In a market in Acco years ago, Ezra Braves told me he had “one of the greatest food experiences of my life:” A lush bowl of hummus, topped with hot chickpeas, and serves with peppers and olive oil. “It was perfect, simple, and interesting,” he says. “When a chef makes something delicious out of so few ingredients, there’s more talent in that than in very elaborate haute cuisine.”
The experience stuck with him — as did his cravings for great hummus. Rather than return to Acco, Braves decided to recreate that memory in his native Toronto.
S. Lefkowitz, named for Braves’ grandfather, opened last month in a rough-hewn jewel box of a space with old-fashioned lettering in the window. Hebrew letters painted on the glass proclaim S. Lefkowitz’s “hummusia” (the city’s first dedicated hummus spot), and a line below cheekily declares it “The Hummus Institute of North America.”
Sharing a low-slung block of Dundas Street West with hip boutiques and cool cafes, S. Lefkowitz replaced Braves’ popular Ezra’s Pound coffee house. “I’d been working on my own hummus recipe for 15 years,” Braves says. “I thought, I’ll finally open a hummusia in Toronto — it’s never been done. But after looking for another location, I realized I could do it in one of my cafes.”
Hummus, of course, has long transcended its roots to become a mainstay on menus; in New York alone, fast-food places like Nanoosh, Hummus Place, and Taim offer “authentic” renditions, while more intimate eateries like Balaboosta, 12 Chairs, and Zizi Limona bring more personal spins to the staple.
None that I’ve sampled compares to S. Lefkowitz’s sublime product — served warm with sweet peppers and pillowy pita, it’s slightly grainy, vaguely nutty, and lusciously creamy. Mine came topped with house-made harissa, which added subtle, spicy notes. Braves serves six varieties including hummus topped with meat or olives. If your only exposure to hummus has been store-bought product in plastic cups, Braves’ lush, rich rendition will come as a revelation.
“It starts with organic chickpeas,” Braves tells the Forward. “And extremely high-quality olive oil, and extremely high-quality tahini. Even the salt’s important. Most hummus is made with iodized table salt. We use French sea salt. When you’re only using six ingredients, salt has impact on the hummus.” The restaurant also makes its own labneh, using yogurt from a small Ontario farm. Soft drinks, in flavors like lemon and ginger beer, come from UK-based botanical brewery Fentiman’s.
“The core menu’s consistent, but everything else we make as we get inspired,” Braves says. “Hot sauces, condiments, and pickles are all things we’ll do depending on the season and whim, so they’re not all available all the time. Right now, we’ve got pickled beets and turnips.” This summer, Braves plans to sell house-made spreadable halva.
S. Lefkowitz hasn’t forsaken its roots as a café; Braves’ crew still cranks out superb coffee drinks. “I’d taken out the espresso machine, and then thought, ‘What am I doing?’ he says. “I think any time you go to a restaurant, you should be able to have a spectacular espresso. In general, restaurants overlook that last detail. But we have clients who’ll come in for coffee in the morning and return for hummus later in the day.”
But not too late. The restaurant’s hours, according to its website, run from 11am-6pm, “or until the hummus is gone,” which is likely, according to Braves. S. Lefkowitz is producing more than 200 cups daily, “and we sell out every day,” he says.
“Hummus is ubiquitous now,” Braves says. “I’ve just tried to perfect it.”
Photo: Michael Kaminer