Staycation: On the trail of coffee in Jerusalem amid COVID-19 pandemic

Staycation, coupling the words stay and vacation, means having leisure time at home or nearby.

Coffee from The Coffee Mill (photo credit: THE COFFEE MILL)
Coffee from The Coffee Mill
(photo credit: THE COFFEE MILL)
It’s newly September, still hot as can be, and as with every summer, an Israeli’s thoughts turn to travel – pristine beaches, unfamiliar sights, sounds and tastes: anywhere that involves a passport and a duty-free shop or two. But not this year; this is the year of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is the year for revising what it means to have a break, and the buzzword is staycation.
Staycation, coupling the words stay and vacation, means having leisure time at home or nearby. It is usually done when finances are too tight to allow journeys to long distances or for when one’s work-life balance can’t handle the time away from home or office.
There is an added factor this summer. With the coronavirus and its restrictions rattling the local and global economy; furloughed workers and the unemployed multiplying; businesses collapsing right and left and “for rent” signs a common sight on storefronts; with families separated and high numbers of the ill and quarantined, this is the time to take those life lemons and turn them into great lemonade. Or at least add a twist of lemon on the edge of your espresso cup.
So where can the local traveler to our capital kick off their exploration?
THE WALDORF-ASTORIA Hotel is one of the best places to feel like you have landed in an alternative reality. I came to experience their breakfast since it became coronavirus compliant. Unlike some Jerusalem hotels, this one welcomes the public to partake in their breakfast even if they are not overnight guests.
Upon entry to the hotel, there is a stand for taking the temperature of all who arrive and a hygiene station immediately at the door. It is true that it would be a better experience to be greeted by their iconic top-hatted doorman, but such are the times.
Additionally, the entry lobby has socially distanced markers on the floor leading to the reception desk where the staff sits behind a plexiglass divider. The soaring height of the glass-ceilinged lobby provides ample space and air circulation even indoors. The hotel follows all Health Ministry purple-tag requirements. All staff I saw were wearing masks properly and the already spotless floor was thoroughly washed while I was there.
One thing this place has locked up is location, an auspicious start to your staycation. Found at the crossroads of King David and Gershon Agron streets, it is within sight of the Old City walls, a mere kilometer from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and 1.3 km. from the Western Wall. It is also mere steps from the Mamilla Mall – the only open-air mall in Jerusalem – a corona-compliant way to get in your fix of foreign trends (window shopping is still free).
The hotel has an illustrious history. Now in its 100th year, it started as the Palace Hotel built by Haj Amin al-Husseini, Grand Mufti of Jerusalem – known to be a strong anti-Zionist, even taking a 1941 meeting with Hitler – in 1929 during the British Mandate period. It was the first luxury hotel in Jerusalem, boasting such modern amenities as en-suite bathrooms, but it closed in 1935. The British Government then leased the hotel premises for use as offices. This turbulent period also saw a nationalist uprising (known as the “Great Revolt”) by local Arabs in Mandatory Palestine against the British administration.
In response to the prolonged violence, the Palestine Royal Commission – a British Royal Commission of Inquiry – was started, headed by Lord William Peel in 1936 to investigate the causes of unrest. The room where the Peel Commission held hearings was bugged by pre-state Zionist entities. The commission took place in the Palace Hotel during 1936-1937, and published its recommendation to partition Palestine.
During the Independence War years, the hotel was close to battle zones and to the sniper-riddled Mamilla neighborhood, and adjacent to the area known as No-Man’s Land (1948-1967) which abutted the Israel-Jordanian armistice line (now the Jaffa Gate area and along the route of the light rail as it turns near the Old City walls). The hotel was deserted until 1948 when the new government of Israel took it over for use as the Ministry of Commerce and Trade for 50 years.
Some may recall this as the setting for some gritty scenes in the 2006 film adaptation of the David Grossman book Mishehu Larutz Ito (Someone to Run With) when it was depicted – graffiti and all – as a crash pad for runaway street kids.
