ST. PETERSBURG – It’s been an unusually warm winter in St. Petersburg – or “Peter,” as most Russian-speakers refer to the country’s northern capital. The temperature is hovering around freezing, the snow is not piling up. But one evening earlier this month a beguiling whiteness descended upon the city – the flakes were bewitching, casting a festive spell. Rubinshteina Street, long considered the city’s main venue for restaurants and bars (and which puts up a good fight against its perpetual rival, Moscow), and exuding a quiet, serious atmosphere. Except, that is, for one place along the street, from which earsplitting sounds emanated, where smokers huddled outside near the door and a mountain of coats were piled up in the foyer. The floor of this café, which for one night was turned into a dance space, was covered with a thick layer of sand and adorned with potted palm trees. A beach party, Tel Aviv-style, a few hundred meters from the icy Fontanka River.
The music fluctuated between Nirvana and the Cranberries, electronic tracks and top Russian rock and pop hits, all the way to the Israeli Hatikvah 6 band’s song “The Most Israeli,” with its chorus, “We love you Shimon Peres.” Three black men worked the conga drums, and young foreign students enjoyed cocktails from colorful plastic pails, along with members of St. Petersburg’s diverse Jewish community – some of them in their 60s. Ilya Bazarsky, the co-owner, was deejaying and showed palpable delight with what could well be the best party in town on this snowy Wednesday.
Bekitzer (Hebrew slang for “in short”) – a bar, café, restaurant and fast-food venue, the pioneer of Israeli street food in St. Petersburg and one of the first in its field in the former Soviet Union in general – is celebrating its fifth anniversary. Since the original venue opened in 2015, Bazarsky, 41, and his partner, Pavel Steinlucht, 37, have opened a second, also successful branch in New Holland, a reconstructed and glitzy recreational area on a small man-made island in the city; they are also the proprietors of four branches of Babaganoush, a spin-off with a more general Middle East ambience but also a clear Israeli thrust and more of an accent on the grill. At the same time, other competitors began cropping up in the realm of Israeli cuisine in Peter and Moscow, not to mention in Kiev and in conservative and more provincial Minsk.
The truth is that these days, you can enjoy typical Israeli fare like hummus, falafel, sabich and an “Israeli breakfast” in almost every capital city in the European part of the former Soviet Union. I was even offered an Israeli breakfast with a shakshuka at a regular local café in St. Petersburg, along with a selection of other “national” dishes. Indeed, according to Galya Nikolaeva, proprietor of Dizengoff 99 – which styles itself “a Tel Aviv café in Moscow” – only “lazy” places don’t serve hummus these days (billing it as healthful or vegan food, for instance). “Israel is trendy,” she notes.
In addition to Bekitzer and Babaganoush, five other St. Petersburg eateries also describe themselves as explicitly Israeli: two branches of Easy Hummus, the “Israeli bistro” Saviv, and two other hummus places, Tzimmes and Mamele. They have all left the matter of kashrut to the city’s two “Jewish” restaurants, but their simple decor features Israeli flags and symbols, sea and sun motifs, accompanied by strong flavors and aromas, rhythmic Mediterranean music and ancient, mysterious, Hebrew script in the decor.
The Israeli trend here is related to several parallel phenomena: the popularity that Mediterranean-style cuisine has acquired worldwide, Tel Aviv’s ascendancy as a food brand, and symbol of leisure and the good life – but above all, the lively shuttling of Russian-speaking Jews between Israel and the post-Soviet regions. This encompasses Russian-speaking Israelis who are returning to Russia, Ukraine or other countries in the area; educated young Russians who have moved to Israel to escape the Putin regime but remain in close touch with the cities they left behind; and of course friends and relatives who are on the move back and forth (despite the still-present difficulties with border authorities on both ends).
‘I was envious’
Bekitzer sprang from this confluence. Ilya Bazarsky immigrated to Israel as a teenager in 1993. He attended an agricultural boarding school, served in the Paratroops and studied software engineering and industrial management. But in 2004, he decided to return to his birthplace.
