Upmarket dining

Sushi and cappuccinos? An improbable menu of restaurants can be found in the heart of Jerusalem’s shuk.

dining at shuk 311 (photo credit: Talia Rubin)
dining at shuk 311
(photo credit: Talia Rubin)
Moris Biton has been grilling meat in the historic Mahaneh Yehudamarket for 50 years, but he had never stayed in one place very long.Over the years, his devoted cadre of followers kept asking “Where’sMoris?” every time he changed to another locale.
When Biton and his son finally opened their own restaurant in themiddle of the alley filled with butcher stalls, they named it “Moris”to answer the perennial question.
During the slower parts of the day, when only two of the four tablesare occupied, Moroccan-born Biton takes out his oud and plays anintricate melody in the traditional Arabic style. When he sits at atable with four yeshiva students and hums a song, one of themharmonizes, and the melody wafts down the alley filled with raw chickenwings and beef ribs.
A few times during the song, butchers wearing rubber boots and apronsstop by to drop off cuts of their best meats – special cutlets they’vesaved for Moris. The butchers are referred to with such epithets as“Tall Yitzhak” and “Fat Abraham.” Moris nods without breaking therhythm, not even bothering to inspect the deliveries – everyone knowshis standards.
Last year, Yediot Aharonot named Moris’s establishment one of the 10 best grilled meat restaurants in the country.
Moris isn’t alone in his culinary success in the heart of the country’smost beloved market. In the past five years, almost a dozen restaurantsand even more cafes have opened in different locations around the shuk,making Mahaneh Yehuda the city’s newest culinary core.
It’s not surprising to find restaurants taking advantage of thefreshest produce and bustling pedestrian market. What is surprising isthat it has taken this long.
“THE SHUK changes. People change,” Itzik Tzidkiyahu shrugs as hesurveys the shuk outside his cafe, part of a small empire of Tzidkiyahustores that includes a pickle store and a humous/cheese stand startedby Tzidkiyahu’s grandfather. Shuk patrons used to be mostly residentson their weekly shopping excursions, Tzidkiyahu says, but today themarket hosts a mixture of locals and tourists from every part of theglobe.
“The tourists have different requirements, so we decided to integrate.We call it ‘the innovation of the shuk.’ With all the tourists whovisit today, there’s a demand not just for fruits and vegetables andfish and chicken but also for boutiques and restaurants and for cafes,for other places where they can really hang out,” says Tzidkiyahu.
“Not every tourist can eat Mizrahi food, which is usually fried, orfelafel and shawarma,” says Yatso Nahamias, a neighborhood resident andformer owner of a small cookie stall. He shocked shuk purists byopening a branch of the popular Aroma chain in the main walkway of theshuk in 2008. “I see a lot of Americans who say that they won’t look ata place if it’s not whole grain and it’s not decaf and it’s not skimmilk. They’ll stay thirsty on their whole trip.”
In the beginning, the restaurants at the shuk were Azura, Mordo andRachmu, offering Mizrahi-style home-cooked food to a small, dedicatedclientele. Then in 2002, former head of the Shuk Committee Eli Mizrahiconverted part of the storeroom for his dried fruit store into a trendycoffee shop called “Mizrahi.”  “Some people said it was insane,”Mizrahi recalls, sitting at the only empty table in his crowded cafe ona Tuesday afternoon, a traditionally slow time for the shuk. “Somepeople said it was reasonable... The shuk just needed something forpeople other than fresh fruits and vegetables.”
At Mizrahi cafe, clients are in the thick of the market, sittingdirectly across from a butcher stall with raw meat on display. A mandelivering nuts to a dried fruit stall stands next to tourists sippingcappuccinos and calls out “Labriut!” (to your health). The touristssmile awkwardly, not quite sure what to make of the interaction.
After other vendors saw Mizrahi’s success, more restaurants and cafesopened. Most continue to offer traditional, ethnic, home-cooked food,such as Ochlim B’shuk (Eating in the Shuk). Others cater to a morediscriminating clientele. Ha’agas, for example, a tiny restaurantdecorated with cedar accents at the bottom of the former Banai familyhome, offers healthy, organic fare for enlightened vegetarians.
It’s possible to treat your taste buds to a worldwide culinary tourwithout leaving the shuk: Indian fare at Ichikidana, ravioli at theItalian Topolino, French-style quiches at Cafe Emil or Japanese sushirolls at Osaka. The non-kosher Mahanyehuda, a new restaurant withmismatched chairs and an open kitchen, was welcomed onto the Jerusalemrestaurant scene as one of the first truly boutique restaurants.  Themenu, printed each day, features dishes ranging from Rocky Mountainoysters to a NIS 345 prime rib to calf’s brains deep fried in bellpepper stew.
Many cafes and restaurants offer informal music during the summermonths, adding to the shuk’s growth as a cultural center. The ShukCommittee has organized successful events for the public, such as anall-night Purim party, cooking demonstrations (20,000 showed up,committee members claim, polishing off all the food samples within anhour), Tu Bishvat activities, and a concert in 2002 featuring theIsrael Philharmonic Orchestra on a stage decorated with vegetables.