The neglected heritage landmark was never demolished but in the early 2010s was fully restored by a team of architects who returned it to its original 1929 splendor – even retaining the original entrance – taking three years out of the total of eight years to complete the renovation. The result is the melding of Greco-Roman, Gothic and Ottoman architecture, together with the classic style that we see today.
The Jerusalem hotel is in the Waldorf–Astoria Collection of the Hilton Hotels Worldwide luxury brand, one of only 18 hotels globally in the International Brand group, and the only one being so designated in Jerusalem, rated at the top #1 luxury level.
General Manager Avner On, originally from Tel Aviv, brought me up to date on the hotel’s precautions during the pandemic. He has extensive experience in the hospitality industry, having served in the Baltimore Hyatt during its opening years, as well as the Hilton Prague and London. He has been with the Hilton Hotel company for 32 years and with the Waldorf-Astoria for roughly five years.
Says On, “It was clear to us that the pre-corona normal buffet breakfast would not be safe for the guests or for the staff. Rather than a long buffet where it is impossible to enforce social distancing and where the same serving spoons may be held by up to 200 people in a morning, we changed the concept to table service. We offer 80% of what was previously part of the buffet before corona, but it is served to socially distanced tables by masked waiters according to the guests’ requests. There are unlimited refills of all menu offerings.”
Wearing a dark T-shirt and casual pants, it would be hard to identify On as the general manager. His easy smile fades as he describes the situation. “We were totally closed from March 15. Of our 234 workers, since May 27 when we reopened, only 30% have returned from furlough, with 70% still not yet returned to work. All of upper management is filling in doing whatever work is necessary throughout the hotel, beyond their regular work.”
While there, I was aware that the Sunday-morning crowd did not have the international feel of the pre-corona days. On noted that the current composition of guests is now made up of 90% Israelis and only 10% from overseas, almost all from North America.
Nonetheless, glamor does come to the hotel, sometimes in the way of national delegations of foreign states. In June, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and his entourage of seven ministers held meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Waldorf. On went on to say that in the capital city, “there are only really two hotels that are competitors to host top international delegations – the Waldorf and the King David,” two blocks away.
The high percentage of Israelis among the guests also affects other aspects. When it opened, the Waldorf attracted a very noticeably religious contingent and quickly the lobby atmosphere seemed to be the hotspot for shidduch dates. On notes that the current mix of guests at the Waldorf is now “just like any other Jerusalem hotel.”
CHEF WALEED ASHAYER serves up shakshuka at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, Jerusalem. (Photos: Heddy Breuer Abramowitz)CHEF WALEED ASHAYER serves up shakshuka at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, Jerusalem. (Photos: Heddy Breuer Abramowitz)
It was hard to keep my eyes off of the beautiful spread of Waldorf breakfast options while I was speaking with On. The high-end attention to detail was richly apparent; all the choices were plated beautifully. The items available were listed on printed menus in Hebrew and in English. It was a pleasure to be served.
Time to try their coffee. I ordered a simple café hafuch to start the morning off right. They use an Italian coffee supplied by the veteran AVA company of Haifa, founded in 1941. There is a dedicated barista at the ready to satisfy your desires.
With something (actually, many things) for everyone, the menu leaves no one hungry. There are a number of savory and sweet choices, including three salads. That day’s special salad was made with chopped herbs, similar to tabbouleh but with a ptitim cousous-style pasta instead of the traditional bulgur wheat and with the addition of craisins contributing a sweet and colorful accent to the herbal dish. Personally, I have never been a craisins fan and for me, they are something to pick out and push to the side of my salad. Ptitim is not my idea of elegance either; it is more of a budget-stretcher and time-saver.
The other salad I tried was the classic chopped Israeli salad.
“Now with so many Israeli guests in the hotel, we can adapt to more local tastes,” said executive chef Itzik Barak Mizrahi, for example, using more kuzbara (cilantro) in addition to more assertive picanti seasoning. The sweet options include pancakes, waffles and French toast. Besides omelets made to order, the three specialty egg options available when I came were shakshuka, frittata and eggs Benedict. So hard to decide – so I tried all three.
The frittata was made in an individual baking form, presented beautifully and while fine, was a bit oily to my taste, so I moved on to the next option.
