New York Has Israeli Cuisine Figured Out

Shakshuka with green tomatoes, sabich sandwiches and hamusta soup are just some of the specialties delighting diners in America’s most discerning city.

Na'ama Sheffi
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Na'ama Sheffi

NEW YORK − It’s midday on Sunday: the finest hour for residents of Manhattan. After resting up on Saturday before going out at night, they have developed an insatiable hunger that only a hearty brunch can satisfy. The traditional menu may include eggs Benedict, eggs Normandy or an omelet − with a side dish of home fries and a peppery Bloody Mary to vanquish any hangover. It’s probably the most important and festive meal of the week, the American equivalent of the Israeli Friday evening dinner, with friends instead of family.

The chef Erez Komarovsky, who is in town for a short visit, is brunching at Jack’s Wife Freda. The restaurant is alive with the sounds of laughter and lively conversation. Crowded around the next table is a group of young Asians, surveying with amazement the dishes that arrive. An Israeli will identify a fragrant green shakshuka and a finely chopped Israeli salad, but Komarovsky understands at once that the source of the green is neither spinach nor Swiss chard, “like in Israel,” but a type of green tomato.

The oven at Taboon. Credit: Dan Keinan

The menu, which is scribbled on large paper napkins that cover the table, consists of simple dishes at reasonable prices, as befits a bistro. What’s interesting here are the dishes of Jewish origin, not part of the bistro canon. Alongside the classic side dish of hand-cut fries, couscous is offered. Onion soup is replaced by matzo ball soup; according to the owner, Maya, this is a first-rank New York classic. “Over and above the fact that it is symbolic of Jewish cooking, everyone in New York loves matzo ball soup,” she says. “And that includes the Chinese and the French.”

Another glance at the menu makes you wonder whether it would be granted Israeli citizenship. The labaneh, challah, eggplant and matzo balls all evoke an Israeli atmosphere. However, the shakshuka and cauliflower are prepared differently to Tel Aviv eateries. In Israel itself, it’s still not clear what exactly constitutes Israeli cuisine. But in New York, a new generation of restaurateurs is trying to provide a few answers from afar.

Balaboosta.Credit: Dan Keinan

Pilgrimage site

Since opening a few months ago by Maya ‏(Israeli‏) and Dean ‏(South African‏) Jankelowitz, Jack’s Wife Freda has been acclaimed by the local media. The two met while working at Balthazar, one of New York’s most famous restaurants – a pilgrimage site for tourists and locals alike. Balthazar’s influence is apparent in the design and the energetic atmosphere that prevails in the new restaurant. ‏(In fact, it is located just two blocks from Balthazar, in Nolita.‏) Similarly, the courteous professional service is also a product of the education acquired at Balthazar under the auspices of Keith McNally, the city’s premier restaurateur ‏(Minetta Tavern, Pulino’s, Pastis and others‏), who has only good wishes for the new establishment.

Wizard of spices.Credit: Dan Keinan

Maya says her dream was to create a place where people would like to hang out, offering the family’s culinary repertoire from Israel, South Africa and Australia. In this spirit, they named the restaurant for Dean’s grandparents, Jews of South African origin. According to Maya, shakshuka is the most popular dish, although most of the customers still have a hard time pronouncing it. She likes teaching them how to say it and throws in a little heritage along the way. Among her “students” were the Beastie Boys. Another popular dish is Zucker’s “rose cake,” which even Erez Komarovsky, “Mr. Bread,” found scrumptious.

Zucker is the name of a cafe and bakery that opened last September, named after the “glorious” Zohar Zucker, who was born 40 years ago in Kibbutz Sarid. Her establishment, located on a quiet street in the East Village, quickly became a neighborhood hangout for an enthusiastic clientele. Zohar spent many years working in the outstanding kitchens of famous chefs, such as Daniel Boulud, Rocco DiSpirito and David Bouley. Later, she started baking for her own pleasure in her small apartment. Her recipes are variations on some kibbutz dishes and of recipes from her mother-in-law, her grandmother and Sima, the mother of a close friend.

Sima, a “true-blue Moroccan and a top-class baker,” taught Zohar how to make rolled date cookies and alfajores. At Sima’s request, Zohar does not divulge the alfajores recipe to anyone, not even to her staff, and she bakes the cookies herself, in absolute secrecy.

What’s the connection between alfajores and Israel?

