. If I had mixed in falafel and chips, it would have created a problem. That is why I also don't want baklava. I don't want people to feel that their stomachs are exploding by the end of the meal."

The secret of Apple's hummus could be in the Middle Eastern origins of his ingredients - real Syrian olive oil, for example, which cannot be obtained in Israel, but which is readily available in New York. The chick peas are imported from Turkey, unlike most of the chick peas in America, which are from a Mexican strain. Apple brings the tehina in from Nablus via personal import. He refuses to disclose from whom. That remains his secret.

"The tehina is the richest ingredient in hummus, so I felt that I had to make an effort and import it personally, even though this is arduous and complicated. There have been times when the tehina got stuck in Nablus because of a curfew. Sometimes there are delays at the ports and there is also bureaucracy. The result is that it takes six weeks for the tehina to arrive."

No zucchini

Getting American diners to love Israeli hummus is no simple task. In general, hummus has become more popular in America in the past decade, thanks to the spread of health foods. Some estimates put annual hummus sales in the U.S. at $100 million - perhaps not much for such a big country, but also no small sum for a country that was unfamiliar with hummus 10 years ago.

Still, Americans are used to hummus that the Israeli palate would find quite bland, and in an odd variety of flavors such as dried tomatoes, zucchini and olives. One of the main problems of American hummus and the Israeli palate is that Americans put very little tehina in their hummus.

The dream of a New York restaurateur is naturally to capture the hearts of the American public, but Apple says that when he opened his restaurant, he was actually hoping for success among Israelis.

"The hummus Americans eat is like paste," he says. "We have to educate Americans to eat real hummus. That's why I said to myself that if I don't succeed among the Israelis, I have no chance. Then the Israelis began coming, and gradually more and more Americans came. At first 80 percent of the customers were Israelis, and 20 percent were Americans. Now the ratio in the East Village restaurant is 50-50, and in the West Village, 60 percent Americans and 40 percent Israelis."

The East Village restaurant was opened first, and after it turned out that Israeli Americans sit and enjoy their hummus, unlike Israelis, who eat and run, Apple expanded the restaurant and set up a large dining area in the back. At the same time he opened a restaurant on MacDougal Street and now he is planning a third restaurant for the Upper West Side. He has 30 employees, half of whom are Israelis, who work as waiters and managers, and half of whom are Mexicans, who are the cooks.

Dry pita

Adapting the menu to duplicate Israeli dishes was quite a challenge.

"When I make Israeli salad, for example, I add extra lemon juice and olive oil," says Apple, "because the vegetables here are a bit bland - the vegetables in Israel have much more flavor."

The biggest challenge, however, says Apple is duplicating Israeli pita - a feat that no one has apparently managed so far.

"I found a bakery in Brooklyn that makes pita very similar to Israeli pitas, but I admit that they are not good enough for me. The pita made here are not good, and I still haven't figured out why. Maybe it's the flour, or maybe the local water. One of the problems is that unlike in Israel, where pita are baked several times a day and delivered fresh to restaurants, here the pita are sent out once, early in the morning, and that's it. I plan to import a small bakery from Israel in order to make our pita. Perhaps that will provide the solution."