Israeli cuisine is having a moment. Borne of the success of powerhouses like Zahav in Philadelphia and Shaya in New Orleans, the multifaceted and multi-cultural foodways of the Middle East in general and Israel in specific are spawning hummuserias and falafel houses all over the country, and fine-dining elevated restaurants galore. In a city with such a diverse and exciting culinary scene as Chicago, with its broad Jewish and Middle Eastern populations, it is no wonder that we are seeing some of this expansion here.
While we have always enjoyed a vibrant Middle Eastern culinary scene here, with exceptional restaurants focused on every culture from Yemeni to Persian to Lebanese, things seem to be picking up speed in recent years. From the ethereal hummus served up by Yosi Alhadif from his La Shuk Street Food stall in residence at the Wicker Park Farmer's Market, to the Halal delicacies of Yemen at Shibam City, Chicago is a place to explore the foods of these cultures with open mouths and hearts.
Inspired by travels in Israel, and supported by his California upbringing, Chef CJ Jacobson has opened two upscale restaurants in partnership with Richard Melman and the Lettuce Entertain You group. Ema and Aba, the names translating to "mother" and "father" in Hebrew, have enjoyed critical success in recent years. While the initial idea behind the restaurants, elevated explorations of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines was Melman's, Jacobson was immediately drawn to the concept.
As a young professional athlete, Jacobson lived in Israel for the better part of a year in Tel Aviv. He recalls a small deli on the corner near his apartment, a one-man show with a focus on fresh sandwiches. The homemade breads, often infused with herbs, layered with vegetables and cured meats, served with fresh pomegranate and orange juices painstakingly created by hand, opened his eyes to food that was fresh, simple, and seasonal.
Dishes like late-night warm hummus with fresh pita and celery salad, eaten in the wee hours after a night at the clubs, have become part of his menu development at the restaurants, and their influence is felt in his interpretations with nearly a dozen variants in rotation between the two restaurants at any given time.
While the offerings at Ema and Aba are not specifically what he would call Jewish or Israeli, the lines of connection to both are very present.
"I am constantly striving to show new ways of expressing this cuisine, not in a traditional sense, but celebrating the flavors and the style of it," Jacobson said.
He also credits new broader commitments to health and clean eating as a big part of the burgeoning scene. These foods tend to be naturally healthy, focused on fresh and seasonal ingredients, simple preparations, with lots of vegetables and pulses, and meats taking more of a supporting role.
"My journey started 20 years ago in Israel, and even though I wasn't yet a cook while I was there, there is no question that everything I do now as a chef is rooted in that experience."
Perhaps the most exciting and authentic newcomer to the city is the imminent Galit, scheduled for opening early 2019, from acclaimed chef Zachary Engel. Engel's bonafides couldn't be more impressive. A self- and on-the-job trained chef who never went to culinary school, Engel worked with Michael Solomonov, the cousin of a childhood friend, in the early days of Zahav before shifting to New Orleans, where he helped Alon Shaya open his restaurant Shaya. The son of a rabbi, Engel traveled extensively in Israel and was always struck by the food he experienced there.
"We are solely focused on trying to tell the stories of ourselves and the narratives of the immigrant cultures of Israel through our food. We want to respectfully pay homage to our own history, and the history of the food that comes out of the blending of all of these cultures."
Engel, who is Jewish, and his partner, Andrés Clavero, who is a quarter Palestinian, both realized that Chicago is the kind of city that would embrace the style of restaurant they are trying to create.
"We really want to be of our neighborhood, not just in our neighborhood," said Engel of the Lincoln Park location at the six corners of Fullerton, Halsted, and Lincoln. "We want to serve our neighbors first and foremost, which is why we are going to have high chairs and changing tables in the bathrooms. Of course, we want people from all over the city to come and have amazing meals with us, but we also want the people who live nearby to feel like we are their regular place, that they can stop in for a glass of wine and a plate of hummus at the bar on their way home."
This sensibility around hospitality, a natural outgrowth of the formidable tradition of Southern hospitality he was taught in his years in New Orleans, is what he hopes will make Galit a special place.
"Food is easy," Engel said. "If you are willing to learn and experiment and train with the right people, if you are willing to solicit and take criticism and change, the food will come. But getting the ambiance, the staffing, the management right, that is the key to a great restaurant. I have been lucky to learn from the best, and I want to bring all of that experience to play here in Chicago."
And Chicago is more than ready.
Stacey Ballis is the author of 10 culinary novels, one cookbook, and does freelance articles and recipe development for outlets including ExtraCrispy.com and TheTakeout.com. You can find out more about her at staceyballis.com .