NEW YORK – Israeli-born chefs and restaurant owners in Manhattan usually try not to draw attention to their origins. It’s not that they are ashamed of their cultural background, but they tend to call the cuisine served at their establishments "Mediterranean" rather than "Israeli."
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What can you do? "Mediterranean" sounds more enticing and also befits modern, healthful dieting trends here. By contrast, Americans associate Israeli food with Jewish food or Middle Eastern food, like falafel in a pita. While the reputation of Israeli cuisine has been undergoing a dramatic improvement recently, in terms of its image here, apparently Mediterranean food still sounds more appealing.
Shimon Maman is thus an exception. He doesn’t hesitate to describe the cuisine at his two 12 Chairs Café restaurants as Israeli. His Manhattan location has been around 14 years, while the second one opened on super-cool Wyeth Avenue in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood in February. The menu is identical in both places, but I prefer Williamsburg because of its design.
Maman built this restaurant, he says, in the style of 1950s 'Tel Aviv. I regretfully missed that era in Tel Aviv, so I can’t confirm his claim. Still, there is something very pleasant and familiar in 12 Chair’s atmosphere.
“We brought everything from Israel,” says Maman, 37, who is both chef and owner of the eatery. “Alona Elias, a restaurant designer in Israel, did the work. The chairs, tables and chandelier came from Israel. There are Hebrew street signs from Tel Aviv on the wall, like Mohilever Street, and it all recreates the atmosphere of the White City – in Brooklyn.”
Anyone who misses Israel or wants to feel as if he or she is there will feel comfortable here. Nor does the menu allow you to forget for a minute where we come from. You can order an Israeli breakfast, shakshuka (a Moroccan egg-and-tomato dish) and omelets; breakfast is served all day long. The lunch and dinner menus offer stuffed grape leaves, hummus, falafel, Israeli salad, stuffed cabbage, chicken liver, Moroccan fish, vegetarian couscous, blintzes and more.
The schnitzel is excellent, indeed some say it is the best in New York and the cafe's signature dish. With all due respect to the schnitzel, there are some who think the hamburger steals the show here. The hamburger is the creation of Maman, who calls it a lamburger (it's made of ground lamb topped with feta and spicy mayo), and it is also an extremely popular item on the menu. (It must be noted, however, that despite the Israeli-Tel Aviv atmosphere, 12 Chairs does offer sides of bacon and ham.)
The pita at 12 Chairs comes from Jerusalem-based Angel Bakeries and is imported half-frozen. The rest of the baking is done in New York. On weekends, the menu also features jachnun (a Yemenite delicacy) and cholent. The dessert menu includes Bavarian cream, a cheesecake that is much lighter than the typical New York version, cheese blintzes and so on.
People who like Israeli wines will find the Dalton, Barkan, Montefiore and Tzuba labels here. If you prefer beer, there’s Goldstar.
How much does a meal cost at 12 Chairs? The prices are reasonable – about $10-15 per dish; wines run about $40-$50 a bottle.
Israelis frequently visit both of the establishments, but they are not alone: Stars like David Schwimmer, Patti Smith, Lucy Liu and even Robert De Niro have dropped in.
Most of the wait staff is Israeli. In fact, during one of our meals there, Sasha Daniel, one of the stars of "Kokhav Nolad" (the Israeli version of “A Star is Born”) served us. She moved to the United States to try and launch her career, and recently recorded a mini-album here. For the time being she continues to wait tables.
Maman hails from Moshav Kerem Ben Zimra in northern Israel. He moved to the United States 16 years ago, and before working in restaurants he was a DJ. His family, he adds, founded Dalton Winery. He pulls out a bottle.
“Let’s taste this wine,” he says. “It’s a 2003 Dalton Canaan Red. I planted the grapevines from which they made this wine.”
Now Maman's energy is focused on his restaurants. “We won three local competitions, held by [the NGO] Seeds of Peace, for the title of 'best hummus in New York,'” he says proudly.
Maman: “This is an Israeli restaurant, there's no messing around about it. I don’t hide behind all sorts of definitions of a Mediterranean restaurant. This is what I am, and this food is my version of Israeli food. When you come here, I want you to feel that you are in Tel Aviv, not New York.”
It’s fitting, then, that there is a window at the restaurant which opens to the street, called "the kiosk." From there, you can buy Israeli street food, such as pita with falafel, kebab, sabich (a sandwich made with eggplant), omelets and bourekas. It is the New York answer to the Israeli falafel stand.