Eating out: The salmon of doubt

Jerusalem’s Shabtai Hadayag serves up tasty morsels from the sea in an offbeat ambience

By ELIE LESHEM/ITRAVELJERUSALEM TEAM
March 6, 2011 14:03
4 minute read.
Fish

Fish 521. (photo credit: Courtesy)

At the risk of running afoul of the food critic’s handbook with a mixed metaphor, I’ll venture that Shabtai Hadayag is a strange bird on the Jerusalem scene – and I don’t only mean the restaurant. Shabtai’s unorthodox aura is due largely to its eponymous proprietor and his eccentric charm. Luckily, however, the oft-bizarre ambience did not detract from our overall experience and the conviction that this is one of the best places for fish in the city.

As you may have guessed, the fare at Shabtai is almost exclusively catch of the day. In fact, Tel Avivians will recall that a restaurant by the same name was active in Jaffa for dozens of years. Legend has it that Shabtai Kordova, a Turkish immigrant and master fisherman, would set out to sea every morning in his trawler. And every evening, upon dropping anchor in the Jaffa pier, he would set up an impromptu grilling station, feasting on choice selections from his net.

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Passersby, lured by the delicious aromas wafting from the grill, would venture forward, a salad, pitot or a bottle of beer in hand, and settle down to partake of the feast. As time went by, upside-down crates were draped with white tablecloths, and Shabtai’s restaurant was born.

The Jerusalem branch, which opened late last year, is run by Saba Shabtai’s grandson and namesake, an outgoing, colorful character who, at 29, could easily furnish any number of newspaper articles with his unlikely life story. In short, the younger Shabtai Kordova’s father became haredi when Shabtai was very young, and sent his son to an ultra-Orthodox Sephardi yeshiva in Jerusalem. Kordova went on to attend Ponevezh (the Yale of the yeshiva world) in Bnei Brak before leaving the religious fold, writing a book about his experiences under the pseudonym Shabtai Kor, and gaining Internet notoriety with a popular blog and a column on Ma’ariv’s NRG website – especially among those haredi youths contemplating a similar leap of disbelief.

When it comes to fish, however, my dining partner and I can affirm that Shabtai sticks to the gospel. After seating us in the gallery of the restaurant, he explained the various items on the menu, recommending that after the gratis opener of salads, freshly grilled pitot and lemon-mint slush, we try the fried red mullet (NIS 105) and the grilled trout fillet (NIS 105). We said OK and were promptly served a huge assortment of salads, most of them quite good, if a bit on the spicy side, but some of them not worth dwelling on, like the pickle and corn (we were pretty sure it came from a can) salad that brought back memories of my own bygone meals in a yeshiva mess room. The pitot were hot off the grill and crunchy, and soft in all the right places.

When we were done with the salads we moved on to the mullet, which Kordova claimed had been a personal favorite of the late King Hussein of Jordan. The dish was a pleasant, succulent surprise, and my dining partner and I succeeded in polishing off quite a few of the little fish – despite having to struggle with the abundance of bones. Satisfied but wearied by the challenge posed by the bony mullets, we awaited the trout. Simply put, it blew us out of the water. The fish was grilled to per fection, with just the right amount of char on top, full of flavor, and nar y a bone in sight. We delve d into it cheer fully, leaving nothing but gleaming white plates.

As our meal wound down, things began to take an unusual turn.

Someone decided to crank up the small speakers downstairs, and we were treated to a blaring, distorted medley of children’s music that was totally at odds with the laid-back mood the restaurant had seemed to be projecting. Kordova, a sailor’s cap perched on his brow, was shuttling between the tables, schmoozing with the guests, many of whom seemed to be personal acquaintances, and discussing wine with a couple seated at a galler y table while standing in the lower level of the restaurant. With the cap on his head and plates of fish balanced on his arms, his likeness to the huge portrait of his grandfather on the wall – along with an enormous ship’s wheel, the only distinct design touch in an other wise bare-bones decor – was uncanny.

My companion and I were undecided as to whether the informal atmosphere would be of benefit in a restaurant that, pricewise at least, caters to a similar crowd as the 1868s and Joys of the city. It was clear, however, that Kordova was an inseparable part of the ambience and that his personal style probably has more than a little in common with the original Shabtai Hadayag, where the crisp tablecloths were no more than a thin veneer covering the upside-down crates on the pier. Ultimately, whether or not you choose to buy into the madcapper scene at Shabtai is a matter of personal taste, but there is no question that the fish on those crates is first rate.

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