Chef Waleed Ashayer of “al-Quds” (in his words), a Jerusalemite, served the shakshuka tableside from a large skillet. It had a welcome spiciness but was far from hot. It is very hard to get the right point of doneness of the eggs in this dish, which is an individual preference. To my taste, they were a bit more done than I like but the tomato-based sauce made up for that. And the in-house baked selection of breads was perfect to swipe it up in the relaxed local custom. The butter and jams were packaged by Tara and Beit Yitzhak. I wondered with summer fruits at their peak whether the seasonal choice may have been better served with in-house jams or preserves to add a quality of special local flavor.
I poked my elegant silvered fork into the eggs Benedict. The creamy yolk burst out and the whites were not underdone, a perfectly pulled-off poached egg. The dish, long associated with the legendary Waldorf-Astoria in New York, was wonderfully adapted to the kosher kitchen.
Here, a house-baked slice of brioche supported the tower consisting of deep-green quickly cooked fresh spinach, topped by a contrasting pale coral-hued slice of somewhat salty lox, the poached egg and the final touch of said sauce carefully draped over it all, thus giving a Florentine and Jewish twist to the dish. One bite took me back to college years of Georgetown brunches, and this dish could easily match them.
Jerusalem-born Chef Barak learned the love of food from his traditional family of Halabi-Turkish origins, growing up with the delectable foods of Allepo – including lahm bi ajeen, the open-faced tamarhindi-laced ground-meat flatbread. He started his path on a culinary journey in Europe and elsewhere seeking out work in the kitchens of the top chefs he admired.
“From them I took on my principles of nothing bland, absolute freshness and continual innovation,” said Mizrahi.
In pre-corona days he directed a staff of 45 chefs at the Waldorf, now much reduced. He has been with Hilton Hotels for six years.
At the start of his career, the finest restaurants were nearly uniformly offering classical French cuisine. In contrast, Mizrahi emphasizes local sourcing, Mediterranean flavors, Jerusalem influences and heirloom recipes from his family. It is also economically sound, especially when doing business in difficult times. Not being dependent on imports being flown in gives a large concern like the Waldorf more flexibility.
The breakfast evidences Mizrahi’s touch. It is seasonal, with minimal travel time to arrive at your plate and bearing the flavor notes from local cuisine. Like wines that taste of the terroir in which they are cultivated, so too do the ingredients take on the flavor of their origin. Locally pressed olive oil, cheeses made in the Jerusalem region that are authentic and familiar. The cheeses bring with them the flavors drawn from the dry winds rushing over heat-battered hills and evergreen scrubs where herds graze.
Tourists coming to Israel are often excited by the freshness of the local produce, how sweet the carrots are and how fresh the standard local bread is. Israelis are a harder nut to crack. Many locals are themselves accomplished cooks and there is no lack of coffee shops that serve a pretty decent breakfast. Breakfast is so popular that it may be a menu item available at any hour. So the hard cheeses, for instance, are all good, but a local foodie knows just which store carries the best of them and will not be over-impressed at being served them. There are artisanal cheesemakers in Israel that create varieties a notch or two above.
Other menu items rounding things out are pretty run-of the-mill: mayonnaisey tuna salad made with capers; olives; tahini; cottage cheese; a smoked fish plate that had a good smoked salmon and a fruit plate consisting of melon, watermelon and green grapes when I visited – likely what you keep in your home fridge.
To do justice to the sweet side of things, I tried the cheesecake. I knew better than to expect a New York cheesecake, because after all, we are in the Middle East, and Philadelphia Cream Cheese is not local. I was pleasantly surprised by their version, which pulled up a culinary memory. Their cheesecake recalled the simple traditional baked cheesecake of the local Jerusalem kitchen of old – ta’am shel pa’am. During my first years here, a small traditional bakery that stood on the corner a block away from the Waldorf was a required stop coming and going from the Old City, before it was vacated to make way for the Mamilla district renewal project. The straightforward local flavor contrasted nicely with the update of alternating stripes of passion fruit and wild-berry sauces. This was served alongside my second coffee, which came strong as I requested, and certainly gave me more of a jolt than the first. I found the waitstaff to be very attentive and specific instructions were welcome.
