92 2nd Avenue (b/n 5th and 6th), New York 10003 (map); 212-529-2563; pbertiny.wix.com/local92nyc
Service: Awkward but well-meaning
Setting: Casually pretty, roomy, with nice outdoor seating
Must-Haves: You're here for hummus and shakshuka
Cost: $15 to $20 per person for food
Compare To: Mimi's Hummus, Hummus Place
Grade: High honors for hummus and shakshuka. As a whole the restaurant is a solid neighorhood spot.
Chef Shai Zvibak soaks his dried chickpeas overnight, rinses them, then simmers them with baking soda "to accelerate the cooking" for five or six hours. He purées them with tahini—no olive oil—and some spices he brings over from Israel. He tops the finished hummus with warm spiced chickpeas, starchy fava beans, or spiced ground beef. Then he does it again two hours later.
His Local 92 is an East Village hummus bar with aspirations beyond a hummus bar. There's a wine and cocktail list, appetizers, entrées of schnitzel and meatballs and fish. The roomy, casually pretty interior is a far cry from most of the city's cramped hummus and falafel shops, including Zvibak's own attractive but slender Hummus Shop on the Lower East Side. But it's the hummus, indeed made every two hours so it's always fresh, that keeps me coming back.
The young restaurant—which transformed itself from Candela Candela in March—is still working some of those aspirations out. Service is well meaning but consistently awkward. Some dishes fall flat, and that cocktail list leaves much to be desired. But you're here for great shakshuka and excellent hummus; the rest is all small stuff. If you're the kind of person who craves quality hummus the way some others worship ramen or cocktails, that's all you need to hear.
It's the kind of hummus ($7.95 to $12.95) you could call chickpea butter: smooth as custard, at once resoundingly rich but light and airy. The accompanying toasted pita is quite good, but I stop bothering with it halfway through the bowl; this is hummus worth eating right off the spoon, like guilty licks of caramel sauce at home with the fridge door wide open. "Made every two hours" sounds like a marketing ploy until you taste the fresh result. Believe.
You can order hummus plain or topped with warm ground beef heavy on the cinnamon, or perhaps starchy, gravy-like fava beans and warm chickpeas rolled in herbs. They're good choices all, but a bowl of naked hummus has a kind of stark glamor here. It wants for nothing.
The same could be said for the shakshuka ($9.95 to $12.45), served in cast iron skillets with quivering eggs ready to flood the sauce with melty yolks. Zvibak uses fresh tomatoes from upstate and canned San Marzanos for a chunky, onion-y stew that takes beautifully to house-baked challah.* Like the hummus, it's full of depth, tangy-sweet. Also like the hummus, toppings of feta, eggplant, halumi, or spinach taste more alike than different.
* Zvibak plans to make his own pita once a special oven arrives in the coming months.
A bowl of hummus and a pan of shakshuka make a fitting meal for two, but with mezze priced at five or six bucks (three for $13), it's easy to sneak a couple onto the table. I'm especially fond of the purple babaganoush ($5.95), lightly smoky with a slight tart bite (the dip's pink hue evinces its pickled eggplant base). An unconventional tabbouleh ($5.45) made with couscous is lemony, clean, and ever so slightly buttery, stupidly simple, yet a dish I couldn't stop eating. Cumin- and paprika-spiced carrot salad ($4.95) doesn't wow, but it doesn't disappoint either. A falafel plate ($8.95) on the appetizer menu does—the decent but unexceptional fritters become mere spoons for more hummus.
It's the same deal with those entrées: not bad, but every bite you take of them is a bite you're not taking of hummus. Baby meatballs ($15.45) over couscous begin and end at comforting, though the thin chicken schnitzel ($14.95), served with crunchy Israeli salad, has a definite appeal. The crisp, greaseless cutlet functions quite well as meat pita in between bites of wheat pita.
Throughout your meal servers will awkwardly rearrange too-large plates as more dishes arrive on the bistro tables. They will ask if you want bottled or sparkling water, and you'll ask for tap, and they might pause and smile for the briefest of moments as if you'd just uttered something wholly foreign to them. But they make their way through the grade school show with an earnestness that's easy to love. And to me they're part of what makes Local 92 such an antidote to the drunk-shouty, salt-and-fat, gimme gimme aspects of East Village nightlife. You get caught up in the tranquility of the place.
I get a little sad when we run a review of a restaurant I've enjoyed scoping out again and again, like Mission Chinese Food or Bab al Yemen, as I have to get more creative with my excuses to go back for another meal. Local 92 may not be the opening of the year or a citywide Middle Eastern destination, but it's a place I'll keep making excuses to revisit.