“As a person who grew up in a cultured St. Petersburg home, [in Israel] I felt a strong absence of cultural saturation in my life,” Bazarsky relates. “Every time I visited St. Petersburg, I felt very mature compared to my peers, because I had lived alone in a different country and I had a completely different experience from people who continued to live at home with their parents. But when they told me excitedly about theater premieres, concerts, exhibitions and museums – obviously I was envious. I had always thought I would graduate and go back to St. Petersburg for half a year. After all, I didn’t go on a post-army trip and I already had an apartment and friends here. Amid all that I got involved in a relationship and decided to move my life here.”
The relationship that kept Bazarsky in Russia ended after a few years, but by then he was no longer considering returning to Israel – he was living the dream in St. Petersburg. He worked as a stills photographer for film productions, among them projects by some of Russia’s leading directors. But the dream started to crumble near the end of the first decade of the millennium, when the global economic crisis erupted. When the payments for his photographic work stopped being steady, Bazarsky, with some friends, opened a trendy bar meant to have the atmosphere of a neighborhood pub, and in the wake of its success began to think about opening an Israeli place.
“Shawarma was already here on every corner,” Bazarsky recalls, referring to the Turkish doner version of the dish, the basic, much-maligned street food sold by migrants from the Caucasus, which swept Russia in the late 1990s.
“About a decade ago, the dish made its way into fancy restaurants,” he continues. “Only it wasn’t tasty. We thought for a long time about an Israeli place and looked for a format. Our first idea was to do something closer to a restaurant. Afterward, we realized that we wanted a kind of little bar, what you’d find in the Florentin neighborhood [in Tel Aviv], finally deciding on an open kitchen in a storefront, facing out like a shawarma stall in Tel Aviv. So it came to us that we were going to open a bar with alcoholic drinks and very simple food eaten with the hands, to which we would add a few traditional Mizrahi dishes that would justify having places to sit.”
The menu in Bekitzer consists of an almost-generic (but still tempting) range of popular dishes from the contemporary Israeli kitchen – hummus with various toppings, Jerusalem mixed grill, a Tunisian tuna sandwich and even ceviche. Betwixt and between are such other familiar dishes as shakshuka, arayes (meat-stuffed pitas), sabich (as a salad or in pita), falafel, an item called “dag [fish] and chips,” malawach with egg and labaneh, mujadara with lamb and even a dish called “matza pizza” – a chef’s speciality. The desserts include knafeh, a vegan dessert called kinuah (dessert) based on coconut milk, and bambamuss – a bold new dish made from Bamba, the peanut-based snack, cream, cheese, caramel and matza. The menu has a brief glossary that explains terms such as skhug (“green chili peppers, salt, garlic”) and gezer marrokai (“Morocco style carrots, marinated in olive oil, chili peppers and spices”). When it comes to alcohol, however, the beverage menu at Bekitzer is immeasurably grander than that at almost every Israeli counterpart – with 28 types of Scotch alone.
Another aim of Bazarsky and Steinlucht was “to reflect the street in the interior design” – a concept that Bazarsky says was inspired by Tel Aviv restaurants and cafés that have crowded interior premises but also a large number of places outside (he mentions chef Eyal Shani’s popular Port Said). “They can allow themselves to do that there, because they have summer all year round. We can’t, so we had to bring the street inside.”
The walls around the kitchen service windows in the branches of Bekitzer and Babaganoush that I visited are covered with simple white tiles on which menus are written with a black marker pen – another homage to Tel Aviv’s casual vibe and perhaps to Eyal Shani.
The other walls are adorned with Hebrew graffiti that which is in part copied from and in part inspired by Tel Aviv street art. Bazarsky drew my attention to the words “Leftists go home,” and explained, “It’s part of Israeli culture and there’s nothing you can do about it.” Is there a political message behind Bekitzer? No. But Bazarsky, who tends towards the center on Israeli political issues, adds: Let’s be honest: When you live in Israel, you can’t be apolitical. I still read news about Israel and follow what’s going on there. There are a great many people like me in St. Petersburg, and we love to argue.”