AT THE busiest intersection, where the open shuk meets Rehov Agrippasand the incessant honking drowns out every third word of theconversation, Italian restaurant Topolino owner Yona Sasson insists sherevels in the noise.
“We love the shuk. We’re old Jerusalemites,” she says. “We loved thisarea and always came to hang out here. We decided to open in the shukbecause it seemed to really suit the shuk to have a lot of restaurantsfrom around the world. The shuk adds something to every restaurant.”
Sasson fled the hi-tech world with her husband three years ago to openTopolino, one of the first dairy restaurants in the area. She envisionsAgrippas filled with restaurants that will bring even the mostdiscriminating Tel Avivian to make the trip to Jerusalem.
But Sasson doesn’t have to wait. The tourists are already coming.
“We wanted to experience a part of Israeli culture, to feel the spirit,the people, the culture, to sit and enjoy the day a little,” says TelAviv native Sol Pozailov as she relaxes after a meal on the shuk’s maindrag with her husband, Yonatan. “The entire nation is caught up in theculture of the shuk,” Yonatan adds. It’s his first time in the MahanehYehuda shuk, and they are spending the entire afternoon there. ThePozailovs represent exactly what restaurant owners hope to accomplish:creating an image of the shuk as a destination – not just for cultureand fresh vegetables but also for sushi and cappuccinos.
However, all the shuk’s vendors and restaurant owners agree that amajor stumbling block standing in the way of an explosion of eateriesis the severe shortage of parking in the area. It is partly due to theongoing construction of the light rail, but they mostly blame themunicipality for not planning enough parking facilities for the centerof the city. “They should finish the train and find parking, and thenthis place will really blossom,” says Sasson.
LACK OF space in general is another challenge facing restaurant andcafe owners in an area where everything is crammed and crowded – manyrestaurants in the shuk have fewer than 30 seats. The only way to makea profit is to turn over the tables as quickly as possible. “Peoplewould eat, and then we’d kick them out,” says Moshe, whose fatherstarted Azura, a traditional Iraqi restaurant, more than 60 years ago.This past year, they moved from a tiny stall with 13 seats to anexpansive restaurant on the edges of the Iraqi shuk that can seat 50.“Now there’s more time to let people eat,” Moshe laughs. Azura’s hiddenlocation adds to its allure, on a plaza in the Iraqi shuk filled withdozens of elderly Iraqi men playing backgammon on boards so old,they’re black from dirt.
Most Mahaneh Yehuda restaurants are tucked into side alleys or theperipheral streets around the main market, meaning that patrons eitherhave to know exactly where they’re going or be willing to get totallylost in their search for lunch, wandering among the different stalls inforgotten corners. But that adds to the experience.
“That’s why we came to eat here – the noise, the smells, the color, thevoices,” says Saki Dunath, visiting for the day from Tel Aviv with herfriends as they sit down to a late lunch at Ha’agas.
“You come to do your shopping and get organized, and you can have areal meal,” says Shushan Ron, a Beersheba native visiting a friend inJerusalem. They tuck into an Indian meal at Ichikidana, one of theirtwo favorite restaurants in the shuk. “You can eat in quiet – okay,maybe not in total quiet. But you can relax and eat sitting downinstead of standing. The food is also healthier because it’s fresher.”
The noise, the lack of space and the dirt are all what make this areacome alive, and owners certainly appreciate their unique location. “Theshuk is our storeroom. You don’t need a real storeroom, becausewhatever we’re missing, we can go and buy, and it’s over and done with.It’s a huge advantage,” says Eyal Vaknin, owner of the Fortunarestaurant, an upscale grilled meat restaurant that opened last year.“You don’t need to think a day before what to order, how much and forwhat. You get what you feel like getting. If you’re missing tomatoes,you go and get tomatoes. Everything here is closer, fresher, and yousee the things with your own eyes. You don’t just call someone and whatthey bring is what you get. Here you see, you take. You can be avisionary.”
Restaurant owners call it “from stall to stall,” reveling in theirability to pick out their produce the same day. You’ll never find rawgreen beans in any restaurant in the shuk, Eli Mizrahi points out,because you can’t find good green beans here. And shuk chefs are morein tune to the seasons of the vegetables than your average chef becausethey’re surrounded by it every day. Most restaurants have a constantlychanging menu that reflects the whims of the chefs wandering the alleysof the shuk and finding fresh produce that strikes their fancy.
There is one place in the shuk where the menu will never change. Towardthe end of the open
shuk, the gleaming black-and-red Aroma sign standsout from the other stores. When Aroma first opened its doors in 2008,students from Nahlaot protested outside with signs that read“CAPITALISTS, OUT!”
“These same students now come to drink coffee and say, ‘It’s good thatyou opened,’” says Nahamias, the branch manager. “They come at 10 atnight and say, ‘I really need a hot chocolate.’”
But others are less thrilled by the march of progress and regard theentrance of Aroma as the beginning of the end of the authenticity ofthe shuk. What’s next – McDonald’s?
