When Wolfgang Puck decided to stop serving foie gras in his restaurants earlier this year, many of us thought it would leave a yawning gap. Other American chefs, especially in Chicago, had taken foie gras off their menus, but in most cases it wasn’t as if they had done much with the duck livers to begin with. Puck, on the other hand, has been a Rodin of duck liver since his days at Ma Maison, molding the marvelous substance into marble-smooth terrines, crusty sautéed slabs, mousses as light as air, transforming the unlovely organ into a medium as universal as milk. The best-conceived dish at the Beverly Hills Spago was probably his composition of foie gras done four ways. Foie gras was as essential to a meal at Spago or Cut as bread or meat or wine.
Eating dinner at Spago last month, lost amid the exquisite little constructions that make up the first act of Puck’s tasting meals, I started to daydream about what he and chef Lee Hefter might have come up with to take the place traditionally occupied by his foie gras — that blissful caesura between the playful, single-bite hors d’oeuvres and the more serious plates centered on fish, meat and game. At Spago, the foie gras once marked the perfect moment of luxury and calm, the essence of Puck’s ideal of a meal as a flowing dream.
A waiter came to the table bearing two tiny tartlets, crisp shells no bigger than quarters. He announced with a shrug that these were what the kitchen was serving now instead of foie gras — hummus, made from fresh fava beans. I popped one into my mouth, and the delicate pastry shattered, releasing a sort of jelly, lightly flavored with olive oil, that lingered on my tongue as an earthy yet ethereal essence that dissipated only when I chased it with the last few drops of Champagne left in my glass. I have tasted a thousand examples of hummus in my life, but never anything like this. Suddenly, the ducks of America breathe a sigh of relief.
Hummus, of course, is the smooth paste of chickpeas, olive oil and sesame found in practically every Middle Eastern cuisine, the paprika-dusted goo that your local kebab shop tosses in for free with your order of shwarma, the mainstay of the deli cases at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. Hummus is less a delicacy than it is a commodity — even homemade hummus tends to involve mixing the contents of one can into the contents of another. In progressive nursery schools, hummus and lavash has become the new peanut butter and jelly.
Hummus Bar, a newish Israeli hummus specialty restaurant in Tarzana, is a cheerful place, with the sharp angles and open kitchen of an upscale fast-food restaurant and the jangly Israeli pop of a kosher coffeehouse, menus printed on place mats and a dining patio thrust into the mini-mall’s parking lot. It is a center for Israeli expats — you hear Hebrew spoken as often as you do English, and there are stacks of Hebrew-language tabloids toward the rear of the dining room — but the hummus-eating demographic is pretty broad, and the café seems to attract pretty much everybody from this part of the Valley: Lebanese, Sri Lankans and African-Americans as well as the yarmulke-wearing set. Supergraphics on the walls instruct the customers on the finer points of swiping pita through the signature product.
What you eat at Hummus Bar: hummus, giant plates of the stuff, sprinkled with olive oil and dusted with a bit of chopped parsley. For an extra buck or two, you can get your hummus garnished with stewed fava beans, like a version of the Egyptian breakfast mainstay, or with soft stewed chickpeas, or with toasted pine nuts, or with a spicy tomato sauce and eggs. The Israeli salad, a simple chop of fresh cucumbers and tomatoes, isn’t bad. The falafel, tinted green with chopped herbs, is pretty good too, if you can wrap your mind around the crunchy grease-bomb aesthetic, although the French fries tend to be limp and flavorless. There is baklava and Turkish coffee for dessert.
There is beauty in hummus done well. And the hummus at Hummus Bar may not be quite as transcendent as the hummus at Spago, but it is very good indeed: thick and creamy, with the lemony, nutty tahini suspended over the earthier chickpea paste so that when you sweep your chunk of hot pita across the plate you are custom mixing the flavors and textures. Every bite is subtly different from the last. Hummus made from scratch is an entirely wonderful beast — and no beasts are harmed in the making.
Hummus Bar, 18743 Ventura Blvd., Tarzana, (818) 344-6606. Sun.-Thurs. 8:30 a.m. “until late,” Fri. 9 a.m.-4 p.m. MC, V. No alcohol. Lot parking. Takeout. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $14–$24. Recommended dish: hummus.
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