In good taste?: Weighing in on the kashrut debate

Jerusalem's chefs and restaurant owners weigh in on the kashrut debate.

la boca 298  (photo credit: Courtesy)
la boca 298
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The decision to make a restaurant kosher would seem to be simple, especially in the Holy City. With the recent changeover of six branches of the Aroma coffee shop chain to kosher status and McDonald's still knocking at the door of the Rabbinate, it is obvious that the economic clout of the religious sector is a major determining factor. But religious diners are only one part of the equation, and it turns out that it is not a black-and-white issue at all. "There have been changes," reflects chef Adi Cohen, owner of Cielo, a small and intimate Italian eatery on Rehov Ben-Sira considered to be one of the best restaurants in the city. "There used to be a lot more people who were eating kosher, then there were fewer, and now there are more." Cielo, which has been in operation for 15 years, serves traditional northern Italian food, specializing in dishes such as tournedo (a cut of beef), veal, fish and seafood. According to Cohen, tourists are a large part of his clientele and many repeat customers are actually from out of the country and make it a point to stop at Cielo when they are in Jerusalem. "It's hard to do ethnic food," Cohen explains. "We want to do it very close to the original, and to worry about kashrut is very difficult. People are searching for the complete experience, and sometimes when you eat only kosher you don't know how the food is originally. But if you understand, then it's impossible to do something kosher, and for the chef it's not creative. Of course, it is more comfortable to work in a kosher place in one area: if you work in a nonkosher restaurant, you have to work every day!" Some chefs, like Cohen, feel confined by the limitations of kosher cuisine and want freedom in the kitchen, while others are fascinated by the challenge of creating a kosher menu. Chef Guy Kimchi of the Latin-fusion La Boca on Emek Refaim has taken ethnic food in the opposite direction. La Boca, which opened five months ago, is an ambitious attempt to adapt various Latin American cuisines to the Israeli palate. It seems to be largely successful, and Kimchi, who defines himself as traditional, clearly revels in the challenges of the kosher kitchen. "It's fun and deep. I was eager to begin," he says. "I cooked in nonkosher restaurants, and you can do what you want, but if you are kosher, you have to find other ways. It's very interesting to do kosher Latin food. We use a lot of coconut milk and corn flour to get different tastes." La Boca is on the second floor of an old Templar building, and features a stunning glass-enclosed balcony that allows diners to observe the busy Rehov Emek Refaim below. Standout dishes include entrecote steak, which is served with grilled vegetables, and what has become La Boca's signature dish, ceviche (marinated fish salad) made with red tuna and served on a fried corn tortilla. "My restaurant is basically mehadrin," Kimchi says, referring to the stricter level of kashrut certification. "But the certificate was too expensive so we got the regular Jerusalem Rabbinate. We have a mashgiah [inspector] here all the time, he checks the meat, everything goes by him. If people want to have a party and bring wine [from outside] he is there to check it." The differences between regular kashrut and mehadrin are also an issue for Shmil Holand, who has run a successful catering business for 14 years and this Sunday will celebrate the opening of his restaurant Shmil Behama'abada, which, as the name implies, will be located adjacent to the popular performance venue Hama'abada on Derech Hebron. "We are dairy, and if I took mehadrin, there would be fewer possibilities for ingredients like goat cheese," says Holand, who despite being religious himself is up-front about some problems with kosher food. "It is harder to get good quality kosher meat; we are dairy so I can guard the standard of the food. "Kashrut is personally important to me, so there is no question," he continues. "Most of the places around [the restaurant] aren't kosher, so we are opening to the kosher public... but the crowd will arrive not because of the kashrut, but because of the attention to detail and the high quality." Of course there are many traditional eateries in the city that are more or less kosher in terms of the food itself, but do not have a certificate for various reasons. Some of them are very much in the religious world, so word gets around that their food can be relied upon, while