On that score, he says saddened by the prolonged political crisis in Israel and is not indifferent to what is going on there, but recently brought his elderly parents (who had made aliyah in his wake) back to St. Petersburg, to be near him. “I have plenty of friends there, a whole ‘family,’” he says. “Besides, either you’re Israeli or you’re not. I am Israeli. An Israeli who lives in a different country, but I am directly connected to the country.”
But you’re also a Petersburgian.
“Yes, and that was a big problem for me in Israel. Or maybe it was a big advantage. The attitude toward Russian immigrants in the 1990s was not so great. It was really important for me to be part of Israel, I wanted Israeli friends, it was very important for me to communicate in Hebrew, to serve where I did in the army – all in order to absorb Israeliness. That love and my identification as an Israeli were the origins of the Bekitzer project, its modus vivendi. Beyond the food, the alcohol and the atmosphere, it’s also a portal. It’s a door to Tel Aviv or to Israel.”
Bazarsky compares what goes on at Bekitzer to the activities of Jewish organizations in St. Petersburg – but those groups are closed to non-Jews, he explains, whereas Bekitzer is clearly open to all. “Obviously, we’re talking above all about the guys from all these youth groups” – by which he means groups that evolved thanks to Jewish organizations, which are engaged in informal education, organize summer camps, teach Hebrew, give talks about Judaism and so forth. “But,” he adds, “when, to put it bluntly, goyim started to come in here and say, ‘Looks like Tel Aviv is cool, it’s time to fly there’ – for me, that was the gauge of success.”
The Bekitzer concept goes beyond food, graffiti and music. The serious investment in the ambience and design there is evident also in selection of the staff (Bazarsky admitted that the wait staff and bartenders are chosen in part for having a typical Jewish look, with a preference for colorful personalities).
Bekitzer is closed on Yom Kippur and on Israeli memorial days. On Friday evenings, the flagship branch hosts a semi-improvised Kiddush over wine, on Passover it offers a “third seder,” and at Purim it hosts a costume party. In addition, prior to other Jewish holidays, the restaurant holds free cooking classes for children, and there are also fundraising events for charitable causes. In charge of most of these activities is Rosa Lein, who was recruited from the field of informal Jewish education, and is officially responsible for the restaurant’s atmosphere – a role she plays with great inspiration.
Says Bazarsky, “My grandmother made terrific gefilte fish and vorschmack [chopped-herring salad], but it was important for us to offer people a completely different culture, different tastes, a different level of hospitality.”
What about Russian politics? It’s easy enough to ignore the subject when you’re hanging out in a cool café with “folks like us,” but it can still pop up at any moment. It’s not a topic Bazarsky is eager to talk about, but he mentions that a bar he opened in the past on Rubinshteina Street became a place where [anti-Putin] demonstrators came to take a break.
Today, he says, in summary, he would be happy to “export” Bekitzer outside Russia (and believes it’s possible), but has no specific plans in place yet.
Almost all the proprietors of St. Petersburg’s Israeli restaurants have an Israeli background. Michael Chukharev-Aptekman worked in the restaurant business even before he moved to Israel with his wife in 1998, when he was 22.
“Our first daughter was born there, but apparently we made the move at the wrong age,” he says. “We didn’t really find ourselves there, so, after a while, we decided to return and get back on our feet – and that is actually what we are doing.”
Even though the family immigration didn’t work out, Chukharev-Aptekman, owner of the Easy Hummus chain, said he connected to the Israeli way of life and became addicted to the food. Back in St. Petersburg, in the restaurant business again, he felt a deep longing for it. First, he would cook it for himself and for friends, one of the favorites being shakshuka, which his acquaintances dubbed the “Jewish omelet.” He then began importing Israeli herbs and seasoning, for personal use. Four years ago, after acquiring managerial experience, he boldly opened a place of his own, where he both cooked and served – initially by himself. Now he has a stall in a food court in Galeria, a major shopping mall, and another in Sevkabel, one of the many recreation and culture venues that have sprung up in St. Petersburg recently in the shells of moribund factories.
