To someone in Lebanon or Israel, hummus is not a plastic tub pulled from the refrigerator case, packed with a stiff spread ready to slather like putty on pita chips. To the faithful, hummus is more like a puzzle to solve. An argument waiting to break out. A meal in itself, with a shared identity, which could either broker peace or ignite war.
Hummus has circled the perimeter of American dining rooms for years, occupying a kind of gastronomic no man’s land, neither honored nor neglected. The spread is a regular feature in Middle Eastern meze, where all dishes are more or less equal. Yet even at a time when the lines between courses at more traditional restaurants have become increasingly blurred, hummus has rarely been elevated to a status beyond the dreaded “small plate.” It suffers from an acute American bias for meat at the center of our plate, forever relegating hummus to the lightweight categories of dip or a condiment added to a fast-casual bowl of Cava greens.
In this context, places such as Dizengoff in Philadelphia and Hasiba in Los Angeles seem downright subversive. They ask you to consider hummus as an entree all by itself. These establishments are channeling the experience of Israeli hummusiyas, or neighborhood hummus shops, which are obsessed by the countless variations that can be coaxed from a combination of chickpeas, tahini, garlic, olive oil and lemon juice. Arguments have been known to break out over who serves the best hummus, or even who invented it: Arabs or Israelis? Some dare to suggest these enemies might find peace over a shared bowl of hummus.
Down at Little Sesame on L Street NW, in a small white-and-aquamarine storefront that seems to have floated in from the Mediterranean, there are no controversies, save perhaps an existential one: Can you reach the counter with your hearing still intact? During the lunch crush, when the line snakes out the door, the downtown shop can feel like the rebirth of CBGB, minus the Ramones and the beer-soaked floor. The decibel levels are off the charts in the tile-heavy space. It’s a small mercy that the cactuses along the wall have no ears.
Little Sesame isn’t another fast-casual Johnny Cash: You don’t walk the line here. You don’t assemble a bowl that, by the time you reach the register, looks like a godforsaken pileup of vegetables thrown together after an earthquake hit the counter. Co-owners and chefs Nick Wiseman and Ronen Tenne — both survivors of the grinding New York City fine-dining scene — prefer to keep their hands firmly on the wheel. They’ve already shopped for organic chickpeas (a kabuli variety grown in Montana) and the best tahini they could find. They want make sure their hummus shows well: Every one of the six bowls is composed by the duo, your only customization being the option of add-ons, such as a seven-minute egg or harissa.
The years that Wiseman and Tenne have invested in their hummus recipe — first developed at the original incarnation of Little Sesame in the basement of the now-shuttered DGS Delicatessen — are apparent on first taste. It has the velvety texture of something far creamier, like pudding or soft-serve ice cream. The garlic notes are muted almost to the point of suggestion. The tahini provides just enough bite to give the hummus a backbone. Together, it makes for a gorgeous canvas on which Wiseman and Tenne can do their thing.
The range of their hummus bowls is not as broad as those at Dizengoff in Philly, but still, Wiseman and Tenne wedge a lot of creativity into the narrower confines of their vegetable-forward menu. The sweet corn bowl packs heat — from ringlets of pickled Fresno chiles. The whole roasted cauliflower bowl, with its “everything spice,” outclasses any bagel under the same name. And the keep-it-classic bowl benefits from green schug, the volcanic Middle Eastern condiment, as well as the optional seven-minute egg, which adds another layer of silkiness.
Little Sesame also offers a line of pita sandwiches, including ones stuffed fat with roasted eggplant or house-cured chicken shawarma. The kitchen has a tendency to overload the pita with liquidy condiments, whether tahini or green schug, creating a handheld bite that doesn’t always hold. The liquids do what nature asks of them: They disintegrate everything in their path, including the pillowy bread, which arrives par-baked from Angel Bakeries in New York. You may need a fork to eat your sandwich.
Two of the finest bites I had at Little Sesame were also the simplest: The field greens salad with mint and radish, lightly tossed with a sumac dressing, was as perfect as a mountaintop sunrise. The dark chocolate soft-serve, infused with a jolt of Turkish coffee, dazzles in a different way: Its creaminess is due entirely to its coconut-milk base, making for a treat that doesn’t immediately exclude the lactose intolerant among us.
Yet I suspect few are standing in line at Little Sesame for the soft-serve. You’re there for the hummus, unbeatable in the District by almost any measure. But I wanted to find out how it compares to the hummus at Dizengoff, widely considered the gold standard. I made a day trip to the City of Brotherly Love and sampled chef Michael Solomonov’s hummus, a spread so beautifully crafted that Bon Appétit named it the magazine’s dish of the year in 2015.
The hummus at Dizengoff, applied in a thin layer across the bottom of the bowl like a sauce smear run amok, lives up to the hype: It’s creamy, yes, but this is a creaminess not bound by the laws of physics. It’s as if Solomonov has created something new under the sun: an emulsion of chickpeas, tahini and oil that has somehow erased the line between earth and air. I’ve had nothing like it, and, more to the point, I’ve come to the realization that Little Sesame, as good as it is, still has room to improve.
1828 L St. NW, 202-975-1971, eatlittlesesame.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Nearest Metro: Farragut North or Farragut West, with a short walk to the restaurant.
Prices: $8 to $10 for hummus bowls and pita sandwiches, with additional charges for add-ons. $3 to $5 for salatim (salads and sides) and soft-serve ice cream.