The Israeli cuisine trend
Some of Israel's most familiar foods—falafel, hummus and pita bread, to name a few—were introduced to the American mainstream years ago through menus with a Middle Eastern or Mediterranean bent. Now, more ambitious and authentic dishes are catching the fancy of the U.S. restaurant industry, giving rise to whole concepts and remaking menus.
In part, that’s because of the health halo around true Israeli specialties. We’re not talking bagels and lox or pastrami sandwiches here—those are icons of Jewish-American cuisine. True Israeli food focuses on fresh ingredients and plant-based dishes.
The food is also an eclectic blend. The country’s cuisine reflects all the ethnicities and religions that have passed through or settled there, including Arab, Russian, Ethiopian, North African, Persian, Turkish, Muslim, Christian and Jewish.
Additional topspin is coming from bookstores. “Jerusalem: A Cookbook” put that city on the culinary map in 2013 when it became a best-seller and then won a James Beard award. It was co-authored by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, partners in five London restaurants. In 2016, “Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking” by Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook was awarded the highest James Beard book award—Cookbook of the Year. Solomonov previously won a Beard award for Best Chef Mid-Atlantic for heading up the kitchen at Zahav in Philadelphia.
Here are some of the restaurants that are riding the new wave of popularity.
Modern Israeli cuisine is the hook at Zahav, which is Hebrew for “gold.” The centerpiece of the restaurant is a wood-fired taboon—the oven used to bake Zahav’s signature laffa bread. Sharing is an underlying theme in Israel’s culinary heritage, and Zahav’s small-plates menu encourages sampling. Menu items reflect the diversity of Israel’s population, ranging from grilled halloumi cheese with pistachios and pickled green strawberries to branzino grilled over coals and served with tzatziki. The wine list includes a number of Israeli bottles.
Although New Orleans seems an unlikely city for an Israeli restaurant, Shaya has garnered a large following among Big Easy residents, tourists and the James Beard Foundation, which named it the Best New Restaurant of 2016. Chef Alon Shaya, who partnered with NOLA celebrity chef John Besh in the restaurant, makes it work by playfully merging his Israeli heritage with Louisiana culinary traditions, local ingredients and current trends. Menu examples include avocado toast with smoked whitefish and pink peppercorns, Persian rice with mustard greens and lamb with whipped feta, walnut and pomegranate tabbouleh.
Tatte Bakery & Café
This fast-casual concept was founded by Israeli native Tzurit Or, who features her family’s recipes on the menu and sources ingredients from Israel and Europe. Although the scratchmade baked goods and elevated sandwiches, salads and breakfast fare have built a fan base for Tatte in its home city of Boston, it gained national attention when Panera Bread announced in February that it had acquired a majority stake in the restaurant and has plans for expansion into urban and upscale areas. Specialties of the house include Shakshuka (a ragout of peppers and tomatoes topped with poached eggs and feta cheese), fatoush salad served with za’atar bread and a lamb meatball sandwich.
This New York City spot, voted the best new restaurant of 2015 by readers of USA Today, uses Israeli cuisine as a starting point but veers off into unexpected territory. Chef-partner Nir Mesika, who trained in Israel, fuses his country’s Mediterranean flavors and ingredients with Asian influences. Bedouin Octopus, for example, combines grilled pickled cabbage, black eggplant puree, hummus and tomato salsa into a $27 entree; Mediterranean Sashimi is a small plate of tuna cured with yuzu, ginger and Japanese ponzu accompanied by green tabbouleh, tzatziki and crispy beet leather ($16).
In the fast-casual segment, authentic Israeli street food is making a statement at the four locations of BenjYehuda in Chicago. The concept gets its name form Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem and stays true to the vibe, merging Israeli street foods, such as schwarma and falafel, with grab-and-go ethnic favorites, like churros and bags of fries. While falafel shows up in a lot of Mediterranean fast casuals, BenjYehuda’s has street cred.
Mexican-inspired California Tortilla, with a menu focused on burritos, tacos and quesadillas, may be the last place to look for Israeli food—but the fast casual concept introduced an Israeli salad as a component of an LTO this spring. Although the chain is calling the item a Mediterranean Bowl, two of its ingredients—Israeli couscous and Israeli salad—play off the Israeli food trend. Cilantro and lime juice give the tomato-cucumber Israeli salad a Mexican twist. It looks like preparations other than falafel are starting to make inroads on fast-casual menus.