Amazing—some might say sad—the way today’s elite athletes are turning into food snobs. If you saw the so-called “Sports Sunday” section in the Times the other day, you know what we mean. On page one: an on-the-road piece about a chef for a Tour de France team from Colorado. Inside, an account of Los Angeles Angel Vladimir Guerrero’s mother, who, on game days, cooks Dominican for her son the gastronome and his fussy colleagues. And that’s not all: Another mouthwatering story, entitled “From Israel to the NBA, but Missing the Hummus,” told the tale of six-foot-nine, 225-pound Omri Casspi, the first Israeli to play in the NBA, who, although excited to join the Sacramento Kings, wondered whether moving to the United States would mean he might starve to death. “[Good] Hoom-us,” he said, when asked what he’d miss most about leaving Tel Aviv. “You don’t have that here.”
That may be true of the California capital, but if Casspi is ever traded to the Knicks, the Underground Gourmet will not hesitate to direct him to Mimi’s Hummus in Ditmas Park. The high-ceilinged space is cramped but cute, even stylish, you might say. A perforated wooden scrim of sorts nicely frames the open kitchen, and the sweet-natured servers prove equally adroit at maneuvering around the tightly packed tables and pronouncing the trickiest of Semitic-language words (zhoug, for instance—the fragrant Yemenite hot sauce). For that, credit goes to Israeli chef-owner Mimi Kitani, who mines her Iraqi and Moroccan heritage for unusual specials and puts her own expertly spiced spin on the cuisine’s classics. Her hummuses (hummi?) are thick and rich, glossed with oil, scattered with parsley, and served with a basket of hot, puffy pitas. You can’t go wrong, whether you choose the one crowned with a scoop of favas or the cumin-scented mushroom version, or the even more substantial meat hummus, distinguished by a layer of cinnamon-scented ground beef flecked with pine nuts. In short, Mimi’s hummus is Omri Casspi–proof.
And yet, there’s more to Mimi’s than mashed chickpeas. Take, for instance, the cauliflower salad—sweetly caramelized florets flavored with homemade tahini. It’s the best thing to happen to cauliflower since Dévi’s cracklike Manchurian version. The rice-stuffed grape leaves, too, have much to offer, flavorwise, albeit in small, nugget-shaped packages. Crunchy Israeli salad, the thick spice-dusted yogurt cheese called labneh, and a sprightly tabbouleh are textbook renditions, but palates accustomed to smoky baba ghannouj might be taken aback by the flavor profile of a honey-enhanced eggplant “caviar,” and a similarly sweet note characterizes the megadara, a mix of lentils, raisins, and bulgur. The ground-lamb pie, though, baked in a skillet, studded with pine nuts, and frosted like a cake with a layer of tahini, is an unequivocal success, and the tart tomato-and-onion salad that comes with it a refreshing foil. Counterintuitive as it might seem to order hot soup in August, the kuba, a lemony broth floating slivered beets and farina-dumpling pockets stuffed with beef, is worth breaking into a sweat over.
With only eight tables, Mimi’s tends to get crowded at dinner, which is a good excuse for planning a day trip. For that matter, so is brunch. Kitani has been experimenting with brunch specials, and though some hew closely to the American party line (chewy semolina pancakes with strawberries and cream), others are more Middle Eastern in scope. Of those, we like eiji, a toothsome frittata of sorts, permeated with cilantro and parsley and capped with a spoonful of labneh. While the restaurant awaits its liquor license, you can quench your thirst with a freshly squeezed lemonade or some mint-and-sage tea, which goes quite nicely with punchi, a trio of coconut-chocolate balls that taste like raw cookie dough. The sportswriters have yet to cover the saga of the expat athlete in punchi withdrawal, but when they do, we’ll send him to Mimi’s for a fix.