When I arrived at The Kubbeh Project at 8:30 on Monday night the queue was ten deep, and the stinging sleet which had been falling all afternoon had finally settled into a flurry of lovely spring snow. Morale was high, if a little impatient. Through the foggy window (lined with jars of pickled vegetables), we watched the lucky seated ones spooning soup into their mouths. They avoided looking at us. It was like being in a Dickens novel, but Jewish, and with waterproof boots.
We were all there for one thing: kubbeh, a classic Iraqi-Israeli dumpling soup which food-writer Naama Shefi and chef Itamar Lewensohn are bringing to New York for the first three weeks of March. For the uninitiated, kubbeh refers to both the dumpling—made from a mix of bulgur and semolina, and stuffed with ground meat—and the soup, usually beet or hamusta (a sour broth). Every Middle-Eastern country has some iteration of the dish, but Shefi’s focus is on the Iraqi version she remembers eating in Israel as a child. “These recipes are about to leave the world if no one will document them,” she explained in the New York Times.
At 9:15 I was in, my wait expedited by virtue of being a solo diner (I sat next to a party of three who had waited for two hours). Inside, Zucker bakery had been transformed from a hip daytime hangout to a cozy nighttime restaurant. Customers crowded around a long, communal table set with paper menu place mats, and a black banner hanging from the ceiling advertised the three types of kubbeh available: beet, pumpkin, and, for the “advanced” kubbeh eater, hamusta. I ordered the beet kubbeh and the sambusak, a delicate feta and swiss chard pastry. (The meat is kosher, so if you eat the dairy before the soup you’re practically dining in Boro Park!)
The soup itself was delicious, unleashing Proustian memories of my first kubbeh experience at Machaneh Yehudah in Jerusalem seven years ago. The broth was a surprising, muted orange; pleasingly fatty, with just a hint of sourness. The dumplings—garnished with slivered coconut chips—were firm and perfectly round, with a good ratio of baharat-spiced beef to semolina. The rice served with the soup was the best I’ve had in a long time—salty, perfectly sticky, and infused with excellent, fragrant olive oil. Seriously, it was enough to make Jiro weep. Another highlight was the honey and mint tahini, served as an appetizer with pickled vegetables and challah. Shefi told me it was El Erez tahini, “the best in Israel.”
Irin Carmon, who wrote about kubbeh for Tablet last year and visited The Kubbeh Project this week, agreed. “It is a quite difficult dish to pull off because you want the dumplings to be absorptive but not mushy, and you want the broth to be savory but sour-sweet. And they did it.”
So, is The Kubbeh Project worth the long wait? I’m going to do the Jewish thing and answer my question with another question: Is any meal ever worth waiting two hours for? I think so—as with many of life’s pleasures, the delight of kubbeh lies as much in the anticipation as the experience. Also, the Pesach seders are nigh upon us. Consider it a training run.
The Kubbeh Project runs until tonight at Zucker Bakery, 433 East 9th St.