Why Food Critics Are Obsessing Over Israeli Cuisine
In the sun-lit Alenbi restaurant, on Nostrand Avenue in Crown Heights, with its white and black urban chic decor — you can easily mistake the setting and think you’re in Tel Aviv, not Brooklyn.
In the past year, a slew of high-end Israeli restaurants have cropped up in New York, bringing new flavors and food to the Big Apple. Some of these restaurants, like Alenbi in Brooklyn, are kosher; others like Nur, by Israeli star chef Meir Adoni, are not.
These new restaurants, as well as relative old-timers like Einat Admony’s Balaboosta and Bar Bolonat, take their inspiration from Sephardi Jewish cuisine, which offers dishes from Morocco, Yemen, Iraq and Libya.
These chefs eschew gefilte fish and cholent for spicy fish dishes, like chraimeh, or new takes on falafel.
“The purpose of Alenbi is to try to combine the old and the new,” Elior Balbul told The Forward. “I try to keep the taste that brings you back fifteen or twenty years, but in a new and modern way. Our signature dish is falafel, but we do it as a falafel tartar.””
In his falafel, Balbul uses lima beans instead of chickpeas, and serves it with white tahini, sumac onion, crispy chickpea, fava bean, and amba coulis.
Balbul, 32, grew up in Reut, Israel. His mother was born in Morocco and moved to Israel as a young child; his father is of Iraqi Jewish descent. His parents were both working in the Israeli Air Force, often putting in long hours, so he would cook dinner almost every night from the age of eleven. “One night, I couldn’t find lemon for the salad dressing and then I saw a bottle of white wine on the counter,” he said. “I tasted it and I thought it would work like acid for the salad. That was the day my Mom told me that someday I have to be a chef.”
Alenbi is named for the iconic street in Tel Aviv (Allenby), which leads to Shuk Hacarmel, Tel Aviv’s outdoor fruit and vegetable market. The street itself is a little on the seedy side, but his menu is clearly upscale. There is also a lot of Hebrew on the menu including sashimi yam tichon (Mediterranean sashimi) and a dessert called Boker Tov (good morning).
“I want people to feel like they’re in the center of Tel Aviv,” he says.
Baloul learned his craft at celebrity chef Meir Adoni’s kosher restaurants in Tel Aviv, the dairy ‘Blue Sky’ and the meat-serving ‘Lumina’. Adoni recently opened Nur NYC, on East 20th Street.
“Nur allows Chef Meir Adoni to ‘let loose on high-end, modern Middle Eastern dishes, designed to encourage sharing’,” its website promises. Adoni’s menu includes kubaneh, a special Yemenite bread made before Shabbat, when cooking is prohibited, served with schug (a spicy Yemenite condiment) and grated tomato. There is also the very not-kosher “Palestinian tartare”, of hand-cut beef, smoked eggplant cream, sheep’s yoghurt, crushed tomatoes, and raw tahini. For those wanting to go all-out treyf, there are seared scallops, or chickpea-fried octopus, or “Jaffa souvlaki” of seared sea bass and calamari.
The New York Times’ critic Peter Wells called it “an open-armed approach to Middle Eastern flavors,” giving it two stars (a “very good” mark), describing the couscous as the best he’s ever had in a restaurant.
Earlier this year, Israeli celebrity chef Eyal Shani opened a branch of Miznon, his raucous, fun, upscale take on fast-food that offers creative pita sandwiches.
The Miznon in Chelsea Market joins sister restaurants in Tel Aviv, Vienna, and Melbourne; Shani says he also tried to offer signature dishes that reflect the personality of each city.
“In New York, I understood deeply that the sandwich of NY is the hamburger,” Shani told me. “But it’s so classic that if you try to add something or change it, something will be missing. So I found a special way to do it. I press it under a pressure machine so it becomes a very thin flat circle of meat and then I roast it on the plancha on one side. On the other side I put cheddar cheese and then I fold it (which gives a different taste to food), and it’s like a burger filled with meat tartare. The experience is unbelievable.”
New Yorkers seem to agree. Since the restaurant opened in February, people often wait in line for over an hour for a sandwich. Shani says he has between 1000 and 1600 customers per day, and sells about 200 heads of roasted cauliflower each day.
I recently tried Shani’s signature dish of roasted cauliflower, which he offers in all of the branches of Miznon. I’m not even such a huge fan of cauliflower, but it’s hard to describe how good this dish was. The whole head of cauliflower is boiled in salt water, rubbed with olive oil (this must be done using your hands, Shani insists), and then roasted in a hot oven before being rubbed with more olive oil.
It’s simply delicious, and even more so when dipped into Shani’s grated tomatoes and crème fraiche.
The mood in all of his restaurants is raucous and fun. There’s always loud music blaring, and the servers often wear funny hats. It can feel more like a party, a vibe that Shani cultivates.
“Middle Eastern food has been missing from New York, compared to cities like London or Paris,” says food critic Jay Cheshes. “A lot of people, myself included, have tried Eyal Shani’s food in other cities so I guess there was a lot of excitement to him coming here. He designs his restaurants to be so crazy, that it gets people excited.”
“In all of our restaurants we talk about happiness and a feeling of freedom,” Shani said. “Good energy is the first step to making food and then there is the music. It’s always noisy and it’s always crowded, but we want a circle of happiness. If you go into the kitchen, everyone there is dancing.”
The rash of new Israeli restaurants does not seem to have been affected by the BDS movement, calls to boycott Israel to protest its policies on the Palestinian territories. Many of the dishes on the menu describe themselves as “Middle Eastern” rather than “Israeli”, but the chefs interviewed said they were not interested in politics and that they have not received any negative publicity for serving Israeli food.
For the chefs, opening a restaurant in New York has long been seen as an achievement.
“For people with big dreams, Israel has really small borders,” says cookbook author and Forward writer Adeena Sussman. “There is only so far you can go in a country of eight million people. Israelis are incredibly entrepreneurial, and there is something about being Jewish that creates an ethos of wanting to share. There is a profit motive, but there is also the idea of evangelizing for Israeli culture in a non-political and non-religious way.”
Sussman added that Israeli food has flavor combinations that offer New Yorkers something different.
“Israeli food has a different flavor profile – it’s neither Western nor Asian nor Latin,” she said. “People’s palates get tired and they’re looking for new ways to be excited. Israeli food is spicy, lemony and exotic, but still acceptable with warm spices like cinnamon and Baharat. Our palate may recognize the individual ingredients, but the combination is radical.”
Linda Gradstein is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem and a lecturer at New York University-Tel Aviv.