The Hebrew motto “hummus bekef” sits proudly above an “Easy Hummus” sign in English, Israeli flags are flying and bags of Israeli snack foods are suspended from the ceiling with clothes pins – all of it signaling Mediterranean simplicity and cordiality. The shawarma rotisserie is off to the side.
Chukharev-Aptekman says it took him a long time to accustom his clients to Israeli shawarma with hummus instead of what he calls the “classic Russian” version of the dish, which typically comes with a yogurt-and-mayonnaise sauce, with plenty of garlic.
Israeli cuisine has become extremely popular in Russia, but the peak is still to come, he predicts. As we’re talking, a middle-aged man sits down next to us at one of the tables, and asks if we can take his picture against the background of the colorful stall and the Israeli flags. “It’s for my mother, she’ll be pleased,” he says.
According to Chukharev-Aptekman, some people do in fact come “because of the roots”: “Ah, I have a Jewish grandmother,” he says, quoting customers. “Or they say they want to try ‘Jewish shawarma.’ But the hummus and the falafel have become a hit in their own right. “There were attempts to sell falafel already 10 years ago, but no one wanted to eat it. Afterward, when the trend of vegetarian food picked up here, people started to try different foods, and that’s how they ended up with falafel and hummus.”
Will the competition with the city’s small number of Arab and Mediterranean establishments imperil the success of the Israeli-food restaurants? Not in the least, Chukharev-Aptekman observes. “My impression is that restaurateurs from the Arab states of the Middle East do not perceive this sort of food as being trendy and interesting. For them it’s just plain food. They are opening fast-food joints or, alternatively, if they have money, they open something ‘high class,’ where everything is covered in gold and diamonds. Everything is conspicuously expensive, and the food reflects that. It’s mostly the Turks who are into that. They are no longer into ‘everyday’ places.”
The menus of Easy Hummus includes such traditional dishes as schnitzel, chraime with Israeli short-cut pasta, chicken steak, harira soup and chicken soup with soup nuts – but hummus is clearly the star attraction here and the proprietor’s pride and joy. In addition, Chukharev-Aptekman, who also works as an organizational and planning consultant for restaurateurs, has opened a small plant to manufacture hummus, which is sold in his restaurants and others (which are not necessarily branded as Israeli). At Easy Hummus you can order up the chickpea paste with guacamole and chile con carne, with beets, and even with chocolate. He is dismissive of those of his competitors who serve reheated hummus, while acknowledging that it’s difficult to accustom Russians to a main course that is not served hot.
What about the raw ingredients? According to Chukharev-Aptekman, since the early 2000s and particularly more recently, everything necessary for the authentic Israeli kitchen can easily be imported. Obtaining chickpeas is not a problem in Russia, he notes, and in the past few years importation has been regularized of items such as Israeli pickled vegetables (which he says are unrivaled), tangy amba sauce and za’atar (wild hyssop), which he used to bring in himself, in suitcases. Most of the Israeli restaurants in Peter buy their pita from one baker: an Israeli named David.
Chukharev-Aptekman says he gets frequent proposals to open new branches – whether in Moscow, Crimea or Ukraine – but to date has turned them all down. About a year and a half ago, he helped to open an Israeli street-food restaurant in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, to which was soon added a second branch (and they, too, have competitors). As for the St. Petersburg market, he’s certain it hasn’t yet reached the saturation point in this realm, and new branches of Easy Hummus are on the drawing board. In the more distant future, when his two musician-daughters complete their schooling, he intends to return to Israel permanently. This time as a businessman who says he feels more at ease in the Jewish state than in Russia, and who will supervise his businesses from afar.
Not for drinkers