Until the spring of 2020, any Israeli chef worth their salt felt compelled to have their own restaurant in New York. Then came the pandemic, spurring an exodus of Israelis from New York. Many restaurants changed menu or simply closed down. Yet recently, even though the pandemic is still with us, Israelis are still launching enterprises in New York, and some are doing well.
One such is Rothschild TLV, on the Upper East Side. Serving kosher Israeli cuisine, it has become a place of pilgrimage for observant Jews. It isn’t cheap: the average bill runs from $130 to $150 per person. Those who wish may fork over $245 for a 1,200-gram steak (twoand a half pounds). “We focused on the tiniest details,” says chef Tal Aboav. “I wanted a place that evokes Michelin, but with a Tel Aviv vibe."
Aboav is secular but hails from a long line of religious Jews from Safed. The last place he worked at in Tel Aviv was the now defunct eatery Pushkin, where he was a sous-chef. “It was the most expensive restaurant in Tel Aviv,” he recalls. Before that he worked as a chef in Rocca, in Herzliya Pituah, a place popular among celebs. But he always dreamed of making it in New York, Aboav says.
He realized his dream ten years ago when he met Einat Admony, the chef and owner of Balaboosta in Manhattan. “She was like a mother to me. Opened doors and introduced me to the right people,” Aboav recounts.
Actually, Aboav moved to Miami and opened 9BEACH with Itay Sacish. “It was a huge joint, 350 seats. We invested more than $3 million,” Aboav says. “They built a hotel around us, there were renovations, and we had problems with the city council and had to close after ten months. I had no choice, I had to survive.” After that he engaged in exclusive closed-list parties for the Miami millionaires in their homes or on their yachts, but then looked for something more stable, and wound up working at a kosher place, he relates.
Yet he continued to dream of New York and in creating RothschildTLV, teamed up with the owner of a building and a storefront. “We did some repairs, trained staff and after some delays due to red tape, prepared for opening night. Then COVID-19 struck.”
Everything stopped. They opened gradually and relied on deliveries, and come the day that they could open fully, the business took off. “Most of our customers are from out of town, living in religious areas, and some of them travel a couple of hours to get here,” Aboav says.
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He points out that in contrast with the norm in Israel, American members of the ultra-orthodox community work. “Going out to eat is their main form of entertainment so they are willing to spend big,” he adds.
Among the dishes served at RothschildTLV you can find “Holy Ravioli” stuffed with beef cheek, chestnuts, and wild mushrooms, served with “corn cream,” a concept Aboav learned at Pushkin.
One of the desserts at RothschildTLV is called “Breakfast in Bed” which looks like a fried egg but consists of panna cota, coconut and mango. There are also bacon-shaped cookies.
Bagels and pandemic
Another restaurant is also a child of the pandemic: Accent, near the Israeli consulate in New York, run by the couple Shlomo Bador and Hilit Atia, who serve Mediterranean dishes. Possibly the best is the “Jerusalem Eggplant,” charred and fried eggplant with mango pickle (amba), tahini, and other dips. Other delicious dishes include the Moroccan Fish and the schnitzel.
Bador and Atia arrived in New York seven years ago and have three children. At first he worked as a locksmith, but as soon as they could, the couple opened a bagel shop that began well, but the pandemic forced them to close up almost immediately.Neither the customers nor the employees turned up, they say.
“Then a miracle happened. Someone from the National Guard called and asked for meals for 150 soldiers who were called up to back up the security across town. They found us online. Truth is, it was fun. We cooked and enjoyed ourselves. Once the contract with the National Guard wrapped up, we thought, this was so great, let’s open a restaurant. But we wouldn’t have survived without the government support we received.”
Middle Eastern food of a different kind
Nir Sarig had been a sous chef at Mint Kitchen, Erez Komarovsky’s restaurant near New York University. When Komarovsky would travel to Israel, Sarig would take charge of the restaurant. Mint Kitchen closed because of the pandemic and Sarig launched a new venture, Eti, in the Essex market on the Lower East Side.
Eti started off as a bakery and wine bar, but evolved into a contemporary Middle Eastern eatery. “I tried to blend as many flavors and dishes from the region as I could, ones that New Yorkers are less familiar with,” Sarig says. “I wanted to offer a different kind of Middle Eastern experience – not just baba ganoush, falafel or shawarma. I wanted to serve Morrocan, Tunisian and Bedouin dishes, but done differently. I served shishbarak stuffed with olive labneh, mussels in harissa and coconut milk, and Moroccan eggplant salad with preserved mussels.” He is presently searching for a new establishment in Lower Manhattan.
Several Israeli restaurants in New York that had been doing very well in the last decade closed when the pandemic hit. But some, such as 19 Cleveland, 12 Chairs Café and Shoo Shoo, hung on. Eyal Hen’s 19 Cleveland even opened an ice cream parlor next door in the depths of winter. Cobi Levy’s Lola Taverna is one of Soho’s most popular. Dagon Restaurant on the Upper West Side is a great success. Breads Bakery, which hasn’t shut at all during the pandemic, boasts long lines of queueing customers, and the owner Gadi Peleg is planning a new bakery-café in Rockefeller Plaza.
