Jerusalem, a holy city for three major religions, has always had a diverse food culture. Four restaurants reflect the city’s new gourmet enthusiasm.
This was the land of Canaan, where milk and honey flowed. That was all a very long time ago, of course, but milk and honey still form the basis of Jerusalem’s cuisine: It’s a class of
its own, mystical and incredibly diverse – with recipes as old as the Bible. The city is a melting pot, and so is its cuisine. There are a couple of things you can always be sure of, though: Breakfast is bountiful, lunch is generally eaten with friends and the Sabbath is spent quietly. Then there are restaurants that break with such certainties and experiment across all religions and traditions. Until now, Tel Aviv was considered the city of good food, but Jerusalem is stepping to the fore.
The Azura at Mahane-yehuda-market
What a wonderful smell! Isn’t that…? There’s just so much in there, too much – my nose can’t cope with this explosion of aromas. What is it? The family tells me it’s an oxtail stew that has been simmering on the fire since three o’clock this morning. Beside it are several other vats of food. It’s the house specialty that shares its name, azura, with the restaurant – eggplant stuffed with ground meat in a cinnamon sauce with pine nuts. It’s a Turkish-inspired recipe that the mother used to make. And there you have the basic formula at Azura: Food is a family affair. They cook what tastes familiar. Or what has become a familiar taste. Father Ezra immigrated to Israel from Turkey in 1948 and learned his trade from a Spanish chef. This mix makes all the difference. The ingredients at Azura are always fresh and simple, but the composition is multicultural, with Mediterranean, Iraqi and Turkish influences. The small restaurant is situated in a rear courtyard on Ha-Eshkol Street 4 in the Iraqi section of giant Mahane Yehuda market. It’s never quiet here. Despite Azura’s popularity, it has managed to maintain its original charm. The loud voices of the market criers resound across the square, where a few old men are playing endless rounds of backgammon in one corner, and laundry is drying over balconies. Azura is run in the third generation by Papa Ezra’s five sons and four daughters, a proud dynasty. Ezra himself, 82, only stops by occasionally and is not here today. Moshe Shrefler, one of his sons, assures me: “He will come, believe me. Our family was raised with a passion for good food.” You believe him and leave, your hunger satisfied.
The Cardo in the Legacy Hotel
Johnny Goric is many things: Aramean, Christian, Arab, Palestinian; the winner of numerous international cooking awards; and a member of the jury of the popular Israeli cooking show “Masterchef.” Perhaps that’s why the food he cooks is so special. Perhaps that’s how he manages to harmonize the abundant ingredients passed down from his many ancestors. Everyone in Jerusalem knows Master Goric, and the fusion food he conjures up at his restaurant, the Cardo, is extremely popular. His “cappuccino” made of lentils, for instance, which is actually a soup topped with garlic froth and a sprinkling of cumin. “A piece of art,” the master says with great humility, “simple ingredients put together in a unique way.” Or his lamb kebab, which consists of spicy ground meat wrapped around a cinnamon stick. Goric has a deep affinity with the spices and ingredients of his homeland. He has a small herb garden in front of the four-star East Jerusalem hotel in which his restaurant is located, far from the noise of the main thoroughfare, Dereikh Shekhem. He grows four kinds of thyme, red basil, sage and verbena. And tomatoes. There’s no getting around tomatoes in Jerusalem. Goric adds tomatoes and red beets to his hummus, turning the beige paste an enticing red. He also makes a variation of classic hummus with dill and basil pesto. Sitting on the fifth floor looking at the old town bathed in the colors of sunset, you might think there’s nothing comparable anywhere else, but you’d be wrong. Goric has opened another restaurant in Nazareth, runs his own cooking academy in Ramallah, and spreads magic wherever he goes.
The Eucalyptus on Hativat Yerushalayim street
When Moshe Basson talks about his dishes, he always recounts ancient stories of Jerusalem, because the two are related. “Take a bundle of hyssop and dip it in the blood … and apply some … to the lintel and the two doorposts,” Moses, Exodus 12. This excerpt from the Book of Exodus is the part where Moses prepares the Israelites for their escape from slavery in Egypt. It’s also one of many that has inspired Basson’s cooking.
Moshe Basson won the couscous world championship three times in a row
Bibilical hyssop, actually marjoram, is something he likes to experiment with. Tomato sauce with marjoram, lamb with marjoram, marjoram pesto, fish rubbed in marjoram. And then there’s couscous. It was already popular in biblical times, but was called “semolina with herbs and oil” and taken to the temple as a sacrifice. Basson’s version won the couscous world championship three times in succession. Today, his exclusive restaurant is located in an old villa in an artist colony outside the old town, but his first restaurant was built around a eucalyptus tree that he planted as a child after fleeing from Iraq. That’s where the name comes from.
The Machneyuda on Beit Ya’akov Street
The music carries right into the street. People stand smoking, drinking and laughing in the doorway. This has to be the Machneyehuda, Jerusalem’s hottest, hippest and wildest location that is not so much a restaurant as a happening that serves delicious food. A hedonist temple close to Mahane Yehuda market. “We wanted food that would make people happy and call forth emotions,” says Uri Navon, his eyes glowing. He is one of two chefs. The other is Assaf Granit, TV chef and successful businessman. Together, within a very short time, they founded a food empire with four restaurants in Jerusalem and two restaurants in London. The Machneyuda is the oldest and most famous, the engine for what followed. The mayor eats here and top model Bar Refaeli is a regular, but mere mortals have no chance without a reservation. “We play with the ingredients,” Navon says. “We take the food that our grandmothers cooked – from Poland, Morocco, Romania – and make things no one has eaten before.” He and Granit were the first to further develop Jerusalem’s culinary heritage, to come up with a creamy, delicate polenta refined with green asparagus, truffle oil, parmesan and mushrooms, served with Druze-style braised lamb. “It’s damn delicious,” says Navon – it would be contrary to object because there’s no denying it. The Balkan music mix grows louder and louder. It won’t be long now before the first guests start dancing – on the tables. That’s not a break with convention at the Machneyuda, it’s normal here.
Four more tasty addresses
A loud, wild café for people-watching. The hot chocolate is excellent!
Queen Shlomziyon St. 6
Try halla, yeast bread with sesame seeds, at this, Jerusalem’s oldest bakery.
Ha-Magid St. 5
Don’t let the facade scare you: Inside, they make the best hummus in town.
Al-Wad St. 63, Old City
Laid-back bohemian bar with twinkling lights, DJ and drinks beneath the open sky.
Itzhak Elishar St. 5