others, like Arcadia at the end of Rehov Agrippas, stay open on Shabbat, which prevents them from receiving certification. A restaurant that is closed on Saturdays would lose a whole day of business but gain the religious clients during the week. Raw economic calculations, however, are not the only issues at work. Ezra Kedem, chef and owner of Arcadia for 12 years, explains: "We are an Israeli-style kitchen doing original Mediterranean food with Arabic influences. I have a catering outlet that is kosher, but didn't want the certificate [for the restaurant] because of our crowd; we get a lot of business during Shabbat day. I think kashrut is something good... mesoratim [traditional Jews] find themselves here and I feel totally fine with that. At the end of the day I work with the same elements, but there are laws that I don't understand. I know that once there weren't refrigerators so we used salt [on meat], but now that is more symbolic." Another restaurant that is trying to find a balance is the two-month-old sushi bar Domo, located on Rehov Shamai downtown. Bustling with an early evening crowd during a recent visit, Domo is a clean, modern sushi restaurant with a full bar and a friendly vibe. Young couples, a mother with a baby, groups of friends and men with kippot are all happily chowing down well-crafted morsels. "The place is kosher without a certificate," says co-owner Iris Arie. "People told us we needed one, but Jerusalemites are a lot more open than what people think. We don't use nonkosher ingredients, but we are open on Shabbat, and we think that there is no one person who can come and tell you what the idea of kosher is. It is pass . A lot of people come with kippot; it's enough that someone says we don't have seafood. It's a surprise." Located off Jaffa Road in Nahalat Shiva, Sakura, a venerable Japanese/sushi restaurant that opened 15 years ago, was originally kosher but became nonkosher after three years in operation. Owner Boaz Tsairi explains: "I couldn't compete with the other restaurants [that were open on Shabbat] and I didn't have cooperation from the Rabbinate because many of the ingredients I use didn't have certification. [Afterwards] it was much, much easier on the business and we got a bigger crowd. Actually, most of our ingredients are kosher, but we do have some seafood, and sometimes shrimp." Sakura, with its minimalist Japanese design, popular sushi bar and homemade rice noodles, is a success, but Tsairi hasn't given up on the kosher market and plans to open up a new Japanese restaurant with a kashrut certificate. "I worked with rabbis and helped to make maybe 15 or 20 products from Japan kosher," he says. "Also, a lot of the products now are from the US market [so they often have kosher status from a group recognized by the Jerusalem Rabbinate]. This time it will be much easier." Nonkosher restaurants seem to often find themselves accommodating the specific needs of Jerusalem diners, many of whom still pay attention to some of the kashrut laws even if they are not religious. "We came from working in a lot of restaurants in Tel Aviv," says Anat Kirsh of Zuni, a recently opened European-style bistro without a certificate. "There it's not an issue. In Jerusalem, there are a lot of mesoratim, so we get very nice meat but we try not to mix the meat and milk. We have seafood, but we have a lot of other things also." Zuni, located off Rehov Yoel Solomon, is actually a combination restaurant, caf and bar, and was conceived by the owners as a place with something for everyone. Its high ceilings and dark wood interior seem perfect for a romantic dinner, but Zuni also has a full breakfast menu and a well-stocked bar for late night socializing. The restaurant also fills a niche for the nonkosher crowd - according to Kirsh, one of their popular breakfast items was originally made with salmon, but after repeated requests from customers they began to offer it with bacon as well. "We do French, Italian, Mediterranean and seafood. With this orientation, you can't do kosher, and there is the economic aspect as well," she says. Zuni's busiest night is Friday night. Although Kirsh has found a good niche with a Tel Aviv-style restaurant in the heart of Jerusalem, she is also quick to point out the advantages of the many kosher restaurants in the Holy City. "You know, I work in hi-tech also," she relates. "Once we wanted to all go out; it was 30 people and two of them were religious, so we had to find a kosher place in Tel Aviv. Searching for a quality restaurant with a private room took three weeks! I couldn't convince them to come here [to Jerusalem], but there are so many great places."