“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.