For three decades and change, West Villagers and hungry passersby looked to Sixth Avenue’s Charlie Mom for no-fuss sustenance, supping from a broadly Cantonese and Chinese-American menu teeming with dishes like “shrimp supreme” and “Chinese spaghetti.” And then in 2015 it closed, felled by a rent increase, another page in an all-too-familiar metropolitan story.
Charlie Mom was reliable, sure, but it was never great. Its dumplings, in fact, were downright dreadful. But doughy redemption came earlier this summer with the arrival of Kubeh, named for the Levantine dumplings that are its specialty. Even in a city rife with agnolotti obsessives, xiao long bao fiends, and kreplach cognoscenti, kubeh are a rarity. It’s a situation that chef Melanie Shurka is out to remedy with the opening of the Middle Eastern restaurant, which she owns with her husband, David Ort.
The couple have left the Charlie Mom layout mostly intact, but there’s a new vitality coursing through the space. Family heirlooms and keepsakes from Shurka’s travels adorn the room: tapered coffeepots with long handles, from Syria; Israeli metal-plate wall hangings embossed with geometric patterns; a gold Iranian samovar that sits above the bartenders as they mix cocktails that tastefully incorporate regional ingredients (mastic gum liqueur, anise-flavored arak). Take the Smokey David, a Bloody Mary riff that marries mezcal and tomato juice, fruity Aleppo pepper, and schug, a powerful Israeli hot sauce.
A Long Island native with Persian-Israeli roots, Shurka studied law in Tel Aviv and New York and served briefly as a civil litigator — while also working as part of Balthazar’s front of house. For Kubeh, Shurka undertook a 21-day expedition through Israel to research recipes, and she now spends her mornings rolling out four different kinds of dumpling by hand while an equal number of broths simmer away in the background. Mixed and matched to your liking, the $15 soups hit the table still steaming, each bowl smelling like comfort incarnate. The same mixture of bulgur and semolina wheats is used for the Iraqi and Kurdish kubeh, with the former getting a mushroom, parsley, and onion filling, and the latter shredded beef that’s been braised for three hours. Both are gangbusters when bobbing in a carrot- and chickpea-studded Persian chicken soup bolstered by bitter dried lime or in the borscht-like selek, an earthy-sweet Jewish-Iraqi beet broth that stains the dumplings an Instagram-friendly shade of millennial pink.
Syrian kubeh are a different beast entirely, and here they’re made from different beasts as well. Orb-shaped, they’re filled with meat ground with herbs — which is, in turn, enveloped in a shell made from ground meat and rice. Shot through with a potent hit of cinnamon, Shurka’s Syrian-lamb-and-mint kubeh stand out whether plunked into lemony hamusta broth, which enjoys a verdant boost from zucchini and swiss chard, or “summer tumia,” a thin tomato-based broth lent some herbal depth thanks to mint, fennel, and a slug of arak. The wild-codfish dumplings — fortified with tomato, cumin, and cilantro — put any and all gefilte fishes to shame.
Beyond the restaurant’s namesake, you’re likely to see Kubeh’s Persian lime chicken ($16) on plenty of your neighbors’ tables. The spice-dusted leg, which sits atop a hillock of fluffy green-pea basmati rice flecked with dill, is a hearty alternative to the soups and goes great alongside a glass of Lebanese rosé or Macedonian white. By that point, you will have already sampled the dips and mezes that kick things off with small bursts of flavor. Vegetable-focused small plates ($9) offer surprises of their own: Cauliflower is flash-fried for a light crunch, the tiny nuggets emboldened by a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, while dense blocks of fried halloumi cheese form the foundation for an appetizer of haricots verts tossed in yogurt and seasoned with dukkah, a nutty Egyptian spice blend.
Shurka makes desserts in-house, including ice creams and sorbets ($3 per scoop) in flavors like watermelon and Turkish coffee with the grounds blended in. Then there’s her saffron ice cream, golden-orange in color and intensely floral. Exemplary on its own, it’s an ideal accompaniment to the lone other sweet, a crisp-edged apricot baklava ($8) soaked in rosewater syrup. While modern Israeli and Middle Eastern cooking has largely lived up to its promises in NYC on the fine-dining front (see Nur, Balaboosta, etc.), Kubeh represents a more relaxed but no less vital addition to this expanding landscape. Take comfort in that.