With limitations in the size of weddings these days, the costs of such smachot have dropped to much less than when affairs of 400 to 600 people were not unusual. Despite the weight of pandemic economics, some newlyweds choose to spend their wedding night at the elegant Waldorf-Astoria and a memorable romantic wedding-morning breakfast to start off life together.
The hotel remains at a reduced service level. One of their most pleasant spots is the fourth-floor overlook terrace, which is only open to overnight hotel guests for nibbles and beverages. When it fully reopens, one will be able to relax overlooking the verdant expanse of treetops and fantasize about big-sky vistas.
The indoor heated swimming pool at the Waldorf is gearing up to reopen very soon, the head of the press department for Hilton Hotels Motti Verses told In Jerusalem.
No one comes to a top international level hotel expecting a bargain. There is, however, an element of raised expectations that a Waldorf-Astoria breakfast will be on a level separating itself from other hotels, not just leave everyone sated, but going a bit beyond the norm. Considering the times, the belt-tightening and the reduced staff, the breakfast lacked the extra wow factor, but that was understandable and it was quite enjoyable.
The atmosphere of the surroundings and the location more than make this a good choice for a special day. I would suggest bringing teens at that bottomless-pit stage of constant hunger or treating your soldiers, those doing national service, gap-year, university or yeshiva students to eat waffles, pancakes and all the rest to their heart’s content for an end-of-summer treat (keeping in mind the limits per table in line with corona restrictions).
Or, consider choosing this as a present to yourself and a special someone as a romantic breakfast, to start early and leisurely let the day unwind. My recommendation is to go for the eggs Benedict with extra Hollandaise sauce served on the side.
With neither airfare nor hotel expense to reckon with, this feeds your yen for pleasure – and then you can go home to sleep in your own bed. At day’s end, you might ask yourself whether eating your breakfast at the site of the former mufti’s hotel might not be the best last laugh.
Waldorf-Astoria Hotel
Distinction: Most Classic
Address: 26-28 Gershon Agron St., Jerusalem, 9419008
Telephone: (02) 542-3333
Cost of breakfast: NIS 145 including VAT
Kashrut: Jerusalem Rabbinate using Mehadrin ingredients.
Hours: Breakfast is served 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Shabbat morning must be booked ahead.
Bathroom: One of Jerusalem’s classiest is adjacent to the breakfast area.
FOR MANY Israelis, Jerusalem is one of the most exotic locations in the country. After your stroll through the Mamilla Mall you can climb the short set of steps to Jaffa Gate. Once you pass through the gate you are in a different world.
Normally, the hustle and bustle of tour guides leading large groups from all over the globe makes people-watching here fascinating. During my visit, shortly before the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, the streets were mostly empty, a combination of both the high pandemic numbers and the summer heat.
Before turning into the Christian Quarter to the left, take note that the Jerusalem Municipality has opened a new section of the Ramparts Walks. It starts on the right at the beginning of the turn toward the entrance of the Tower of David Museum. Try not to overshoot it. Descend the steps on your right leading into the moat of David’s Tower. The Ramparts Walks normally have a nominal charge, so even those familiar with the Old City may want to explore this newly opened section.
 A DETAIL of the vintage sign of the second coffee vendor on Khan al-Zeit Street.  (Heddy Breuer Abramowitz) A DETAIL of the vintage sign of the second coffee vendor on Khan al-Zeit Street. (Heddy Breuer Abramowitz)
Alternatively, from the Jaffa Gate take one of the left turns into the Christian Quarter and wind around to reach the area of the New Gate. During my July visit, I was guided by my former Jewish Quarter neighbor and good friend Amnon Shiloni, a journalist with Voice of Israel radio from 1972 to 2014. He helped revolutionize the music they broadcast in 1978, when he changed their playlists to all Israeli music. Now retired, he gives bespoke tours to an eclectic range of visitors interested in hearing about the Old City from an Arabic-, Hebrew- and English-speaking insider with a journalist’s perspective.