“If they have room, then why not?” laughs Yitzhak Haim, who’s worked in the shuk for 40 years and serves on the Shuk Committee.
“It would bring the tourists who love it,” adds Avraham Levy, avegetable vendor who also serves on the committee and has worked in theshuk for 32 years.
“I always thought the best food places have the longest lines,” saysEileen Harrad, a Michigan native on a two-week guided tour of Israel.Aroma is certainly one of the busiest restaurants in the shuk, cateringto a steady stream of tourists from around Israel and around the world.“I also heard this place has the one bathroom in the shuk,” she laughs.“And it was one place we could sit down. We couldn’t sit down at thoseplaces across the way, those felafel places. We haven’t had a chance tosit down at all.”
Tourists, the vendors agree, are the secret to the survival of theshuk. Rather than bemoaning the increasing gentrification, vendors areembracing trendier coffee shops, exclusive boutiques and fancy cheeseshops because they know this is what draws the tourists and theshekels.
“It’s a good idea, I suppose, to mix up the market for tourists andlocals. But the market should be geared to what the local people wantand need, not to the tourists. We’re here to see how real people live,”says Harrad. “Seeing different things – that’s why we travel.”
“If you think it’s prettier that I should be like the Old City, thatinstead of having an Aroma franchise, to cut this into two stores andhave a store for oranges and a store for bananas, I couldn’t make aliving,” says Nahamias. “The world goes forward, and that’s okay. It’sauthentic, it’s pretty, it’s a shuk. But underneath the preservation,we’re not animals in a zoo that you need to come see us and look at ussitting hawking tomatoes and at the end of the day we go home with nomoney, and the tourists return to their hotels. The tourists come here,so we should get their money for our livelihoods, to employ people.”
THERE ARE more than 600 independently owned stores in the shuk and itsperipheral streets and alleys. The Shuk Committee has no control overwho buys in the area, so the possibility that the shuk could becomeoverrun by restaurants and cafes or even home to a new McDonald’s isnot out of the question. But Tzidkiyahu believes that the sheer size ofthe shuk will enable it to stay a market rather than a row of coffeeshops.
Today there are about 15 restaurants and 20 cafes in the area,according to unofficial estimates by vendors (after all, what in theshuk is really “official?”). Even if that number doubles, it will stillhover around 10 percent of the shuk, a level Tzidkiyahu believes willstill maintain the shuk’s authenticity.
“So here they opened a boutique and there they opened a cafe, here arestaurant,” he says, gesturing around his stand. They’re not changingthe shuk into the midrachov [Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall]. They aresimply good additions. It’s like a woman who puts on lipstick. It’s thesame woman, just with lipstick.”
The shuk’s renovations in the late 1980s changed it from a dank, dirtymarket to a vibrant scene that was sufficiently sanitized and safe forthe average tourist. The man with the vision for the shuk’srejuvenation is Uri Amedi, a soft-spoken community organizer andmanager of the Lev Ha’ir Community Center. When Amedi speaks of themagic of the shuk in his mellow, even tone, he puts into words thespecial draw of the shuk that visitors and patrons feel but can’t quiteexplain.
“The magic can guard the balance between the historical shuk and therenewed shuk,” Amedi says . “If the shuk doesn’t guard the balance, ifit stops being a shuk where you can find tomatoes and onions and meatand vegetables and fruit and beans and it’s just restaurants and cafesand clothing stores, it won’t be a shuk. I think inside the shuk,people themselves and vendors themselves know how to protect thisbalance.”
Amedi started organizing the shuk vendors into a committee more than 25years ago. He saw the shuk as a metaphor for Jerusalem itself.  If hecould fix the problems in the shuk, he could tackle other problems inthe inner city. Convincing the hardscrabble, independent vendors towork together was a Herculean challenge.
Amedi started out with nothing but a green crate in the shuk for hisoffice and oversaw the dramatic renovations in the 1980s and 1990s, aswell as the downturn in the early 2000s after the terrorist attacks. Hestill works with the Shuk Committee and is a consultant formarketplaces in Beersheba, Tiberias and Acre about rejuvenationprojects.
Amedi remains hopeful about the future of Mahaneh Yehuda, and he’s notworried about encroaching gentrification or losing the essence of theshuk to McDonald’s and other commercial chains. “The public that comesto the shuk doesn’t want the taste of McDonald’s,” he says. “The peoplewho come to the shuk want onions and the smell of hot pita; they wantthe smell of cakes in the oven, they want the taste of burekas. I don’tthink they want the taste of the burger. They’re ready to exchangetoday’s burger for the old felafel and for cakes made in the shuk’sbakeries and for sahlab that they sell, not lattés. I’m almost sure ofthis,” he says.
“People come to the shuk because they want to touch somethingdifferent, something more authentic, something they don’t know. I alsothink there’s something else in the shuk,” says Amedi. “There’s aninner magic that I discovered, and I think people come to the shukbecause they, in fact, also discover it. In the shuk there issimplicity and honesty. In our world today, people miss the simple andgenuine.”