Israeli Chefs Bring a New Spin on Middle Eastern Food to America
Shakshuka is on menus all over the country, and za’atar appears in Rachael Ray’s recipes. Can America love Israeli cuisine more?
Einat Admony is gearing up for a busy autumn. The Tel Aviv native and longtime New York-based chef already runs two bustling eateries: Taïm, a celebrated Greenwich Village falafel restaurant with a partner food truck, and a Middle Eastern trattoria in SoHo called Balaboosta, which does wonderful things like top-grilled lamb chops with Persian lime sauce, and nestle-fried olives in a pool of creamy labneh.
But next month, Admony’s life will kick into warp speed. That’s when her cookbook, also called Balaboosta, drops—a vibrant and inviting collection of personal stories and recipes designed, as the book puts it, “to feed people you love.” Shortly after that, Admony will add a new restaurant to her mini-empire, Bar Bolonat in Greenwich Village. As is the case with Taïm and Balaboosta, its menu will center around the Israeli flavors that Admony has said “are my comfort zone, my heart and core.” But it will be the most playful of the three restaurants, deconstructing familiar Israeli flavors and liberally incorporating ingredients from other ethnic cuisines. Case in point: a dessert of tahini cookies that she will serve alongside green-tea gelato. “I want to put the gelato in those gold-rimmed Moroccan tea glasses, which will look beautiful without being gimmicky,” she said.
Admony is an established champion of “new Israeli cuisine,” a term that refers to Israel’s emerging food scene and vigorous recent embracing of its many overlapping food cultures. And she is far from alone. Over the last decade, a new crop of wandering Israeli chefs and food purveyors has begun to make a significant mark on the way Americans cook and eat. The vision of Israeli food that they are bringing moves far beyond falafel or the Sabra brand hummus that sell like gangbusters across the country; it is fine dining—elevated and innovative.
Consider the following: Admony’s first restaurant, Taïm, opened in 2005. Three years later, the Israeli-born, Pittsburgh-raised chef Michael Solomonov launched his restaurant Zahav in the heart of Philadelphia. Within months, his inspiring take on new Israeli cuisine—dishes like fried haloumi cheese with carrots and pine nuts, grilled ground lamb served with pickled ramps, and halvah mousse with chickpea praline—was being lauded on must-eat lists in Philadelphia and beyond.
The trend has only accelerated over the past two years. There’s Zizi Limona, an inventive Middle Eastern-inspired Brooklyn eatery launched in late 2012 by a trio of Israelis, two of whom are also behind New York’s popular chain Hummus Place. Not far away in Manhattan, two bakeries opened by Israeli pastry smiths—Zucker in 2011 by a chef named Zohar Zohar, and a New York outpost of baker Uri Scheft’s successful Tel Aviv bakery Breads earlier this year—are turning customers on with clove rugelach and multiseeded challah, respectively. The Wall Street Journal recently described the “cult following” forming around Breads’ brioche-light, syrup-painted, chocolate babka.
Across the country in Portland, Ore., the city’s thriving food-cart scene has welcomed two businesses selling elevated Israeli street food. There’s Wolf and Bear’s, which has sold its grilled eggplant sandwich with labneh, caramelized walnuts, and kalamata tapenade, among other dishes, since 2009; and Gonzo, which launched a locavore’s take on falafel and shawarma in 2012. In 2011, chef Micah Wexler opened Mezze in Los Angeles, garnering a “Chef of the Year” title from Los Angeles Magazine for his imaginative riffs on Mediterranean classics: dishes like tabbouleh with fava beans and green garlic, and braised Moroccan chicken wings with olives and golden raisins. (Despite the rave reviews, Mezze closed a year later, ostensibly over a dispute with a noisy construction site next door.)
Last month, a company called Brooklyn Sesame launched at The Brooklyn Flea—an established hotbed of emerging food trends. There, Israeli native Shahar Shamir sells his deconstructed halvah, a sultry spread of tahini and honey studded with roasted sesame seeds or pistachios, raw almonds, or toasted coconut. At The Flea, he joined other Israeli and Middle Eastern-inspired vendors like upscale schnitzel makers Schnitz NYC and an artisanal couscous vendor, NY Shuk. Appetizing legend Russ & Daughters also recently started selling Brooklyn Sesame’s halvah spread, which, for a food purveyor, is equivalent to being knighted by the queen.
Then, of course, there’s Yotam Ottolenghi—the charismatic and immensely talented Israeli-British chef who has captured the imagination of this country’s food lovers. He’s the author, along with his Palestinian collaborator Sami Tamimi, of Jerusalem: A Cookbook—a book that chronicles the chefs’ shared love of their holy city and its “tapestry of cuisines.”
Since being published in the United States in late 2012 as a follow up to Ottolenghi’s similarly Middle Eastern-influenced book, Plenty, Jerusalem has solidified his status as a one-name culinary icon. More important, it marks a tipping point in Americans’ cultural awareness of new Israeli cuisine—and their wholesale embrace of the complex palette of flavors and ingredients that come from the country and region. “More than anyone, Ottolenghi has opened the doors to Israeli and Middle Eastern foods to so many people,” Admony said.
Like Admony and Ottolenghi, nearly all the chefs mentioned above were born or raised in Israel, and could ostensibly be sharing their talents there. That is particularly true now, as Israel’s food scene comes into its own as a dense melting pot of Iraqi, Persian, Lebanese, Moroccan, Tunisian, Yemenite, Eastern European, Ethiopian, and a number of other cuisines. “Israeli cuisine has matured [in Israel] over the last couple of years,” said Naama Shefi, a food writer and founder of the wildly successful New York pop-up restaurant The Kubbeh Project. “It’s only a recent thing for Israeli chefs to be proud of their own Jewish ethnic foods or interested in exploring the country’s terroir and the foods of their Palestinian neighbors.”
But Admony explained that there are compelling reasons for chefs to leave. “Finding a good space to rent is impossible,” she said, an impressive statement considering she has battled New York’s real-estate hell three times over. More to the point, she said that Israel is a small country and does not yet have a robust dining-out culture that can adequately support its chefs’ passions.
By imbuing even the most mundane things—like vinegar—with importance, the rabbis find proof of sacred history