The Old City, like the rest of Israel’s tourist attractions, has been hard hit by the lack of foreign visitors. Some shop owners have been lackadaisical and only sporadically open their shops. Others took advantage of the downturn to do repairs, renovations or to move to less expensive rentals; all this was evident as we took the short walk toward the New Gate.
Next to the just-relocated Sandrouni Armenian pottery store, one can see a few tables to the right. This is the newly opened Patisserie Abu Seir, a family business that opened earlier this summer, about five months ago, in the midst of the corona crisis. Arabic- and English-speaking Sarah Abu Seir is one of the pastry chef’s children and she served us the freshly brewed coffee – in oversized “regular” cups – at corona-friendly outdoor tables with Abu Seir’s amazing brioche. His other children Rajee and Mariam also work in the business.
The coffee was very good. They use the Italian Illy brand and Ibrahim Abu Seir was proud to point out it is of the better Arabica type.
Abu Seir is a Muslim Arab born and educated in the Old City. His family’s business when he was growing up was a bakery for “Mizrahi” pastries, as he calls them, such as baklava and kanafeh.
“Our family was the first to do the kanafeh with cheese and we brought it from Nablus to Jerusalem,” he says. Now, Abu Seir is the first in his family to create European pastries.
He earned a degree in hotel management from Bethlehem University. By 1986, he was hired by Jerusalem’s Hyatt Regency as a simple cook in the “conditoria,” recounts Abu Seir, using the German term for pastry department. His Hebrew is sprinkled with army, foreign and slang terms. An 18-year stint at the David Citadel Hotel followed, as the assistant chef of the pastry kitchen.
All along, Abu Seir sought to increase his knowledge. He took one-week and 10-day courses in France, Belgium and Italy, supplemented with classes offered by international pastry chefs on local visits. His thirst for knowledge is clear.
“The wise one knows he knows nothing. There is always more to learn,” says Abu Seir.
His entire career has been spent in the kitchens of top kosher hotels in Jerusalem, and he is familiar with the intricacies of kashrut, which he acknowledges are “complicated.”
“I have a great respect for all religions, not just my own.”
When asked if he has a certificate of kosher supervision. Abu Seir answers, “Sadly, there is not too much demand for it… if there was I would get one.” He adds, “There is no meat product of any kind in my kitchen; it is important to me that it be all dairy.”
And not just for religious reasons. When he remarks that his brioche – which was beyond belief – is half made up of butter: “It’s healthier than bourekas, which is all margarine and that is the worst.”
This is a man who knows well that there is no substitute for the best ingredients.
La Patisserie Abu Seir
Distinction: French pastry flair in the Old City
Kashrut: No kosher supervision. All dairy, all ingredients certified kosher.
Hours: 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., open daily. Sundays from
9 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Address: Waze – Jerusalem New Gate, No. 35
Phone: 052-877-0255
Bathroom: Yes, small but fine.
Social media: Facebook – La Patisserie Abu Seir; Instagram – lapatisserie.abu.seir
 CAFÉ HAFUCH and brioche make a pretty pair at La Patisserie Abu Seir (Heddy Breuer Abramowitz) CAFÉ HAFUCH and brioche make a pretty pair at La Patisserie Abu Seir (Heddy Breuer Abramowitz)
SHILONI AND I continue our hunt for java haunts and arrive at the coffee shop of Rimon Himo.
Himo’s shop is located just steps away from Damascus Gate. It is set on a balcony rising slightly above the crowd, outdoors and in the center of what is normally one of the busiest shopping streets. This is a great perch for people-watching. Only days before Eid al-Adah, despite the heat, there are plenty of masked shoppers wending their way through the stalls. I must have passed this spot hundreds of times and never noticed it before Shiloni brought me.
Himo himself is a Christian Arab whose father is an Assyrian and whose mother is Armenian.
The spot’s three small tables are all topped with typical Armenian tile work and ideally placed to get a pleasant view of the goings-on. Himo speaks English well. He brings us freshly brewed Turkish coffee and cold bottled water.
Now I know why this strong Turkish coffee is always served very sweet at the end of weddings. This one is flavored with cardamom, or hel, and packs quite a coffee punch. Unless, like my guide, you have long experience drinking this brew, permit yourself some sweetener.