Cafe Zucker.Credit: Dan Keinan

“Around a decade ago, there was apparently an alfajores trend in Israel, and Sima came up with a brilliant recipe,” Zohar explains. Also on the Formica counter are great-looking rose-shaped yeast cakes filled with cocoa, halva or walnuts, as well as za’atar biscuits, fruit bread, lemon fingers, old-fashioned chocolate balls and delicate rugelach, which have a gentle scent of cloves. Visitors can also try hyssop tea – which Zohar imports from the Fahoum coffee and spices shop in Nazareth − and feel a powerful longing for grandma.

Zohar elaborates on the difference between the home of grandparents and that of parents. The rules laid down by granddad and grandma are very clear, but there is also total freedom. Similarly, Zohar likes to allow freedom in Zucker and manages the place in an “Israeli” way, as she puts it. “There is room for communication and conversation. I encourage the clients to talk to one another.” In fact, interesting chats can be heard in the small space, which is perfumed with the fresh, sweet aroma of baking. On Saturdays, Zohar’s family liven up the atmosphere with their presence, and Israeli clients come from all over the city to indulge themselves. Neighborhood residents, too, equipped with the weekend paper, wait in line having developed a soft spot for Israeli pastries and the perfect cappuccino. It’s obvious that this is an Israeli place, boasting tapestries on the wall, crocheted napkins and an up-to-date yet old-time taste.

After Purim and the need for top-quality poppy seeds for the hamantasch pastries, Zohar discovered Lior Lev Sercarz, the wizard of spices, who also imports white hyssop and other herbs from Israel. In La Boite a Epice, his gallery shop, he sells more than 40 spice blends which he puts together himself. Wearing a blue robe and sporting silver-gray hair, Sercarz resembles a scientist from some distant land. After choosing the spices meticulously from the world’s top suppliers, he toasts, grinds and mixes the distinctive blends in his spectacular store. Names like Apollonia, Iris, Izak, Isphahan and Ayala catapult us to realms across the sea and evoke the vast aromatic range embodied in the colorful powders.

The blends do not come with a manual or suggestions for inserting them in particular recipes. On the contrary: Sercarz encourages people to exercise their curiosity in the kitchen and let their personal taste and imagination dictate their use of the spices. One person might use a particular blend to make a cocktail, while someone else might use the same blend in a meat stew. Sercarz’s extensive culinary, geographic and historical knowledge is reflected in his daily conversations both with clients in his store and with famous chefs, with whom he concocts personal blends based on the dialogue that develops between them. His clients include Eric Ripert from Le Bernardin, Paul Liebrandt from Corton and Dan Silverman from The Standard Grill.

A conversation with Silverman gave rise to the Shabazi blend. Silverman told Sercarz that he had fallen in love with the hummus of Mimi’s Hummus in the Brooklyn neighborhood where he lives, and especially the zhug – a Yemenite hot sauce – that accompanies the dish. Lior prepares a powdered version of the sauce for Silverman, which at The Standard Grill is probably served with dishes very different from hummus.

It’s fascinating to contemplate Sercarz’s place in the top rank of the New York culinary scene, where he introduces new flavors, many of them from his childhood stomping grounds, to great chefs and helps them integrate the spices into their cooking. With his mediation, many diners in America are encountering the taste of za’atar or Galilee verbena for the first time.

The burning taboon

Located two blocks from La Boite is Taboon, a restaurant that is considered a pioneer: it was the first in New York to offer a prestigious Mediterranean-Israeli menu. Taboon’s story began in the late 1990s in Tel Aviv, when New York native Danny Hodak visited Israel and met Ayala, the love of his life. Ayala moved to New York to be with him, and in February 2004 the couple opened the restaurant at Tenth Avenue and 52nd Street, a desolate area at the time.

Taboon quickly developed a large and devoted clientele. The well-known Israeli chef Haim Cohen, who is Ayala’s brother-in-law, helped out at the beginning, and his influence is still discernible in the menu and simple but elegant decor. Former New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni was wowed by the singular wood-fired stove − “taboon” is Arabic for stove − which sits proudly at the entrance, and by the golden focaccias it produces. The burning stove, which is the heart of the restaurant, produces many of the items on the menu, such as sambusak − taboon bread filled with feta cheese − and spicy green peppers, whose flavor is not quickly forgotten.

In addition to the pastries, the first course includes seared seafood, fresh salads and ceviche with burghul and herbs, as in Israel. Also noteworthy are the zucchini cakes, a cult item among Taboon patrons. Some of the restaurant’s American clients relate that their Israeli guests are not wild about going to Taboon, thinking they will encounter food they already know all too well. “But they are quite surprised and admit to not having had such perfect kebab, even in Israel,” Ayala says. Danny and Ayala recently opened a new place, called Taboonette, a younger version of Taboon, which serves “high-quality, upgraded street food,” Ayala says. Taboon spawned other restaurants that offer different versions of a contemporary Mediterranean kitchen. Among the most successful are Miriam, Barbounia and Balaboosta.

