The Year We Tasted Israel
Chef Michael Solomonov checks out meat grilling on skewers at Al Jenin restaurant in Nazareth.
Until recently America looked down its nose at British cuisine, but now it seems that major food winds are blowing west from London. Remember the nose-to-tail movement, which started at London’s St. John at the turn of the last millennium and landed squarely, a few years later, in downtown Manhattan and hipster Brooklyn?
Then , the Israeli-born chef who lives, cooks and churns out stunning cookbooks in London, and suddenly Israeli chefs making Israeli food are experiencing unparalleled success on these shores.
Einat Admony with her upmarket street food in New York and Michael Solomonov with his wonderful eateries in Philly led the charge over the past decade. But this year saw such a degree of popularity and critical acclaim for Israeli chefs and their Israel-inflected cuisine that without a doubt 2015 was the year of the Israeli chef in America.
Solomonov, whose Zahav restaurant (part of the CookNSolo Restaurant Group he shares with partner Steven Cooke) earned him the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic in 2011, came out with “Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking” this fall.
“I do see the interest in Israeli food as a growing movement in America,” Solomonov said. “Israel is a young country, and the cuisine is evolving and growing. I think Americans can relate to that.” The culinary king of Philadelphia, Solomonov is expanding his reach to the Big Apple — he’s opening a hummus place in Manhattan’s Chelsea Market in early 2016.
He’ll have some serious competition from Admony, Manhattan’s original Israeli-food pioneer, whose newest restaurant, Combina, offers Sephardic-Israeli tapas. Admony and her husband, Stefan Nafziger, kicked off their foray into the New York food scene 10 years ago with Taïm, where Admony makes, what Adam Platt of New York magazine once described as “the best falafel sandwich in town.”
They opened the high-end Balaboosta](http://balaboostanyc.com/ “”) in 2010 and [Bar Bolonat, which specializes in what Admony calls “modern Mediterranean and new Israeli cuisine,” in the spring of 2014.
In trendy Williamsburg, Ilan Hall just rebooted The Gorbals restaurant, renaming it Esh (the Hebrew word for “fire”) and refocusing his menu on Israeli-style barbecue.
New York isn’t the only place in the U.S. where Israeli food is a hit. Alon Shaya opened his namesake restaurant in New Orleans in February of 2015.
“I was able to open Shaya Restaurant in a town like New Orleans, which is so deeply rooted in its own food culture and tradition, and still be able to receive a great response from the community,” Shaya said.
The restaurant quickly won almost every accolade a chef can hope for. Eater New Orleans dubbed it “the No. 1 place to eat in the city right now,” and Esquire called it the best new restaurant in America. Shaya won a Beard Award for Best Chef: South (for another restaurant, Domenica, but still.) And the Foundation just named the chef’s avocado with toasted pumpernickel, smoked whitefish and pink peppercorns one of its favorite dishes of 2015.
So what accounts for the current impact Israeli food is having on the American dining scene?
“Potentially the most important reason,” Shaya said, “is that there are talented chefs and restaurateurs such as Michael and Einat cooking with their hearts and providing quality food with great service. They have great stories to tell and are able to do it at a high level.”
“Another reason is that it is a new cuisine,” Shaya said, echoing his friend Solomonov’s hypothesis. “In 1948, when Israel was created, millions of people poured into the country from all over Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. It took a couple of generations for the citizens of Israel to establish themselves, earn enough money to eat out regularly and have the time to be creative and display their cooking skills to each other.”
“The cuisine is the culmination of each of these cultures coming together. There is such an amazing bounty of ingredients and hundreds of years of tradition; it makes it easy to see why America has decided to embrace it.”
The Israeli-food craze has reached as far west as Los Angeles, where Israeli-born Tal Ronnen, who opened his vegan-Mediterranean eatery, Crossroads, in 2013, just came out with the “Crossroads” cookbook.
In downtown L.A., Ori Menashe, who grew up in Israel, is cooking rustic Italian at Bestia, where undeniable Mediterranean flavors appear in antipasti such as lamb meatballs with lentils and mint. (Menashe was recently hailed in Haaretz’s who’s-who of Israeli chefs, along with Admony.)
And Ottolenghi, whose “Jerusalem” became a runaway bestseller, has just graced his insatiable fans with his fifth cookbook in as many years. Written with Ramael Scully, “NOPI: the Cookbook,” named for his upscale restaurant in London’s Soho neighborhood, has become his fifth bestseller.
It’s possible that 2015 will see the cuisine and coverage of Israeli chefs peak, but it’s more likely their reach will become even wider. Roger Sherman, an Emmy, Peabody and James Beard Award-winning filmmaker, whose credits include “The Restaurateur,” about Danny Meyer, and “Alexander Calder,” has been working on a documentary called “In Search of Israeli Cuisine,” which will air on PBS in 2016. The film will continue to spread the word about Israeli food; its global influences and fresh flavors. It features Solomonov eating his way around Israel, sharing his favorite dishes and talking with the people who make them.
Solomonov and Shaya led food tours of Israel last summer, bringing a group that included three chefs from across the U.S.: Emily Seaman from Dizengoff in Philadelphia, Ashley Christensen from Pooles Diner in Raleigh, North Carolina, and John Currence from City Grocery in Oxford, Mississippi, the last two being from places that previously had little access to or interest in Israeli food.
“I love bringing American chefs and Americans to Israel,” Solomonov said. “It’s so cool to show them the variety of produce and introduce them to the chefs working there. I would love to do more trips.” Meanwhile, there may be no place in America that high-quality hummus, pita, falafel (along with more imaginative Israeli dishes) don’t soon turn up.
“The most exciting thing about the appreciation Israeli food is receiving here,” Solomonov concluded, “is having people fall in love with the food that I am in love with.”
Liza Schoenfein is food editor of the Forward. Contact her at [email protected]