Café Rimon Himo
Distinction: Real deal
Address: At the juncture of Al-Wad Street and the main Khan al-Zeit St., Damascus Gate.
Telephone: 054-454 8346
Kashrut: No
Website or social media: No
FURTHER ALONG the same Khan al-Zeit street, with your back to Damascus Gate and going south, are two coffee vendors fairly close together both near the Seventh Station of the Cross of the Via Dolorosa. Both are father-and-son stores on the right side of the street. The first has newer signage and the second a more vintage-looking sign; otherwise they look similar and carry similar stock.
Shiloni has been buying his coffee mixture for years from the Izhiman’s coffee and spices store (the first of the two vendors; their sign says it was founded in 1921, but Shiloni was not buying his coffee mixture there that far back) and this is his personal blend: 150 gr. of light roast beans, mixed with 50 gr. of dark roast beans to which he adds five grams of cardamom seeds. The 250-gr. ground blend costs NIS 10. The sellers speak English.
Amnon Shiloni is on Facebook, Instagram and can be reached at [email protected] and 052-660-0187.
ANOTHER APPROACH to your staycation is to bite the bullet and pick a hotel to explore your surroundings up close. Everyday life keeps us all busy, but even a change of scene in another part of town is a way to recharge.
The Villa Brown Ba’Moshava in the German Colony is new to the Villa Brown Boutique Hotel collection, one of two in Jerusalem, having bought the Arcadia Hotel in 2018. If you are a fan of high-style contemporary design you will enjoy the considerable thought that went into the century-old building since being bought by owners Leon Avigad, Nitzan Perry and Nir Weitzman.
Sitting in the lobby for a bit, I saw that non-guests were vetted by taking temperatures and determining their purpose for entering the building, in accordance with regulations.
Jerusalemite Majdi Ateeq, who lives on the Mount of Olives, is the operational manager. One of the Arcadia’s original workers, he showed me around the hotel to see recent changes due both to coronavirus and resulting from the recent overhaul done in the first three months of this year. Renovations ended with the pandemic lockdown and were finished for the reopening earlier this summer.
The new look combines diverse antiques with the original stone staircase and wrought-iron grill work. The palette of burnt sienna-bricky brown, black and matte gold repeats throughout the building. Crystal mirrors – of the ornate antique Eastern European type or of the sleek bezel-edge framed variety – are a style element. Scatter rugs of faux animal skins may bring safaris to mind.
LUXE LOBBY at the Villa. (Max Kovalsky/Brown Hotels)LUXE LOBBY at the Villa. (Max Kovalsky/Brown Hotels)
Foreign thoughts will be prompted by the adjacent Greek Community property, which flies Greek flags and whose arched steel gate carries a Greek quotation. When open, it houses a small exhibit about the local Greek community. A walk around the fence of the fruit tree-studded property can bring a sense of calm. Further along Emek Refaim Street are a number of original Templar houses bearing Gothic script of German Bible quotes over their lintels.
Sitting in Villa Ba'Moshava’s charming courtyard, urban stress recedes. Ateeq brings out coffee for us in corona-appropriate disposable cups. He mentions that beverages flow freely, including unlimited brewed coffee gratis, following their policy “to treat guests as if they have come to their own home.”
Each hotel in the chain, Ateeq says, has its own individual brand. Here, Instead of a kitchen serving breakfast they have a breakfast concept: Guests are given a voucher to redeem at one of three select coffee shops during designated times: Caffit, Ben Ami or at the Lev Smadar Cinema café, a neighborhood landmark. Ateeq explains, “We are in a very beautiful and fabulous neighborhood,” and this concept helps get the guests out to experience it.
Villa Brown Ba’Moshava
Distinction: Most like an urban village
Kashrut: Breakfast vouchers include kosher options
Address: 13 Yehoshua Bin Nun St.
Telephone: (02) 542-3000
NO COFFEE-LOVER should miss visiting the German Colony’s coffee mecca, The Coffee Mill, with their imports of 45 different varieties of beans, including three types of decaffeinated beans. With some imagination you can travel the world without leaving your seat.
