Anytime now, the sushi restaurants on any given street in Israel will probably outnumber the hummus joints. Today Israelis like sushi almost as much as hummus. And that's exactly why Café Asia, which replaced the Lavan restaurant in Jerusalem's Cinematheque last week, is everything that's Asian and authentic – except for sushi.
"I think people are a little tired of Italian and generic Mediterranean food,” says Noam Rizzi, one of the owners. “Pizza and pasta, carpaccio and even sushi and sashimi – there are a lot of these kinds of restaurants, even in Jerusalem, but authentic Asian cuisine is something that is lacking, especially here."
For a few years, Rizzi adds, he and his colleagues "have been learning about different Asian cuisines, flying several times a year to the Far East and checking various regional cuisines, whether in Thailand, Vietnam or China."
Their aim was "to establish a place where we ourselves would also like to spend time,” as he puts it. “Authentic, but to a degree that will also enable others to enjoy themselves.”
Surprisingly enough, Rizzi says, Café Asia, barely a week old, is the first eatery to offer nonkosher Asian cuisine in Jerusalem. And that's not something to be taken lightly, because after all it’s 2018 (or almost 5,779, according to the Hebrew calendar) and it seems that when it comes to pluralism, when it comes to culinary matters we’re only regressing.
Asked about the challenge of opening an eatery that is not kosher in Jerusalem, with its large traditional-observant population, Rizzi replies: “I’m not ruling out the possibility that we’ll have a kosher restaurant some time, but at the moment, what we like to do and the ingredients we like to use dictate a nonkosher place – and that also affects the clientele and the whole experience. I simple don’t think it’s possible to convey all that in a kosher version."
Half the dishes served are truly authentic, he notes, and offerings on the menu are classified according to five levels of spiciness, with the highest level, 5, indicating dishes that will probably only be popular with natives of the Far East (but you’re invited to try, with a fire extinguisher alongside).
What's there to eat?
Café Asia's menu was put together along with chef Moshe Badishi, who specializes in Thai and Vietnamese cooking, “with Korean and Cambodian touches.” There are four main categories of dishes. First are steamed dishes like banh mi rolls, gyoza or har gao dumplings, and a complete steamed fish with lemongrass, tamarind, herbs and sticky rice (ranging from 42 to 102 shekels, or $12-$28).
The second group is Tam Tam, which one could mistakenly call “salads,” but the reference here is to som tam, a famous Thai street food. The restaurant offers a classic version of som tam, featuring papaya sticks and green beans crushed with a mortar and pestle, peanuts, lime juice, fish sauce and cherry tomatoes.
The third category is Kab Kem, referring to small portions that are typically shared by the diners, which go well with alcoholic beverages and usually focus on one ingredient. In this category you’ll find dishes such as Vietnamese spring rolls; crisp rice paper filled with chopped chicken breasts with herbs, lemongrass, tamarind and apples; and nam tok, a sort of meat salad.
The fourth and last category is probably the best known in this parts, and is based on wok and curry dishes. These include classic Pad Thai, with rice noodles, peanuts, carrots, coriander and sprouts (served with tofu, chicken or shrimp).
A tasting menu is also available Café Asia for two or four people, at 100 shekels per diner, including one dish from each category.
What's there to drink?
The new cafe is an offshoot of Jerusalem's veteran Adom restaurant (also owned by Rizzi and his partners), which was originally a wine bar. Accordingly, you’ll find a great deal of attention here to the wine list, and to the whites in particular, which may be a more natural match for Asian cuisine.
“After putting together the menu, we discovered that there’s far more white wine than red in the restaurant," says Rizzi, but he adds that reds are also on offer, along with five different types of cocktails.
In addition to the dishes and beverages it offers, the café is reminiscent of the Far East because of its setting and atmosphere, and is characterized by colorfulness and eclecticism, with Indian-Bollywood and Thai music in the background.
Café Asia, 11 Hebron Road, Jerusalem. Opening hours: Sunday-Saturday, 12 noon to the last customer. Tel.: 02-6737393