Tzachaku: Laughing together

A gourmet kosher restaurant in the Iraqi shuk offers winter warmth for the stomach and soul.

mahane yehuda 88 (photo credit: )
mahane yehuda 88
(photo credit: )
On a cold late November night going out to eat in a square that holds the smells of cat urine, the glare of strip lighting from bare rooms, and the sounds of old men playing shesh-besh may not be anyone's first choice. But here, nestled in the Iraqi side of Mahaneh Yehuda market, lies Tzahaku, Eli Mizrahi's gourmet kosher restaurant. And as unlikely as its location seems, this place is magical. Mizrahi opened up here just over a year ago, two years after opening Hakol Leofeh, an espresso bar and specialty bake store in the heart of the shuk. Back then in mid-intifada 2002 everyone thought Mizrahi crazy. Friends told him nobody would come. Mizrahi, a second-generation shuk dealer, chose not to believe them and he was proved right. The store and caf were an immediate hit, attracting both the shuk old-timers, students and artsy Jerusalemite types. On the back of its success, Tzahaku was built. Meaning "Laugh" and named after Mizrahi's father, Yitzhak, the small restaurant is constantly busy. It is divided between a narrow inside bar area, and a (plastic) covered outside which seats twenty or so at a squeeze. Mizrahi and his constant staff divide their time between Hakol Leofeh, which is closed at night, and Tzahaku, that opens at midday and keeps going until the small hours. Here, as there, Mizrahi's warm Jerusalemite touch is everywhere: in the market pictures leading up to the toilets, the dark wood bar and the transparant kitchen windows that allow guests to watch the chefs steaming, poaching and roasting to their hearts' content. The menu relies on whatever's fresh and in season at the market and changes often. On the day we came, the specials menu included seven main courses; four meat, three fish. From the specials, M., my partner, and I shared a cold dish of lightly pickled sardines on a pressed stack of couscous, grilled pepper strips and herbs (NIS 45). The sardines were fresh as a daisy, smelt of the sea, and had a firm, silky texture. The couscous bed provided a pleasing accompaniment, and the sharpness of the chili in which the peppers had been marinated gave the unusual dish a lively edge. Our friend, H., opted for the house Iraqi-style bread (laffa) which arrived with a number of dips including parsley infused tehina, avocado, tomato salad and eggplant (NIS 30). This too, was much enjoyed. Moving onto the main course, M. ordered a sirloin steak with garlic and mushrooms, served with bone marrow jelly and roast, sliced potatoes. It was a costly dish at NIS 106 but worth every penny. The garlic and mushrooms were pressed between two generous, perfectly seared steaks, and the bone marrow was served elegantly with a dainty, tiny spoon. The meat was marinated and prepared medium rare. It was extremely tasty, but perhaps not quite bloody enough for M's gory standards. I opted for the goose leg that arrived with a quince sauce (NIS 78). Adorned with cooked, sweet quince quarters that encircled the piece de resistance, the rich, moist meat fell off the bone. The dish came with a side serving of mashed potatoes, which was nice, but not exceptional. H., meanwhile, continued on a conservative route with perfectly cooked, soft minced lamb kebabs served on a chopped tomato bed and accompanied by a side dish of tehina (NIS 56). All this was washed down with half a bottle of Mount Hermon red 2004 which was offered at a very reasonable NIS 35. The wine menu has recently expanded here to include a number of boutique (all kosher) wines including everything from Galil Mountain, the Zerait Carmel range and the recently certified Petit Castel, meaning there is something for every palate and pocket. We noted that the desserts menu had also recently been upgraded to include a Valhrona chocolate souffl , but we were full, very full, and having previously been disappointed with dessert here, we opted out. (The whole desserts thing here is a little puzzling actually, given the sister caf and the fact that Mizrahi's daughter studied at the Cordon Bleu.) Instead we opted for espresso which arrived with tiny biscotti. The espresso was powerful and rich, authentically served in Turkish coffee glasses. The biscotti was a thoughtful, if unremarkable touch. Throughout the meal, the service was warm and attentive. The bill for three, (wine included), came to NIS 370. When we left Tzahaku's doors nearly three hours later, we were full of both good food and high expectations for Jerusalem. The writer was not a guest of Tzahaku. Tzahaku, Haeshkol Street, the Iraqi Shuk, Mahaneh Yehuda, Sun-Thurs 12:00-24:00 p.m.; Friday, for lunch. Closed Saturday. Tel: 623-4916. Kosher