Leah Breslow met me at the shop and we had a masked interview with the backdrop of New Yorker magazine covers that have graced their walls since doors opened around 1995. Some badly faded ones have recently been replaced and there is even a corner of grim conronavirus covers bearing artwork by the New Yorker’s artists. Over the years these covers have added cultural familiarity, drawing in their many Anglo customers, although Breslow notes that many of the neighborhood’s native Israelis have also made it their own.
A corona-appropriate spot, there are a number of outdoor tables and reduced seating indoors to maintain proper social distancing. Hygiene bottles are available. Cold water is served in single-use cups.
Born in Talpiot, Breslow’s American dad and Canadian mom moved the family to Efrat in her early years. The pull to coffee was cultivated early on.
“The coffee shop was very important to me. I love coffee shops. I grew up in coffee shops and I would come with my dad to the Coffee Mill,” says Breslow.
Nonetheless, it was a circuitous route that brought her to being the operational partner for the shop. Breslow did her national service at the Jerusalem Variety Center on Diskin Street working with Down syndrome children. She completed her BA in politics at the Hebrew University and earned her MA in conflict resolution, followed by a stint working for the Mandell Foundation.
Was it karma or kismet when Breslow met her husband Yitzi Katz in Jerusalem and they married? Breslow’s mother-in-law Debbie Katz turned out to be one of the owners of the Coffee Mill. (Full disclosure: Yitzy is a younger brother of The Jerusalem Post Editor-in-Chief Yaakov Katz.)
When asked what coffee I wanted, I left it up to Breslow to surpirise me. It came as a large cold brew, which they prepare from a different single-origin bean daily. Mine was made from beans originating in the Pedro Romero farm of Honduras. A tall cooling drink on a hot summer’s day, it was strong with deep flavor. Cold brew is new for the Coffee Mill, Beslow told us. As an aside, Breslow says, cold coffee and cold brew are popular in Japan.
In 2013, Bresolw and her husband moved to Chicago for him to complete his MSW degree. New to the Windy City, Breslow used her Hebrew to take a job in a Jewish organization building educational curricula. She then started to pursue what she considered a side hobby by taking a coffee-roasting course. She notes that there is an exciting java scene in Chicago. There, she could advance her learning, all of which was spurred to some degree by being in a coffee family.
Before long, Breslow left education to work for the roasters Bridgeport Coffee Company, learning management and retail skills, coming in as a manager. By this point she realized this was no longer a hobby but a serious career change. Now with a baby, the couple returned to Israel after four years away, the pull of missing family and home bringing them back. They now have two children, aged one and three.
The original owners, Debbie Katz and cousin-partner Rosie Natan, started out in business together in Modi’in, running that coffee shop for eight years.
Natan says of the move to Emek Refaim, “We dreamt about it. It was a learning experience every step of the way, but it was never really a cultural problem. We were definitely singled out as two older Anglo ladies, but we had each other and were always close. Looking back now I see the experience as being blessed, we were at a good place at a good time – our dream came true. We were naïve about certain things and there was lots of hard work, but we were totally dedicated and had a good run.”
Five years ago, ready to hang up their mugs and retire, Katz and Natan were looking for a buyer for the business they founded. Breslow and Avi Katz, her youngest brother-in-law, picked up the reins. A resident of Tel Aviv, his skills are put to use on the accounting side of things. Breslow has been the managing “hands-on” partner for three years.
One of their first changes was to switch the kashrut supervisors from the Jerusalem Rabbinate, which the store had used for 20 years, to Tzohar certification. She is happy with the change, finding the women who work as supervisors to be knowledgeable and accessible, with improved financial transparency.
There are two more parameters that are important in the coffee world. The fair-trade certificate is part of a new trend to protect the coffee pickers and workers via labor laws. The label that a grower is part of the Rainforest Alliance gives some assurance of environmental protection for the fragile ecosystem.
Running a business in never-a-dull–moment times has been challenging. But each challenge brought its lessons. The first thing Breslow did when the lockdown came was offering takeaway coffee, but it was not entirely clear what the regulations permitted. When they could reopen, Breslow limited their food menu so that the emphasis would be squarely placed on their coffee rather than their food – which by the way is good. The choices are few and more in the nature of a snack than a meal. They do not aspire to be a restaurant, notes Breslow.
