Some Jerusalem restaurants simply have it all: an historic building, a culinary legacy and high-quality technical skills in the kitchen. They probably aren’t the restaurants with young hosts and hostesses out front, beckoning you to come in as you walk by — so where are these gems to be found?
One of the most notable is Darna, where you step through a Jerusalem doorway and find yourself in Morocco. Nothing could be further from the generic-looking eateries that we are all becoming used to than this restaurant, where the owners have gone all-out with their theme.
With its bright tiles and stained glass windows, its arched painted walls and its woven cushions, its furniture and its display pottery, the interior transports you to Casablanca or Marrakech, and puts you in the mood to expect some traditional Moroccan hospitality. The menu helps this along, with comments that sum up the Moroccan-Jewish attitude towards entertaining, such as “the tagine always awaits the unexpected welcome guest.” And there is Jerusalem history in the mix too — the building is two centuries old.
Israel has a very large population of Moroccan Jews, and their imprint on the country’s cuisine has been significant. So much that a lot of Israelis don’t know when they are eating a Moroccan-influenced dish. But there are too few restaurants doing what Darna does — turning the cuisine upscale and matching the food with the setting.
Darna boasts eight different tagines, including interesting options like a glazed Cornish hen served with raisins, almonds and onions. Traditional herbs and spices also play a big part in the dishes; saffron, for example, is dominant in the tagine of sea bream, tomatoes and peppers.
Moroccan Jews are crazy about their couscous. Today, most people think of “homemade” couscous as the dry product cooked at home with vegetables and flavorings, but don’t make that mistake with Israelis of Moroccan descent — to them, that’s about as homemade as a cake made from a Duncan Hines box. What they consider real couscous is handmade from semolina, lovingly turned in to a dough-like consistency, forced through sieves, steamed, and flavored with sauces produced from homemade stock. The consistency is very different than the packet product — much lighter and fluffier.
So if you make it to Darna, try the couscous — beef, chicken or vegetarian, each one served with seven vegetables: pumpkin, pepper, onion, carrots, zucchini, turnip and cabbage. And expect to pay around $50 a head, or just under, for three courses, excluding drinks — unless you go for the premium dish of roasted lamb shoulder with almonds as a main course; it costs 310 shekels ($80).
Just as Darna celebrates Moroccan cuisine, Racha does the same for Georgian cuisine; its elegant furniture and chandeliers pay tribute to Georgian styles — in a building that dates to the time when the British Mandate controlled Jerusalem.
The menu features lots of dishes with nuts, beans, and hot spices. A wide selection of pastries and dough-based foods includes Georgian pancakes stuffed with meat and “Khachapuri Lobio” — Georgian pastry with beans. Other highlights include a rich Georgian meat soup and “Selianka,” a Georgian beef goulash.
The chef and radio personality Yochanan Lambiase says that the coming together of Jewish cuisines from so many different countries and cultures is what makes Jerusalem such an exciting place for him to live and work. As a man with many strands to his identity, he is attuned to the different influences on food in the city. He is a British-born Israeli of Italian origin, once secular and now charedi. He comments: “Within a two-mile radius of central Jerusalem you can experience the culinary tastes of ethnic flavors and diverse Sephardic food cultures and of Machane Yehuda market. And with a hop skip and jump you can find yourself in the Mea Shearim chasidic neighborhood buying authentic Ashkenazi rich egg challah and a variety of kugels and yeast cakes.”
But according to Lambiase, only recently have serious numbers of chefs started to combine their family culinary legacies with top-level technical training. “If you would have asked me 20 years ago about the culinary aspirations of Israeli food culture I would have found it hard to give you a clear and defined answer,” he says. “Now, with so many young Israeli chefs returning home, having studied and apprenticed in some of the finest restaurants worldwide, you will be amazed how they have combined local ingredients and authentic family-based recipes to create culinary delights back in Israel.”
But to get a full taste of Jerusalem, visitors need to sample street food as well. For all the local talk of fine falafels and stupendous shwarmas, how do you find the good places? There are no hard-and-fast rules, but Joel Haber, a Jerusalemite who knows more about the city’s street food than most, has some suggestions.
He says to stake a spot and watch how the falafel stuffer fills the pitas. “I know it sounds silly but it’s about how professional the falafel person is — they need to know to fill the pita in layers, so that you get falafel and salad in each bite and not all the falafel at the bottom and the salad on top,” says Haber, a New Jersey-born tour guide who specializes in tours of foodie Jerusalem.
He adds that even if you don’t eat a large range of salads, look for variety because it’s a sign of a falafel stand that takes pride in its product. “If you have lots of different types of salad it shows they care about the falafel and aren’t just putting together the cheapest combination to make money.”
Shwarma is trickier to judge, but Haber suggests looking for juicy meat on the spit, and trying to find a place with at least two varieties, because variety is an indicator of a more serious shwarma joint. His personal favorites are Falafel Mula, on the corner of Agripas Street and Beit Yaakov Street, and for shwarma Arkadash, on Shamai Street, where a sign declares: “We give honor to shwarma.”
Haber says that if you aren’t sure about a place based on what you see, use some chutzpah — after all, this is Israel. “Ask for a taste — most falafel places will give you a falafel ball, and a shwarma place will normally give you some meat; there is no better test than your own tongue.”
The eateries mentioned in this restaurant were kosher as of press time.