The gospel according to Balaboosta

Chef Einat Admony is a balaboosta − Yiddish for a good homemaker − in every fiber of her being. She is brimming with initiative, talent and charisma. These are probably the qualities that induced viewers to grow fond of her when she appeared on the Food Network’s competition program “Chopped,” where she made falafel. She opened Balaboosta two years ago in the West Village, after her first culinary venture, Taim, gained fame across the city thanks to its excellent falafel sandwich. These days, in addition to the West Village place, there is also Taim Mobile, which shows up at midday in various locations and can be found via Twitter by anyone yearning for a portion of sabich.

Balaboosta is located in the heart of the fashionable Nolita neighborhood, which boasts a high concentration of trendy restaurants. Admony’s place stands out even among these, as attested to by the high demand and frequent media references. New York magazine recently included Balaboosta in its list of the city’s 100 best restaurants, and celebrity chefs drop in all the time. The interior design generates a relaxed feeling, not least because of the Jewish cookbooks that line the wall, along with portraits of early balaboostas − women who inspired Admony − and personal kitchen objects.

The restaurant offers a Mediterranean menu, spiced with elements of the Israeli kitchen and the New York context in which it exists. The lunch menu, for example, features “Corn Flake crusted chicken schnitzel, served with Israeli couscous and green salad.” Another popular dish is hamusta soup, but instead of the Jerusalem-style kubbeh dumplings, “what arrives at the table is a bowl filled with Middle-Eastern meatballs, made from semolina, grass-fed beef and spices, served in a tangy broth flavored with fava beans, Swiss chard and lemon,” according to the Restaurant Girl website.

“This neighborhood is obsessive when it comes to meatballs and hamburgers, and we offer a twist on the usual items,” says Guy Zarfati, a chef in the restaurant and a friend of Admony’s since they were classmates at Tadmor, the Israel cooking school. The evening menu is less comforting and more complex, but here too the chef’s roots can be seen between the lines. A popular appetizer consists of fried olives served on a base of homemade organic labaneh and harissa oil. According to Admony, her labaneh is adapted to the American palate and as such is far less sour than the Israeli version. Another dish is “shrimp kataifi, wrapped in shredded phyllo and served with flying fish roe sauce.” There is also an excellent wine list, compiled by Stefan, Einat’s husband and business partner.

With the maturation of Israeli cuisine and its affection for its diaspora roots, it is only natural that Israelis should bring the glad tidings to the Jewish restaurant scene in New York. With 1.5 million Jews living in the city, Israelis stand a good chance of becoming an integral part of the vibrant New York food scene. “Jewish food has been enjoying a renaissance in the city of late, especially in terms of the modernization of deli food and Ashkenazi food,” says Jordana Rothman, the food editor of Time Out New York. In addition, she says, New York chefs are constantly looking for distinctive raw materials and culinary traditions that have not yet been fully probed in the city.

“Israeli food has a huge potential in this context,” she notes. “Mediterranean flavors are popping up in unexpected places these days. In Boulud Sud, for example, the chef Daniel Boulud is flirting with hummus, eggplant salad and falafel.” Even chef David Chang, who plays around with Asian cuisine, is now offering roasted cauliflower with harissa at Momofuku Noodle Bar.

Genuine falafel can be had at Taim and Azuri; harira soup at Cafe Mogador; hamin ‏(cholent‏) on Saturdays at Miriam; shakshuka with merguez sausage at Barbounia; beet kibbeh at Mimi’s. You can get an omelet sandwich at Aroma and schnitzel with Israeli couscous at Balaboosta. St. Marks Place in the East Village is known as “Little Israel” thanks to its dense concentration of Israeli establishments: Hummus Place, Yaffa Cafe, Motek and the legendary Cafe Mogador, which provided huge inspiration for the Israeli business ventures that followed. There is also Holy Land Market, a small grocery offering an assortment of Israeli products. A branch of the Tel Aviv bakery Lehamim is due soon in Union Square.

In many ways, Balaboosta symbolizes the growing interest in Israeli food culture in New York. The very name intrigues diners and prompts them to take an interest in the menu’s Jewish-Israeli heritage. The impression is that the public is ready for more. Israeli cooking is perceived as healthy, which is one reason Americans are so intrigued by it, as well as by the new culinary experience it offers in its newer versions. “There is no doubt that New Yorkers have come to love our flavors,” Admony says. “Even Gwyneth Paltrow drops in at Taim to stock up on harissa whenever she leaves New York.”