Dennis Friedman sits still, calmly answering questions and hiding any anxiety over what just emerged from the fryer. His eyes occasionally dart toward the kitchen, but his head never moves. It’s two days before Thursday, November 1, when he and Ran Nussbacher, his partner at budding Israeli street food chain Shouk, begin selling falafel for the first time.
A batch of the just-cooked chickpea pucks is resting, and Friedman can’t hold off an inspection any longer. “Don’t go anywhere,” he says as he springs out of chair.
Long before Shouk dunks the restaurant’s first falafel in hot oil today, the owners had a mission. They wanted to develop a version of falafel that fits comfortably into the restaurant’s core values but also represents a departure from anything it’s done in its first two and a half years.
Friedman, a protege of accomplished chefs Daniel Boulud, Alan Wong, and Michel Richard, is the culinary arm of the operation. Nussbacher, who hails from Netanya, Israel, first had the vision to start a totally plant-based fast-casual concept serving a playful, modern take on his home country’s food. Both co-owners adhere to strict vegan diets.
The idea behind the chain, which began with one location in Mount Vernon Triangle in 2016 and expanded to a second spot at Union Market this summer, was to create a subversive, plant-based menu that was good enough to convince customers to eat less meat just by virtue of showing up. “If we can open these things up across the country and have a lot of people coming three or four times a week — you know, we’re not asking them to change completely, but giving them another option — we’ve made an impact in the world.”
By that logic, the falafel balls aren’t just a marketing gambit. Their success or failure can help tilt the scale in Shouk’s ambition to help save the planet from global warming by reducing meat consumption.
So the falafel, made from a batter of soaked chickpeas (never canned) tinted a deep green by the addition of parsley and cilantro, fits a menu that features veggie burgers and cauliflower as star pita stuffers.
To make the falafel good enough to meet the Shouk standard, Friedman says he did more research and development than he has on any dish he’s ever done. “It really came down to the minutiae of salt and moisture content and then, having it hot versus having it sit for 15 minutes, or would it be too dry? It’s almost like a soundboard, right? With all these different levels. I was just, day after day, all I was thinking about was falafel.”
The result of Friedman’s research now costs $9.95 in whole wheat pitas or bowls and $4.75 as a side.
The most radical part about Shouk’s new dish, Nussbacher says, is that it’s not radical at all. While every other option on the chain’s menu — like the eggplant burger or the polenta fries — is a playful take rooted in a Middle Eastern staple, the Shouk team decided to craft a dish that Nussbacher touts as the first traditional Israeli-style falafel in D.C.
Ever since Shouk opened, customers have been asking when it would serve falafel. “For the longest time, we said, ‘No, we’re not going to do it,’ “ Nussbacher says. Once he and Friedman decided it was time to answer the people’s chickpea prayers and go the traditional route, they decided to go as old-school Israeli as possible. “That doesn’t mean that it’s better or worse or the right answer,” Nussbacher adds. “It just means that’s the style that’s practiced over there.”
That means using a “100 percent chickpea” batter infused with herbs, both traits that are common in Israel. It also meant limiting the accoutrements inside to pickled white cabbage (brined in-house), imported Israeli pickles, Israeli salad and two condiments on the side: spicy, herby Yemenite schug and tahini sauce made from the Har Bracha brand Shouk imports from Mount Gerizim in the West Bank.
Customers can make tweaks as they wish. But Nussbacher says paring down the options and delivering a non-customizable pita sandwiches — or grain and lentil bowls and salads for gluten-free diets — is the intent. In Israel, he says, “If you go to the little hole in the wall that’s considered the best falafel, they don’t ask you what you want. That’s what you get.”
When Friedman sees an Eater tester chowing down, he can finally relax. He can finally stop thinking about the moisture content of chickpea batter in his sleep. “It’s been awesome,” he says of the recipe testing, “and now I feel like I earned my falafel stripes.”