18 February 2020

Hummus in the Suq…almost sounds like an Agatha Christie novel that begins with an unexpected cloud of suspicion, descending on all the passengers in a first-class mahogany compartment on the Orient Express.

But, nope, this hummus in the suq is a restaurant in the Arab suq (market) in Akko, Israel, where mahogany-posh and silver-tray elegance would be as likely as a French chateau in Secaucus. Hummus Said (pronounced Sah-eed) is a high-ceilinged gray place with naked neon lights and a grayish, indifferent wait-staff born of too many years staring into plates of hummus and hoping to see something a little more exotic that a taupe-colored mass of pureed chickpeas with an eye of olive oil staring back.

We asked to see a menu. As if we were interrupting some seminal nuclear research he was doing in his head, the waiter answered with a bored exasperation in accented English, thick as the hummus he was serving. “We got no menu. We got plain hummus. We got hummus with whole chickpeas. We got hummus with ground lamb. Which you like?” You’ve got no falafel, I asked. “We got hummus.” Talk about a menu long on simplicity and short on choice, this was it. But, hey, if hummus is your strong suit, why play baba ganoush. What your customers expect, that’s what you give them. Besides, the kitchen was too cramped with vats of  chickpeas cooking and mixers to mash them for any increase in entrees. Without consultation we chose plain hummus which came with a pile of pita which was also unequalled and a generous plate of olives, tomatoes, onions, pickles, red peppers, green peppers. “The best hummus in Israel”, they say and with one dip of pita in hummus, I was convinced.

There are restaurants everywhere that claim to be “the best”. But it shouldn’t be a license to do without grace or apology, when they put down a plate with a bounce on synthetic marble-topped tables with the indifference of tossing a live lobster in boiling water. Hey, where does it say great service. You’re here, the hummus is great…so why complain. You want the best hummus in Israel…you come here. It’s not chic, especially when little separates the kitchen from the diners and the sweaty charms of the cooking staff with their perspired, napkin-wrapped foreheads…all part of the ambience.

The same thing happens everywhere. When the Stage and the Carnegie delis touted their pastrami and corned beef, immodestly, as the best in New York, the waiters knew that being pleasant was a waste of time. The tables were filled anyway.  So what if they bounced the plates of cole slaw and pickles. They were free, so who’s going to complain? It was just New York waiters being New York waiters…part of the story you could tell, when you got back home.

But a word to the wise. Things change. A so-so review in the Times, a raise in the rent, the creeping spectre of vegetarianism and iconic New York delis could and did find their way into the history books. So be careful Hummus Said, you wouldn’t be the first “best of” to be recorded  as “remember them?”