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August 12, 2014 By:
New Eatery Brings Tel Aviv to Philadelphia
“There’s Hebrew on the walls, it’s designed like Tel Aviv feels — it’s like walking in off of a Philadelphia street and finding yourself in Israel!”
That was the verdict rendered by a dining companion who lived in Israel for eight years, during which time he was known to consume copious quantities of hummus at iconic eateries that specialize in hummus, known as hummusiyot, like Abu Hassan in Jaffa. He was marveling at the interior of Dizengoff, the hummusiya from the duo behind Zahav, which opened at 1625 Sansom Street on Aug. 11, in the recently constructed mixed-use Sansom development.
Make that “officially opened.” The 25-seat restaurant, which serves nothing but hummus and its accoutrements, soft-opened on Aug. 8, which is when people first began walking through Dizengoff’s roll-up garage-door entrance. With old posters and handbills advertising long-ago concerts in Hebrew on one wall, a glass mosaic of alternating earth tones on another wall and communal picnic tables where diners can scoop up warm hummus to the beat of a classic rock soundtrack, it’s easy to feel transported to another time and place.
That assessment is music to Steve Cook’s ears. Cook, the 41-year-old co-owner, along with his partner/chef, Michael Solomonov, said the design is supposed to evoke a 1970s feel, right down to the DIY turntable with milk crates full of vinyl in one corner of the dining room. The duo had talked about doing a hummusiya for years, he added, basically ever since they realized that Zahav, their Society Hill restaurant acclaimed for putting Israeli cuisine on the map in the United States, would be successful months after its 2008 launch.
“We have been talking about doing it for a long time, but it got sidetracked by a couple things like a short attention span, getting tied up in other projects” — the pair’s company, Cook+Solo, also owns Percy Street Barbecue on South Street and the wildly successful Federal Donuts locations around the city — “and worrying about what kind of impact it would have on Zahav,” which has developed a reputation for having the finest hummus in Philadelphia.
Each bowl of hummus comes with house-baked pita, slightly smoky from a quick char, Israeli pickles and two housemade salatim — right now, small bowls of roasted cauliflower with walnut tarator (a tehina-based sauce) and local zucchini mixed with roasted cherry tomatoes, pomegranate molasses and sesame seeds.
As befits a crew already renowned for their hummus, the offerings at Dizengoff are exemplars of pureed legumes, even at this early date, and it is hard to conceive of someone finishing everything and still feeling hungry. For Cook, a member of the historic synagogue B’nai Abraham in Society Hill, the trick is educating a dining public virtually unaware that hummus can be something other than a topping or part of a Middle Eastern combo platter.
“This is a thing in Israel that nobody here really knows about,” he said, a statement underscored by the fact that Dizengoff appears to be the first true hummusiya to open in the United States.
Of course, that learning curve is helped immeasurably by all of the media attention that a new venture by Cook and Solomonov generates. That coverage has taken on an added dimension for the opening of Dizengoff, thanks to a remarkably candid interview Solomonov gave to Frank Bruni in the Aug. 10 issue of The New York Times. In it, the 35-year-old Israeli-American chef revealed that he is a recovering crack addict and explained that he felt the need to come clean about his struggles before the opening of Dizengoff and its sister establishment, Abe Fisher. The latter is a larger restaurant focusing on foods of the Diaspora that will share the same non-kosher kitchen and is slated to open in September.
Solomonov’s admission gives new perspective to the duo’s high-profile support of Broad Street Ministry’s Hospitality Collaborative. They launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to help fund Rooster Soup, which will sell chicken soup made from the backs of the chickens used at Federal Donuts, with the profits going to the ministry, which provides a variety of social services, including drug counseling.
Cook, who learned about Solomonov’s addiction several years ago, when Zahav was just getting off the ground, said he “was fine” about the Times article but was clearly reluctant to discuss it further. He said that while his partner’s substance abuse didn’t spur them to get involved with the nonprofit, he did say that Solomonov’s admission “opened my eyes to things around me more than before. So in the broad sense, maybe it did” influence their decision vis-à-vis Broad Street.
With so much going on, it’s no surprise that Cook brushes off any talk of launching Dizengoff into the increasingly competitive field of fast-casual franchising. But he doesn’t rule it out in the future.
“I read an interview with Danny Meyer” — the New York restaurateur behind some of the country’s best restaurants and the ubiquitous Shake Shack chain — “where he said that the best way to open a successful replicable model is to never think of it like that. Right now, we just need to make this one work.”
One aspect of the Dizengoff dining experience that will be difficult to replicate is the dessert option. While they offer free Bazooka bubble gum, if you want something more substantial, you can choose from a wider array on display at the Federal Donuts across the street.