Acclaimed chef Michael Solomonov thinks America is ready for something new and exciting when it comes to food. And he suspects that Middle Eastern cuisine—and Israeli in particular—is exactly what the country is searching for.
Along with his business partner Steve Cook, James Beard Award–winning chef Solomonov is working to fill that need by spotlighting Israeli cuisine at two Philadelphia-based restaurant concepts. The pair opened Zahav, an Israeli fine-dining restaurant, in 2008, and later Dizengoff, a fast-casual hummus concept, in the summer of 2014.
This year, Dizengoff expanded to a second location in New York City’s Chelsea Market, while the pair was also awarded a James Beard Foundation Book Award for their cookbook, Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking.
Here, Solomonov shares why the restaurant market is ready for Israeli food—and how that might take hold in the fast-casual segment.
Why did you want to open a pita-and-hummus fast-casual restaurant?
Steve and I opened Zahav in 2008, and we introduced a style of hummus that a lot of people weren’t that familiar with. Most people start their experience at Zahav with lafa—an Iraqi-style pita that is big and fluffy and pocketed—salad, and a bunch of small plates. The hummus is handcrafted and artisanal, so we thought it would be interesting given the success we have had at Zahav to open up Dizengoff to introduce true handcrafted Middle Eastern hummus to the U.S.
We were inspired by the hummusiyas—hummus restaurants you find in Israel. They serve everyone. Every target market, every demographic eats hummus, and it is inexpensive and delicious.
How would you describe the perfect hummus?
The perfect hummus has almost equal parts of tehina in it, so it’s really rich and nutty, with not too much garlic or lemon, salt, and cumin. Making it fresh and serving it at room temperature is important, because refrigeration can make hummus a bit weird so that it’s not so great.
We like to go for a rich and nutty flavor rather than sour or overly garlicky.
How would you describe the perfect pita?
For the American palate, we’re used to seeing old pita sitting around in plastic bags at the store. It’s dry; it’s not made fresh. It’s subpar compared to what you would get in any country that serves pita regularly. Our idea was to make pita fresh and have it handcrafted and not so commercialized.
Why do you think there are these kinds of quality disparities with hummus and pita in the U.S.?
Middle Eastern and Israeli food was introduced very recently [to America], so, as with any sort of cultural or ethnic food introduction, you need some time to teach people the standards for good hummus and pita. It’s like when Italian food came to the U.S.; it wasn’t what it is now. It needs a little bit of time to develop.
What outside-the-box flavors work well with hummus?
I like to take other legumes and glaze them and serve them warm inside of the hummus, and that’s the traditional way to serve it. Often times [in Israel], they will take dried fava beans, oil those, and dump that inside the hummus. Sometimes I use hot garbanzo beans, so there is sort of a temperature contrast and something to scoop up in the hummus. Sometimes we’ll take braised meat and shred it and put it inside, which is very nice.
Why do you think now is the right time for Israeli food to take off in the U.S.?
It’s new and in the past few years has become more popular. People always want something new, and because Israeli food in general is so varied and has so many different influences, I think now is the time for Israeli food. It’s very vegetable heavy. It uses spices; the ingredients aren’t that expensive; it’s relatively healthy; and it’s fun to eat. It’s exciting, and it fits into the larger industry trends toward health food and global cuisine.
What is your goal for Dizengoff?
We want to have the best hummus and the best pita. We’re introducing a style of hummus that is made fresh by hand every day, and the pita is made fresh to order everyday. We feel like we can provide really good value with something handcrafted and express what we want about Israeli food in the U.S.