NEW YORK – Spring is yet to come, but the freezing wind which was blowing through the East Village on Sunday night did not stop dozens of New Yorkers from standing in line and waiting for the opening of "the Kubbeh Project," a pop-up restaurant named for its specialty item, a traditional comfort food among Iraqi Jews and Levantine Arabs defined by Israeli expatriate and self-described culinary ambassador Naama Shefi as "a combination of meatballs and dumplings."
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"I had no idea what Kubbeh was," recalls Cleveland-born Todd Waldman, who came to 433 East 9th street almost an hour before opening time in a (failed) attempt to beat the crowds. "But when Sandy hit New York, my wife, who was pregnant at the time, and I had to evacuate our home, and so we stayed for a few days with my friend Michael, who happens to admire Iraqi cuisine. I then tasted Kubbeh for the first time, and it was love from first bite."
Not far from Waldman stands a young New Yorker named Felipe, who declares that "New Yorkers are always looking for unique experiences. I never heard about this food – and this is why I'm so excited to try it out."
As Felipe and other eager costumers noted, the surprising success of the Kubbeh Project, which was launched on March 1 for a limited three-week run – closing night is March 21 – can be attributed to its branding as a "cultural event" rather than another food joint in a city abounding with restaurants and street food.
Shefi, the mastermind behind this project, who, ironically enough, is of Polish descent explained to Haaretz that the original idea was to combine art and food in order to encourage people to think about food as a cultural object.
"I love the idea of a pop-up restaurant because it is temporary and ephemeral, much like an art exhibition," says Shefi. "It is a playful experiment that can serve to expose New Yorkers to a different kind of food. At the same time, I wanted to experiment as well, and I didn't know what might happen when we ask people to share a dining table with strangers. In retrospect, this unique setting turned out to be another source of attraction. It has been eight nights since the opening, and I had the chance to listen to some amazing conversations between Japanese, Americans, Israelis and Europeans."
In order the achieve the ambitious goal of inducing New Yorkers to converse with complete strangers over a bowl of a deep red beet soup or other delicacy, Shefi, Tel Aviv-based chef Itamar Lewensohn and their crew convert Zucker Bakery into an intimate dining room that includes one long wooden table which sits up to 15 people. The bakery's owner lent them the small space, where they also serve up dishes such as a pumpkin purée with dried apricot and roasted pumpkin seeds and a lemon-based soup called hamusta.
(Special Friday night dinners were sold out weeks in advanced. During weekdays there is a no reservations policy, and the line normally starts around 5 P.M., 90 minutes before the official opening time.)
The transformation is quite impressive: within less than 30 minutes the well-known Jewish bakery, with its vintage chairs, four small dining tables and tempting smell of fresh bread and chocolate rugelach, turns into a kibbutz-like dinning space, with denim decorated walls, carefully designed menus and small candles. At 6:25 Shefi takes some paintings off the wall and quickly replaces them with a series of colorful photographs featuring pickled vegetables. "These art works were made by Ben Hagari, a wonderful Israeli-born artist who works in New York," she explains hastily, while yelling toward the kitchen "we're late. We have to open the door."
A magical trigger
The first customer to step in is Israeli-born Shosh Kagan, who was waiting outside since 4:45. "I have been living in New York for 32 years," she says, and then smilingly adds, "please don't ask me why. It's a very long story." She said she was willing to stand in the freezing cold for almost two hours because "my mother was born in Baghdad, and my dad is originally from Poland. He didn't like the traditional Iraqi food, and so he asked my mom not to make it. I tried to prepare kubbeh once from an old recipe my mother gave me, but it turned out to be much more challenging than I imagined. Once I heard there is a place where I can find beet soup with kubbeh, I knew I had to give it a try."
Much like Madeleine Cookies, kubbeh can function as a magical trigger for a nostalgic ride down memory lane for Israeli and Iraqi diners. At the same time, two Japanese women who took their seats opposite Kagan carefully examined the menu, trying to figure out what strange words such as sabich or sambusak mean.
While the first 16 diners start placing their orders ($14 for a kubbeh soup served with pickled torshi and challah bread, $9 for a specialty dish titled "Sabich Deconstructed" which includes roasted eggplants, egg and tahini, and $6 for a feta-stuffed sambusak pastry) chef Lewensohn and his sous-chef Itamar Ring are cutting eggplants and spicing up huge pots of kubbeh soup in the tiny kitchen.
According to Ring, a Jerusalem native who works as a private chef, "running a pop-up restaurant resembles playing in a theater group: it is a cultural production, a performance, in which you have to build the set in less than 30 minutes and put on a costume once it is show time." He notes, "Since we are a very small crew, we are also changing rules all the time – we make the food, serve it to people, decorate the space and clean when everyone leaves."
While Ring's preparation for making 120 kubbehs per night included performance and theater studies ("before I turned to cooking I was part of the Jerusalem-based theater group called Zik," he explains), Lewensohn is a more traditional chef. He studied at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York and went to Tadmor, Israel's leading culinary school.
After working in New York restaurants like the Michelin star awarded Dovetail in the Upper West Side, he returned to Tel Aviv and worked in Raphael, a renowned Israeli bistro. When asked where a nice Polish guy like him picked up the know-how of kubbeh-making, Lewensohn replies that "when Naama first approached me with this idea the first thing we did was to look for grandmothers who can share their experience with us. I spent a few weeks learning the secrets of the trade from some of my friends' mothers and grandmothers." Lewensohn says he was drawn to the project because he loves the idea of exposing diners to a new kind of food.
"The reactions so far are amazing," he says. "It seems that people are excited not only about the dishes, but also about the rare opportunity to share their experience with others around the dining table, which is something I have never seen in New York before."
Around 7 P.M., when an ever-growing sprawling line is still forming outside the small door of Zucker bakery, Zachary and Rachel from Michigan are contemplating whether to stick around. "I think it is a bit ridiculous to stand in the cold for so long when there are so many great restaurants in the East Village," says Zachary, who recently moved to Brooklyn after he was hired by a non-profit organization. His girlfriend, who hugs her long coat and pulls out a set of gloves from her bag, quietly replies, "But I want to taste it. This might be our one and only chance."
Half an hour later, when I took one last look at the line, Zachary and Rachel still stood there, holding hands, waiting to taste a dish invented thousands of miles away many decades if not centuries before they were born. Once again, the Kubbeh Project proved that in New York City branding is everything; and nothing is more appealing than a "limited edition" of something with a name you can hardly pronounce.