Ran Nussbacher and Dennis Friedman, co-founders of the fast-casual Shouk, have nothing against science, but they believe you can engineer a meat-free burger by relying on good old-fashioned cooking techniques, an applied science that requires fewer PhDs and less capital than your basic Silicon Valley tech venture. Friedman’s signature Shouk burger is a marvel, less for the ingredients that compose the patty than for the chef’s skill at cooking that patty and pairing it with toppings that click into place like tumblers on a lock.
The building blocks of Friedman’s burger are nothing you haven’t tasted a hundred times before in substandard preparations: chickpeas, mushrooms, beets, black beans, cauliflower and more. But the degree of difficulty for his invention is multiple times higher than for your typical veggie burger. First, his patty is vegan, held together with a flaxseed binder. Second, the ingredients in his burger require at least three heat treatments, a time-intensive process that leaves the vegetables evenly cooked and, just as important, gives the final patty some color and char. I’d wage large sums that you will find no other simple crush of vegetables that looks so meaty.
Once this vegan patty is slipped into a pita — whole-wheat flatbread so soft you could use it as a throw pillow — Friedman surrounds it with garnishes that serve as the fast-casual equivalent of a Fender amp cranked to 11. The toppings amplify and color every aspect of the burger: There’s the slight ashen sting of charred onions. The acidic basso profundo of pickled turnips. The concentrated umami sweetness of tomatoes, painstakingly roasted for three hours. The creamy nuttiness of tahini. And the leafy, bitter bite of arugula. There is not, I’d dare say, a note out of place.
On my deathbed, if I had a choice between Frank Ruta’s Palena burger and Shouk’s vegan burger, I’d have to go with the latter. Not just because Shouk’s preparation is a flavor bomb, but because I’d be able to exit this world in relative peace, knowing that my last meal, at least, was not a small act of destruction. I’d view it as a parting gift/apology to those left to deal with the greenhouse gases we boomers and Gen Xers produced, in part from the burger empires we erected in the 20th century. “Billions and Billions Served” takes on darker associations in a world frantically searching for solutions to the problems it created.
This knowledge — you could be cynical and call it self-satisfaction — is one of the underlying appeals of Shouk. For all the veggie deliciousness it produces, the fast-
casual is selling a lifestyle choice, in which you select a meal that causes little to no harm, no matter how far back you trace an ingredient. Virtue becomes its own umami. It floods the brain with a pleasure uniquely its own.
“For me, plant-based eating is the only sustainable way forward,” says Friedman during a phone interview. “People are rapidly waking up to the benefits of eating more plant-based” food.
The beauty of Shouk’s approach is its silence on the issues. No matter which shop you visit — the first one in Mount Vernon Triangle or the second in the Union Market district — you won’t find any chest-thumping pronouncements about the inherent value of vegetables. The closest thing to an endorsement are the ripped-open bags of beets and potatoes that sit in a window nook at the K Street NW store, each specimen offering up a wordless lecture on the advantages of whole vegetables.
Nussbacher had only a few rules for his chef when conceiving Shouk (the Hebrew word for “market”), and one of them was that he wanted no processed foods, “just vegetables, thoughtfully put together . . . to appeal to non-vegans,” Friedman remembers. A lesser cook might have been daunted by such a challenge. Not Friedman, a professionally trained chef who went to finishing school in the kitchens of Daniel Boulud and Michel Richard. He has developed a masterly touch with the seeds, legumes, vegetables and spices at the heart of Shouk’s cross-cultural take on Israeli street food. (Please, let’s not bicker further about the origins of these dishes; both Nussbacher and Friedman say their fare is a celebration of traditional Arab, Palestinian, Eastern European and North African foodways.)
The menu is small, and Friedman emphasizes the cross-
utilization of star ingredients, such as the Har Bracha tahini, an Israeli import made from Ethiopian sesame seeds ground on a stone mill. Creamy, nutty and bitter in all the right ways, this tahini deserves wide application. It adds bite to Friedman’s exceptional, custardlike hummus, available as a side or as the centerpiece of a bowl. If you order a hummus bowl, go with the oyster mushroom shawarma over the veggie preparation. The former does a mean impression of rotisserie shawarma — down to the charred, crusty edges of the ’shrooms — while the latter strikes me as a little more than a random pile of vegetables atop hummus.
The tahini makes a return appearance in a pair of bowls, both worthy of your attention. One features Shouk’s crackly falafel balls, their exterior crunch as prominent as their interiors tinted green with parsley and cilantro. The roasted cauliflower bowl is even better, each floret charred and crunchy and completely irresistible. A squeeze of tahini can also be found on the eggplant burger, a squishy, if flavorful, bite that stands in the shadow of its sibling, the far superior Shouk burger. By the way, don’t forget to order a side of spice fries, these crispy lengths with centers as soft as whipped potatoes.
Shouk made me realize how particular I am about texture: The breakfast pita, with its mock-egg omelet made with chickpea flour and other veggies, is too soggy. The cumin-laced lentil soup is too thin. The lemon-date balls are too chalky. I made note of these textures, somewhat critically, on my phone even as I continued to pound down each dish, my actions seemingly undermining my opinion.
655 K St. NW, 202-652-1464; 395 Morse St. NE, 202-313-7671; shouk.com.
Hours: K Street NW: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily; Morse Street NE: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Nearest Metro: K Street NW: Mount Vernon Sq/Seventh Street-Convention Center, with a short walk to the restaurant; Morse Street NE: NoMa-Gallaudet, New York Avenue, with a short walk to the restaurant.
Prices: $10 to $12 for pitas, bowls, hummus and salads; $3 to $5.50 for sides.