First Bite: Modern Israeli Restaurant in Rice Village is a Beauty With Some Shortcomings
Modern Israeli restaurant Hamsa opened in May in Houston’s upscale Rice Village neighborhood. The owners of Sof Hospitality, who were born and raised in Israel, spent almost two years developing the restaurant. (Some of that time was due to pandemic-driven delays.) The design is beautiful and lush, with Turkish rugs and Moroccan pottery used throughout the space, and olive trees that separate the bar and dining areas. Outside is a well-shaded patio.
My guest and I visited on a recent Friday night, very excited to try the current menu. The restaurant staff recommend starting with salatim, a catchall term for a variety of spreads, dips, slaws and salads. Hamsa’s menu currently offers five varieties: matbucha (a cooked tomato and pepper salad) with beet salad and labneh, baba ganoush (eggplant spread) with squash tahini, mashwaia (eggplant salad) with carrot harissa, red cabbage with muhamara (a red pepper dip also spelled muhammara or mhammara) and amba pickled vegetables (made with tangy pickled, preserved mango, turmeric and lemon). Diners can increase the heat by adding on the Spicy Experience — harissa, schug (hot pepper and garlic sauce) and Israeli green chili sauce. Saltim cost $5 each, 5 for $20 or the Wholeshebang (all of the salatim) for $35.
As eggplant fans, we started with the baba ganoush with squash tahini and a pita, the latter of which must be purchased separately. While the dish was delicious and creamy, with the squash tahini accenting the notes of the exquisitely prepared roasted eggplant, we were a little surprised at the small size of the servings. (Conversely, the pita size was generous.) To polish off the rest of the pita, we added an order of labneh for $5.
While deciding on our next option, we chatted with our server about the wine and cocktail choices. While our server appeared to be knowledgeable, she did not seem enthusiastic to answer our questions (perhaps because Hamsa was already busy with other customers).
We walked over to the bar for clarification, and fortunately, one of the bartenders was much more amenable and answered our questions. The drink list at Hamsa has eight signature cocktails ranging from the familiar, such as the Hamsa G&T (gin and tonic), to lesser-known choices like the Morning Side Renewal made with vodka, simple syrup, grenadine, lime, mint and flower water. I chose a glass of wine — the Galilee Viognier — while my friend got the Morning Side Renewal. While both were tasty, both were undersized. The cocktail barely reached above the midpoint of the coupe, and the white wine was clearly less than the standard pour of five ounces.
It was time to decide whether to keep going with the part of the menu designed for sharing, or to dig into the entrées. The smaller, shareable dishes include four varieties of hummus ($14 to $15 each) and a small plates section with dishes such as Arak Mussels with garlic butter and herbs, and Cauliflower Couscous with labneh, cranberries, almonds and mint. Rounding out the menu are skewers and larger plates. After spying on some of the smaller plates at a neighboring table, we opted to go for the kebab skewer made with a combination of lamb and beef with grilled tomato, jalapeño and tahini, and a side order of turmeric potatoes.
The kebab, made with a combination of ground lamb and beef, was about six inches long. Alongside was tahini topped with eight pieces of grilled tomatoes and jalapeños. The kebab meat was juicy and delicious, with just the right amount of spices and seasoning to enhance, but not overpower, the lamb. However, we were again disappointed by the size of the $28 dish. We wanted more tahini, and ended up ordering a side of it for dipping the meat. On the other hand, the turmeric potatoes were plentiful. Next to the baba ganoush, it was the standout dish of the evening. The potatoes were expertly grilled with just enough char on the outside, while still remaining moist and buttery on the inside. We had some of the labneh left and highly recommend it for dipping the potatoes.
Despite the issues, we enjoyed our evening at Hamsa and would absolutely go back. Before visiting, diners should be aware that the restaurant has an upscale vibe and tends towards “fine dining” dish sizes. Hopefully, these insights from our initial visit help you navigate the menu so you’ll have the perfect first-bite experience.