“This is better than almost everything I had when I was in Israel,” exclaimed my friend Mimi as she ripped off another hunk of thick, astonishingly puffy pita bread and swiped it through the tahini, the silky sesame spread imaginatively blended with butternut squash. Across the table, our friend Drew was quietly decimating the colorful contents of the containers on our table. There was russet-colored matbucha, a seductive mash of roasted tomatoes kicked up with garlic. Next to it was a glass bowl filled with raw slices of orange carrot and sweet red pepper, cheerful as a sunrise. Another vessel held labneh—snow-white strained yogurt—topped with toasty slivered almonds and surrounded by a limpid pool of golden-green olive oil. Five salatim were plenty, but I almost wished we’d sprung for ten, available for an exceptionally reasonable $35 and deemed the “Wholeshebang” on the menu.
The three of us had met for lunch at the new Israeli restaurant Hamsa, in Houston’s centrally located Rice Village. It is the brainchild—and definitely the love child—of Sof Hospitality, the restaurant group behind two other popular local dining venues, Badolina Bakery & Cafe (located next door, it shares a pleasant terrace with Hamsa) and Doris Metropolitan steakhouse (a couple of miles away, it also has locations in New Orleans and Costa Rica). Although Hamsa was only a few days old when I made my three visits, in May, the idea had been in the planning and production stages for the better part of three years.
The restaurant’s tagline, “Modern Israeli Cuisine,” reflects its philosophy, which comes from the kitchen’s two driving forces, corporate chef Sash Kurgan, 39, and executive chef Yotam Dolev, 24, who was previously the sous-chef at Doris Metropolitan. Says Kurgan, “There’s nothing quite like this in Houston.” Dolev adds, “It’s like a restaurant you would find in Tel Aviv today.” If anyone would know, it would be them. Kurgan grew up in Israel and moved to the United States in 2013. Dolev—although born in New York City—lived most of his life in Modi’in, located about halfway between Tel Aviv, Israel’s most contemporary city, and Jerusalem, its historic heart. Although the two collaborated, the menu is mainly Dolev’s. “At the beginning of this year,” he says, “I went to Tel Aviv specifically to eat. I also did apprenticeships at several restaurants.”
Back in Hamsa’s dining room, our trio took a breather to look around before attacking the rest of our choices. The smart space is loosely divided into a bar and a restaurant, with tables on both sides. Clean-lined furniture balances decorative touches such as an array of graceful terra-cotta tagines near the kitchen and a lineup of massive glass jars full of sliced carrots, cauliflower, and more, pickling in spiced green-mango vinegar. (“We run through them like crazy,” says Kurgan.) Directly behind our table was a row of baby olive trees in a long planter, their slim, grayish leaves echoing the soft blues and greens of decorative tiles on a back wall. On another wall near the front was a display of brass hamsa hands, the stylized open palm that’s an ancient symbol of protection throughout the Middle East and North Africa. If it had been a leisurely evening, we might have indulged in an arak mojito or perhaps tried a bottle from the small, glass-walled wine room, which houses an international collection that spotlights Middle Eastern winemakers, in particular boutique producers such as Israel’s Or Haganuz.
Our pause came to an end with the arrival of the first of our heartier dishes, a platter of five good-sized pink shrimp, impressively tender-crisp on a short, swordlike skewer. The critters had been brushed with a lively preserved lemon chimichurri. Alongside was another skewer of bright red cherry tomatoes, pearl onions, and chunks of seriously spicy jalapeño. The chopped salad that came with the entrée was a cool, summery mix of tomato, cucumber, parsley, and red onion.
I would have sworn that our next course was a rectangular pizza if I hadn’t known that it was the paper-thin flatbread called lahmajun, delectably blistered and topped with ground lamb, tomato, tahini, and parsley. It needed only a dollop of something spicy—we chose the harissa from our medley of condiments—to give it a little more spunk. When we asked our server if the lahmajun had been cooked in the brick oven we could see in the open kitchen, he said yes, adding that it takes only a minute or two because the domed oven’s temperature reaches 800 degrees. “Also,” he added coyly, “the same dough is used to make both the flatbread and the pita.” “No!” we protested. “Yes!” he insisted.
Because lamb is ubiquitous in Israel and throughout the Middle East—and because it’s delicious—we ordered a second round in a different guise: ground and mixed with beef. A skewer-less kebab, it was sided by tahini topped with multicolored grilled tomatoes and giant hunks of jalapeño; the two-meat combo was running with savory juices and simply terrific.
Dessert was almost out of the question, but we valiantly split the very pretty, homey basboosa, which turned out to be a not-too-sweet square of cake made from coarse farina flour with a thin layer of malabi (a rosewater-flavored pudding) sandwiched in the middle. Beneath the cake was a translucent pink pomegranate syrup; on top, a vivid green pistachio crumble.
Israel might be a small country (about the size of New Hampshire), but because of its antiquity and position at the crossroads of Asia, Africa, and Europe, its cuisine is incredibly varied. When Dolev made his culinary tour, he found that diversity striking. In Jerusalem, he says, “You have all the old markets and traditional dishes. It’s food you would find at your grandmother’s home, flavors that warm the heart.” Tel Aviv, by contrast, is cosmopolitan. “It has everything from holes-in-the-wall to fine restaurants to bakeries to coffee shops. There are French Israeli and Italian Israeli restaurants. Food in Tel Aviv tends to emphasize vegetables and seafood. It’s light and contemporary.”
He has worked hard to balance the ancient and the modern, and on my subsequent visits, with other friends, we made good headway toward trying most of the easily shareable plates. A nicely grilled whole branzino—headless but with its silvery tail left on—was served butterflied atop a chopped salad of fennel, cranberries, and celery, a nice balance of herbaceous and sweet. Shakshuka—that irresistible combo of stewed tomatoes and red peppers often seen with a poached egg at breakfast—came with the option of adding merguez: small, mild, and nicely lamb-y sausage links.
We were all delighted by the small, tidy balls of falafel, their crisply browned exteriors embracing brilliant green interiors of ground chickpeas rich with fresh parsley and cilantro and jazzed up with garlic and a dash of cumin. In fact, vegetables and starches are a strong point at Hamsa, a sensational example being the deep-golden-brown “smashed” potatoes, their crinkly, crisp-fried skin lightly slicked with turmeric-infused olive oil. They came off better than the vastly undercooked chopped cauliflower “couscous” in an otherwise fine salad with almonds, mint, and colorful dried cranberries sitting atop a creamy white scoop of labneh.
But the most impressive vegetable dish by far was the satiny hummus, made from the smallest, best, most delicate chickpeas the chefs could find. Incidentally, heat freaks—a club that obviously includes many Texans—will appreciate the three condiments called the Spicy Experience: harissa, schug (the Middle East’s cilantro-rich hot sauce), and seriously spicy chunks of a raw green chile that looks like an Israeli jalapeño and is perfect for perking-up duties.
By the last of my visits I was beginning to wonder what the chefs have in store for future menus. “For one thing,” Dolev says, “I’m going to truly cook with the seasons. In Israel, you eat cherries at the end of spring, watermelon in the summer, grapes and apricots at the beginning of winter. Then they’re gone till the next year.” There are also classic dishes they haven’t touched, as well as different takes on those they have. “Every Israeli family has its own version of hummus,” Kurgan tells me. “It’s like Texans with their brisket recipes.” The two chefs feel they’ve only begun to scratch the surface of Israel’s millennia-old foodways. I find that notion incredibly comforting.
This article originally appeared in the August 2022 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “To Protect and to Serve.” Subscribe today.