Israeli 'Shakshuka King' Looks to Reign Again in New York

The media in Manhattan lined up behind the shakshuka truck of Gabriel Israel and his two pals, but the business folded. He is now attempting to recreate his previous success at the Green Fig restaurant - and, yes, early birds can still sample his famous tomato dish.

Haim Handwerker
Haim Handwerker
Gabriel Israel. Mediterranean-inspired food.
Chef Gabriel Israel. Creating Mediterranean-inspired food at the Green Fig restaurant.Credit: Rated Ruwan
Haim Handwerker
Haim Handwerker

NEW YORK — In February 2015, Gabriel Israel and his pals Solomon “Sagi” Taraboulsi and Josh Eitan Sharon became media stars in New York. Headlines appeared both there and in Israel about these three Israelis and their shakshuka, which was conquering Manhattan. For several years, the trio operated their “Shuka Truck” around the streets of Manhattan. Everywhere they went, lines formed next to the truck, with people seeking their tasty tomato and egg dishes.

Israel, 25, and his pals succeeded in doing something many aspire to: garnering media attention in New York. They dreamt that shakshuka would become the next hummus, and that they would sell it under their own brand throughout the city.

However, the reality proved harsher. Operating the truck was an arduous affair, with the three having to wake very early in order to purchase basic foodstuffs, prepare the shakshuka and find a good parking spot — since location was a key part of their success. And this was on the good days, when the truck didn’t break down. Gradually, problems started to emerge and, a few months ago, the venture collapsed.

The trio concluded that, despite the popularity of their wares, it was no longer possible to subsist only on shakshuka.

Sharon and Taraboulsi returned to dealing in real estate in San Diego, while Israel — the only one of them with a culinary background — accepted an offer to become the chef at the new Green Fig restaurant, in the Yotel hotel, Hell’s Kitchen. This is a young hotel with a high-tech vibe and large roof, on which movies are screened every evening. Clients sit on easy chairs and listen to the film with earphones, with Manhattan serving as a backdrop — a dream.

In contrast to many other Israeli-owned restaurants, the Green Fig is not labeled an Israeli one, even though its background, including the food, is connected to the country. The operating license is held by low-profile businessman Gil Rubenstein, who’s involved in several restaurants on the East Coast. He was associated with several hotels in New York and Las Vegas, and was even chief accountant in Ivanka Trump’s jewelry company.

The restaurant is run by Meir Mualem, who worked in the restaurant trade in Israel, including Dixie in Tel Aviv. The Green Fig opened eight months ago, with chef Israel joining three months ago.

“We created a Mediterranean restaurant here, with influences from around the world. But this is what is done in Israel as well,” Gabriel Israel says. “We take what we originally did in Israel and throw in a bit of Italian, Mediterranean or global cuisine.”

The "delicious" octopus carpaccio at the Green Fig restaurant in New York.Credit: Gabriel Israel

His food is good. I had a steak tartare with tahini and black eggplant sauce. Israel says he doesn’t really like seafood, but knows how to handle it. Indeed, his octopus carpaccio is delicious. Pride of place — and the reason the restaurant isn’t identified as Israeli — is a pork belly dish that the chef cooks for four hours in a sauce of cranberries, cinnamon, cilantro powder, mustard seeds and sumac.

He also offers khreime, a Moroccan-style fish dish consisting of striped bass with roasted peppers, chickpeas, charred leeks, olive oil and lemon juice.

For dessert, the “garden” dish is recommended. It is served in a glass bowl, and comprises pistachio crème anglaise, granola, crumbly chocolate cake and a mousse of halva and date syrup.

And what about his famous shakshuka? The chef continues to prepare the dish that made New Yorkers salivate, but now it’s only served for breakfast or brunch — and only the classic one. “We’re situated in a hotel and can’t go wild with shakshuka,” Israel says. “For brunches, we add another one we sold from the truck, with fresh chickpeas on top, as well as meat. The green sauce we made in the truck is now included in another dish — chicken in hyssop.”

Originally from Ra’anana, Israel comes from a background of hospitality and catering. His father owns event halls in Herzliya and Tel Aviv. During his high school years, he learned how to do tattoos. This didn’t dim his love of food, though, something that has captivated him since he was 14. “I knew I wanted to work in a kitchen,” he says, which is what he did after his army service.

In 2013 he arrived in New York, where he studied at the Culinary Institute of America. He left after three months, partly due to financial straits, partly due to his creative instincts. “It was difficult to continue there, since I was the only one constantly changing recipes — so I realized I should be working in a restaurant,” he says.

His next port of call was Boulud Sud, the Mediterranean-inspired, Upper West Side restaurant owned by renowned chef Daniel Boulud. “Everything there is like a military operation, and they needed someone in the chicken and fish department — which is definitely not a beginner’s job,” says Israel. “They gave me an opportunity to work for one hour on the production line, and as a test I prepared a lamb filet with spices.” He was accepted on the spot.

His ascent in the restaurant continued, with Israel eventually suggesting they incorporate shakshuka into their famous brunches. Workers started calling him “Shuka,” and after 18 months of serving his successful shakshuka, he again looked for something new.

Slices of pork belly with Mexican corn, feta cheese, pomegranate, mustard and Jerusalem bagel.Credit: Gabriel Israel

“Then came the idea of joining the wave of food trucks by opening a shakshuka truck with Eitan and Sagi, who were my friends from Ra’anana and working at the time in real estate in the United States. We didn’t have any money, but we received a lot of attention from customers and the media. This wasn’t enough. It was really hard work and didn’t bring in enough money.”

His present job at the Green Fig isn’t easy, either. Despite the great food, it’s still a restaurant within a hotel — and people don’t always rush to eat at a hotel, even though the roof activities attract young New Yorkers.

And the hotel’s location isn’t ideal: on the corner of 10th Avenue and West 42nd Street, a slightly “off” location in New York terms. Nonetheless, 10th Avenue is enjoying a revival and soaring real estate prices have pushed bars and restaurants westward, so the Yotel no longer seems so remote. Luckily, people in New York are willing to go the extra mile for original, good food, so for the Green Fig team, the world is still its oyster.

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