The other big step was to initiate home deliveries of their beans to anywhere in the country. This was a quick pivot. Meeting the increased demand for touch-free commerce has helped Breslow “keep our heads above the water” of their coffee river. They have used this time without tourists to develop and enhance their new website to facilitate online ordering.
BAR SEATING within looks out onto Emek Refaim Street at The Coffee Mill. (Heddy Breuer Abramowitz)BAR SEATING within looks out onto Emek Refaim Street at The Coffee Mill. (Heddy Breuer Abramowitz)
Breslow’s passion really bubbles to the top when she talks coffee. Israel does not lie within the global horizontal area where coffee is best raised: the tropical weather zone found between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, referred to as the Bean Belt. There are two types of coffee. Arabica is considered the better-quality bean grown in very high altitudes, over 1,600-meter elevation. Robusta beans, grown at lower levels, are not considered as high quality and are mostly used to manufacture instant brews.
Breslow works with roasters from all over Israel, though none in Jerusalem.
“We direct the roasters to time the roast precisely in order to emphasize certain characteristics of the bean. Some acidity is a good thing, but it should be an interesting level of acidity, like the balance a green apple brings to food. Also, roasting too long will bring bitterness to the bean. Generally the roasting takes between 16 and 20 minutes. Light roast has more sweet notes, like Honduran beans may have a chocolaty aspect. Dark roast can have flavors of fruit, or a nutty facet with some acidity.”
If this lingo recalls the way wine experts speak, that is no accident. Both fields are acutely aware of all factors in raising their crop: weather, water, soil and other elements that can come into play to manipulate the best in the grape or the bean. In both, the terroir of the earth affects the character of the fruit and the end product.
“We taste and try every coffee before we decide to bring it in to the store and order a large supply,” says Breslow, “because purchasing coffee is a big investment.”
Coffee availability is dynamic and depends on factors such as season, locale and climate. After half a year, a particular bean may become unavailable until the following year.
“Some coffees have similar profiles and when a variety of bean is no longer in stock, it pushes people to try something new,” Breslow clarifies.
Leah Breslow’s coffee tips:
• Keep coffee as fresh as possible, best to use it up within a month.
• Buy in small amounts more often, rather than buying large quantities that won’t stay fresh.
• Grind your coffee in small amounts right before you use it. A simple grinder is fine.
• Store in a dark dry place, like a kitchen cupboard. Never store in the freezer or refrigerator.
Breslow’s three top picks for an airport-free coffee journey:
1. Santo Domingo coffee from the Dominican Republic: With chocolate notes, low acidity and a smooth finish, and is considered a medium-bodied coffee.
2. Tanzania Peaberry: This variety bears a single tiny bean instead of the normal twin fruits connected with other varieties. It is full-bodied, a strong coffee, well-balanced with nutty notes. Breslow recommends brewing it in a machinetta.
3. Indonesian Mena Gold: With a heavy earthy feel, good in a filter coffee or as espresso.
With each sip, close your eyes and try to visualize yourself in tropical mountains riding through the coffee farms. Compare and contrast.
Breslow enjoys teaching people about coffee and sometimes on a slow morning will sit with customers to try a couple of different beans to develop their sense of what they prefer. Their most popular house blend is the Signia from single-origin Santo Domingo coffee beans.
The lemonades Breslow made from coronavirus lemons, perhaps most crucially, were life lessons. Despite the lack of business during the months of regulations and lockdown, Breslow learned “to just keep on going,” she says. “We opened up the store no matter what. Show up! We realized this won’t go on forever.”
The Coffee Mill
Distinction: Most knowledgeable about java
Address: 23 Emek Refaim St., German Colony
Phone: (02) 566-1665
Hours: Sunday-Thursday 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., Friday 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Bathroom: Yes, two, and full-size sink, same floor
Koffee Key term: Cold Brew (Halita kara shel kaffe or Kold broo)
The writer was a guest of the establishments visited. In the Old City, she was a guest of Amnon Shiloni.