Rafi Hasid operates a pair of restaurants – 1803, which features regular New Orleans jazz, and Miriam, which has been serving Mediterranean cuisine for 16 years in Park Slope. This January, Hasid is launching a second eatery on the Upper West Side. He also runs “Homemade by Miriam” in Park Slope and in Tribeca. At Homemade, chef Alon Hadar serves Mediterranean-style health food.
And Eyal Shani? What is he up to? Whilst you were quarantining, Miznon added six stores to its New York Franchise.
Another new place is Sherry Herring, still in its trial period. Run by Valentino Kaplan, aside from herring, they serve sandwiches with smoked salmon, tuna fillets or salad, sprats, or anchovies. Many customers come due to mentions in the New York Times or local online noticeboards.
Meanwhile in Brooklyn, television presenter Corrin Gideon and her husband Yechiel “Chily” Sorotzkin have entered the fray. An Israeli friend and partner of theirs runs Kiddush Club, their Jewish delivery service in New York. Ashkenazi and Mizrahi food is prepared for delivery out of a Brooklyn kitchen. Anyone who wants to keep the Sabbath can order cholent, chopped liver, gefilte fish, kreplach, tahini, kugel, challah and also their signature dish – layered eggplant.
“There is no one to deliver all these Sabbath goods to the many Jews who live in New York,” Gideon says. “We deliver food for the Sabbath, everything included. The package includes enough food to last the entire Sabbath, from Friday morning to Saturday night. The price for a couple is $199. We offer different dishes than our Israeli range, brisket and ribs, for example.”
On a Sunday night in Brooklyn, scores of customers can be seen at Nili Café, eating hummus, drinking and listening to an Israeli quartet playing jazzy versions of beloved Israeli songs. Nili is Tomer Blechman’s new café , opened in 2021. He rented the space with high windows before COVID-19, hoping to replicate the success of Miss Ada, his Brooklyn restaurant. The pandemic laid waste to those plans, and since opening, the café operates during daytime; and on Sunday evenings, offers live music.
Greta is a café run by Keren Ziv and Orit Kaufman in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Greta is Keren’s middle name, after her grandmother. Her grandparents ran a restaurant called Lev Aviv, in Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Street, which folded at the outbreak of the War of Independence. Greta offers Israeli breakfast, shakshuka or a toasted cheese pita. Tunisian sandwiches are on offer but locals can also relish a ham and cheese sandwich.
Her small café is a dream come true for Ziv. She and Kaufman moved to the neighbourhood in 2017, and Ziv gave birth to their son Ari in late 2018. “It gave me a different perspective on life,” she says. The couple purchased a three-story building, renovating the five apartments inside, and the cafe is on the ground floor. They signed all the paperwork in January 2020, just before the pandemic hit New York.
“The delay actually helped us think more carefully about what we wanted,” Ziv says. “We just opened and already have regulars. Everything happens so quickly.”
And now for a moment of Christmas cake
Roy Shvartzapel is from Karmiel and briefly played professional basketball for Maccabi Haifa. He became a star in the U.S. due to one dish: panettone, the Italian Christmas cake. After Oprah Winfrey mentioned it on her show, Shvartzapel was invited to sell his cake in one of Dominique Ansel’s stores. The panettone is baked with Valrhona chocolate atop a base of slightly salted caramel.
Blue Stripes, Oded Brenner (formerly of Max Brenner) and Landwer’s famed café suffered during the pandemic. Not only was it forced to close, but some of the windows were destroyed during the riots following the murder of George Floyd. During the riots, police cars were torched on the same street of the café so Brenner and Landwer management decided to board up the windows and wait it out. In the meantime, they have moved into wholesale, of parts of the cocoa plant not usually used in making chocolate.
Blue Stripes is now operated by Alon Kasdan, who left his former role as manager and owner of Café Noi on the Upper East Side. “After 12 years it was time to do something fresh and I love it here, with all the students from the New School and NYU. It is a fresh start for me,” Kasdan says.
At Café Noi things have changed. Gur Haykin, a former regular, teamed up with the barista Daniel Bayer, and changed the name to Ella’s Café, after his daughter. Given that the returns on coffee are very high, around 400% to 700%, Haykin is pleased with the deal. However, they stay open seven days a week and like everyone else, are struggling to find employees, he says.
“I never thought I would work in hospitality. We got a great deal on the lease because of COIVD-19,” Haykin adds. “The café has become like a kibbutz, a local place where people can speak Hebrew. We know our customers quite intimately.” The café will soon receive its liquor license and will serve Israeli beers but in the meantime, there are Yemeni and North African dishes.
On the Lower East Side, Amir Nathan runs the café and wine bar Sami & Susu. “We wanted to open an all day café like in Paris,” he says, with an added dimension: selling labels from Israel and the West Bank, Lebanon and Italy. They are less a Mediterranean than a New York one: like the city, it has capacity for many tastes and flavors, he says.
“It was really important to us that Sami & Susu wouldn’t just be another typical Israeli restaurant and that it will incorporate different Mediterranean cooking styles from Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, Greece, North Africa and include our family recipes. So we have chicken soup with kneidlach, Jordan’s mum’s ox-tongue, and my grandmother’s stuffed cabbage,” Nathan says. “This coming winter we will add Jordan’s mother’s Jewish-American stew.” This is what they do: take family recipes and improve them, based on their experience in the most popular places in town.