Cityfront: A market risk

Eli Mizrahi's Tzahko Restaurant, which did not have the same luck as did his bustling caf?, will close its doors this week for the last time.

In founding his gourmet kosher restaurant, Tzahko, in a grungy backlane of the Mahaneh Yehuda market, Eli Mizrahi knew he was taking a risk, but his first had already paid off handsomely. He opened Café Mizrahi in 2002 in the heart of the shuk, despite warnings that a café in the pushy market would never succeed. Since then, more cafés and bakeries have sprung up where people can sip coffee to the storekeepers' cries of "Five shekel!" "10 shekel!" Tzahko, however, did not have the same luck, and after three years of operation it will be closing on April 17. The restaurant, named after Mizrahi's father, Yitzhak, is tucked in a dark corner underneath run-down apartments in what is known as the "Iraqi shuk," a few staircases away from the streetside grills on Rehov Agrippas. The restaurant's structure suggests shuk-style tightness rather than gourmet opulence. The narrow outdoor courtyard is sealed by plastic walls in the winter, and a separate upstairs dining area is designed like a cozy dining room with several square tables lit by house lamps. "Tzahko was built precisely in a place not geared to restaurants for people who seek restaurants," Mizrachi says. "It's directed to people more than anything else - the food, service." Mizrahi's faith in the shuk runs deep. Before his café and restaurant ventures, he worked at his family's nut shop. Today, Mizrahi, 56, has established himself as an influential shuk personality. "He changed the entire shuk!" enthused a shuk old-timer, interrupting the interview with Mizrahi. From 2000 Mizrahi has served as the chairman of the shuk's Merchant Committee. The the son of Jerusalemites of Turkish and Kurdish roots, he grew up in a home that "always loved food," a love he passed on to his daughter, Moran, who studied at the Cordon Bleu in France. She was behind the pastries at Café Mizrahi when it first opened and currently serves as Tzahko's chef. But Mizrahi's legendary status and people-loving intentions were not enough to lure the numbers necessary to sustain such a restaurant, which has been a choice of gourmet food lovers, dignitaries and foreign tourists - but not necessarily for the common man who frequents the shuk out of economic necessity. A meal at Tzahko, which his daughter concocts using produce, meat and poultry fresh off the shuk stands, easily surpasses NIS 100. No where else in Jerusalem can one order drum fish carpaccio garnished with strawberries or brochettes topped with marinated, raw ground beef mixed with aromatic coriander. "They've created a menu that people don't dare offer in a lot of kosher restaurants in Jerusalem, even outside the city," said Alona, a restaurant critic and regular customer at Tzahko. "Kosher restaurants are usually conservative." Mizrahi blames the low diner turnout largely on Jerusalemites' dining habits. "On the whole, it's a type of business that [finds it] hard to succeed in Jerusalem. Not many people go out here," he says. He thinks the location was part of Tzahko's charm, and notes that some New York restaurants built in industrial zones actually do very well if the food is good enough. Alona, on the other hand, thinks a more comfortable and conceptual design, as well as a more accessible location, would have attracted the crowds she believes the restaurant warrants. "Although the location was brave, it felt desolate at night. When the shuk is dead, you have to go through streets with men's clubs and the smell of urine. The space itself was also problematic. There was no real restaurant space - there was an outdoor area covered in plastic." The service was not always smooth, particularly when she dined in the separate room upstairs, she says. The closing of Tzahko, she says, is a loss for Jerusalem's culinary scene. She's not the only one who will miss it. One Wednesday night at Tzahko, several customers came up to Mizrahi, asking him not to close. A group of men sat with Mizrahi towards the end of the night and helped him calculate how to make the place profitable. They called themselves the "Tzahko Rescue Committee." "People have to pledge to eating at least one meal here weekly," the loyal Tzahko customer concluded. Customer pressure and loyalty makes it harder for Mizrahi and his daughter to close. "It's really home for me," says Moran Mizrahi after a long sigh. Still, she acknowledges the benefits of closing. "I'll have more time for myself, my daughter. It's a very hard business. It's like having a child. You have to be available 24 hours a day." Mizrahi speaks of the closing with remorse, and his shoulders sag. "My wife wants me to close it once and for all. She's right. Enough is enough."