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Houston Chronicle: First look – Hamsa, modern Israeli restaurant, opens in Rice Village

If you’re going to make Houston’s lushest hummus you might as well start out with choice, organic chickpeas sourced from Canada and Washington State, removing all the skins after boiling to ensure a luxuriantly silken whip.

And if you’re going to serve that supple hummus you might as well bake your own pita from a special wood-burning oven that in seconds blisters multi-proofed disks of house-made dough into pliant, steaming puffs.

And if you’re going to all that trouble to produce these two exemplars of Middle Eastern cuisine, shouldn’t you have a spiffy, comfortable setting to showcase them?

Hamsa the new modern Israeli restaurant opening next week in Rice Village, accomplishes all that, and more. The new concept from Sof Hospitality (Doris Metropolitan steakhouse and Badolina Bakery & Café) is finally ready for its much-anticipated unveiling set for May 11 at 5555 Morningside Dr.

Adjacent to Badolina, which has been thrilling with its artisan breads and decadent pastries since it opened in June 2021, Hamsa represents a major step for the Sof partners (Itai Ben Eli, Itamar Levy, and chef Sash Kurgan) who have been eager to assemble this concept since they launched their upscale steakhouse in Houston in 2017. All born and raised in Israel, the Sof team wanted to create a restaurant that represented the style of dining they enjoy (small plates and larger entrees to be enjoyed in progression, family style) focusing on an elevated presentation of Middle Eastern cuisine (vegetable dishes, mounds of hummus, and charcoal-grilled skewers of beef, lamb, chicken, and shrimp).

The idea of Hamsa has been floated since the partners signed the lease for the Rice Village space in 2019. When Badolina opened last year, the connecting space was there waiting for Hamsa. But construction and supply delays during the pandemic slowed its arrival.

“Two years later, here we are,” Ben Eli said. “We’ve never had so much time to work on a project.”

But it was well spent, allowing time for the restaurant’s design (courtesy of Lindsay Madrigal of LM Design) and menu (under Kurgan working with chef Yotam Dolev) to improve and take on nuances. The project also welcomed the know-how of Badolina executive pastry chef Michal Michaeli who will be introducing new desserts, and general manager/sommelier Melissa Rogers who has augmented Old and New World wines with selections from Israeli, Lebanese, Armenian, Turkish, and Greek vineyards.

Houston diners, however, will be most interested in the menu that represents modern Israeli cuisine with flavors from and techniques from throughout the Middle East including North Africa, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and Morocco.

The menu begins with salatim, or little salads, including matbucha (Moroccan tomatoes) with beets and labneh; baba ghanoush (Levantine eggplant) with squash tahini; red cabbage and roasted red pepper dip; and mango pickled vegetables. Next comes the hummus plates, served with fresh pita hot from the restaurant’s wood-burning oven. Hummus presentations, garnished with onions, pickles and olives include toppings of lamb and caramelized onions; tahini and brown egg; Merguez sausage; and spiced tomato shakshuka.

Small plates include whole roasted fennel with goat cheese, walnuts and paprika oil; roasted eggplant with creamy tahini, pine nuts, and tomato; cauliflower couscous served with labneh, cranberries, almonds and mint; mussels in garlic herb butter; beef tartare topped with a soft-boiled egg and challah toast; and falafel served with red cabbage salad and tahini. Charcoal-grilled plates include curry yogurt-marinated chicken, shrimp with preserved lemon chimichurri, beef tenderloin with sumac butter, oyster mushrooms with chimichurri, and lamb and beef kebab with grilled tomato, jalapeno, and tahini.

There are three large plate options: lamb spare ribs served with couscous, spinach and apricots; grilled branzino; and a deconstructed chicken shawarma (instead of wrapped in a pita, the elements are presented on a plate). 

Michaeli’s desserts will include dishes such as grilled pears, basbousa malabi cake, and halvah.

Cocktails also will get a Middle Eastern twist. The cocktail menu includes Israeli Spritz (vermouth, sparking wine, lemon juice and cardamom peppercorn syrup), Red Selek (tequila, Cointreau, lime juice and beet orange syrup); Hamsa G&T (gin, tonic, pink peppercorn and rosemary); The Michal (white scotch, rose water, simple syrup, lemon juice, and egg whites); and Morningside Renewal (vodka, simple syrup, grenadine, lime, mint, and flower water).

Hamsa takes its name from the Islamic and Jewish symbol of a hand that is a protective sign ensuring health and good fortune, recognized throughout the Middle East. Ben Eli also said hamsa means “five” in Arabic. Since Hamsa’s physical address is 5555 Morningside, the hamsa fits in well. Here, no evil eyes need apply.

By Greg Morago

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