Daniel Ovadía’s Merkavá Brings Jerusalem Home

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As a kid growing up in downtown Manhattan, I didn’t think it particularly unusual when a plate holding a stack of golden potato latkes the size of the Tower of Pisa was placed in front of me, next to a bottle of Dr. Brown’s Celery Tonic. I recall this particular moment sitting at a booth along the western wall of the immense and already iconic kosher dairy restaurant Ratner’s. As you entered from bustling Delancey street, still filled with pushcarts manned by old-world Jewish vendors, the perfume of smoked fish, fresh baked onion rolls and garlicky pickles greeted you like a warm hug from a smiling Jewish grandmother. Cakes whirled in glassed-in revolving display cases to tempt and tease. Middle-aged waiters, sporting relentless scowls, rushed by, balancing trays of mushroom barley soup,  gefilte fish, bagels-with-a-shmeer, with and without lox – and those potato pancakes. Ratners was the Queen Mary of the New York Jewish deli, an enormous behemoth of a place that would eventually flounder as the Jewish community dispersed to the suburbs.

There were many other delis, big and small. My uncle Dave, on frequent visits from the gastronomically impoverished Cleveland, would head down to Russ & Daughters to stock up on ‘appetizing’ – huge bags of oily smoked sable, salty nova, cole slaw, potato salad and lots of pickles. Then he’d head to Katz’s for lunch. New York at that time seemed to have a neighborhood deli on every corner whose format was always the same – rotating chickens broiling in the window, a long counter to display open containers of salads meats and cheeses. The proprietors were European Jews. I recall a deli on upper Broadway owned by a middle-aged couple whose arms were tattooed with numbers – my mother had to explain what that meant.

Most of these venues, like Ratner’s, founded and serving immigrants and their progeny, are long gone—even the famed Carnegie Deli has kicked the bucket. The only places to remain are Russ, 2nd Ave. and Katz’s where the servers, much friendlier than the grumpy staff of yore, are now tattooed with Virgins of Guadalupe instead of numbers; but the food is just as good. I lived through an era now vanished – that in which generations of Jewish immigrants like my grandparents were still conserving the culture that malevolent powers in the old world tried to extinguish. And this included food. My family was from Lithuania and Belarus – most Jews I grew up with in the New York area were from that part of the world, i.e. Ashkenazi. And their food is my comfort food.

Here in Mexico, the Jewish diaspora of as many as 70,000 is quite visible. The community seems to be made up of people from a greater variety of countries than that of New York, including Turkey, Syria, Greece, Spain, Arab and other Latin American countries and Israel itself. The foods consumed, therefore, are equally varied, but there is not much N.Y deli to be found. There have been a number of Jewish and Kosher restaurants in the capital over the years – see my previous article examining the cities best noshes. One Klein’s Delicatessen offered a miserly pastrami sandwich with one slice of meat in it, the rest was pure Mexican, enchiladas and the like.

Daniel Ovadía’s Merkavá, which opened its doors early this year is, however, unprecedented. It is our country’s first representative of modern Israeli Cooking. A range of dishes associated with the variety of cultures found in Israel, not only Jewish, is represented in the astutely collated menu. The food is forthright, neither reductive nor compromised – it evokes the old world while acknowledging the supreme ingredients found in the new, gently coaxing the diner into believing it is his or her comfort food and that’s an admirable accomplishment.

The menu’s format may be familiar to habitués of local Middle Eastern restaurants, as it is divided into satisfyingly varied small dishes, here called salatim, which, like meze, can be a meal unto themselves. Several hummuses – mashed garbanzo – are topped with everything from roast garlic to grilled lamb and are the most refined version of this often-mundane dish I have seen, both in the play of flavors and textures. Of the two soups, a fragrant Yemeni shorba is heart-warming. The iconic – to me anyway – matzoh ball soup, disappoints however: its broth is insipid, the ball leaden – but the surprisingly pretty presentation deserves mention – a Jewish grandmother needs to be called in for a consultation. I adore the chamorro de cordero whose meat falls off the bone without much help – it is done in patiently reduced stock redolent of lamb without being gamey, lightly sweetened by dates. Juicy chicken brochettes are perfumed with a dusting of golden turmeric and presented on a bed of pearly Israeli cous cous.

The cheerful room is not large and fills quickly. It was designed by Alex Cohen of Más Espacio Arquitectos and features golden stone, black clay, and undulating blond wood paneling spiked by gold leaf. According to the architect it offers a “play of contrasts between the antique and modern vanguard of that city utilizing Mexican materials,” and is meant to evoke Jerusalem itself.

I was able to catch Daniel Ovadia for an interview recently; he is not only a chef but also an ambitious impresario and is about to open a taquería in Paris.

NG: Daniel, you’re one of the flock, aren’t you…

DO: I’m 100% Jewish – my dad’s family came from Hungary and Greece, my mom’s from Odessa, now in the Ukraine. In that sense we’re a typical Mexican Jewish family.

NG: When and why did you have the idea to do a Jerusalem style restaurant in Mexico?

DO: For years I’ve wanted to open a restaurant serving “Jewish” food. In fact, the first menu I designed was 15 years ago for a pesach dinner. My wife is Israeli so I have family there. In fact, I’ve always had an important connection to the country – I have been traveling there since I was a kid and worked on a kibbutz for 6 months when I was 18, helping out in the kitchen.

So I started to introduce Salavador Orozco, my business partner, to the food served at Jewish festivals such as Pesach, Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. He and his girlfriend would come to my mom’s for Shabbat dinners to try new and traditional dishes. He was hooked. We started to quietly introduce some of these dishes into our restaurants (Paxia, Nudo Negro, Peltre etc.) and to acquire every book we could find about Jewish cooking. A couple of years ago the Mexican embassy in Israel invited us to cook, and we travelled all over the country – we went crazy when we got to the spectacular market in old Jerusalem and immediately started to formulate a plan to open an Israeli place here.

Chef and visionary Daniel Ovadia

NG: So let’s talk about the food.

DO: The reason we refer to our food as from “Jerusalem” and not Israeli or Jewish, is because we do not want to limit ourselves – we want to unite and celebrate the foods of all the people of Old Jerusalem, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Armenians. There are many dishes from all over the Middle East but they always have that special touch that they are given in Israel. Our tabuleh is a perfect example: the ratio of parsley to wheat and vegetables is much less than the Lebanese version. So is the hummus that we do with special accompaniments, the lemony stuffed grape leaves, the mix of ingredients in the meat, fish and chicken. We make a lamb with dates, for example, very North African. We use de-boned chicken thighs, which are highly valued for their great fat content. And we season fish with harrissa, the North African aromatic hot sauce, as well as roses. The dessert we do with honey and cream is emblematic of Jerusalem cooking.

 Would you say that your menu at Merkavá is influenced by Yotam Ottolenghi [chef and author of the international bestselling cookbook Jerusalem]?

 DO: Well, he’s the one who really put Israeli cooking on the international map, so I can’t deny that we are indebted to him. It is important to note that his relationship, both personal and professional, with Sami Tamimi, who is Palestinian, is an important step towards reconciling Israel and Palestine, albeit a small one. Food brings people together.

Besides Ottolenghi, there are other Israeli cooks who have inspired us: Alon Shaya, in New Orleans, has been able to successfully bring his food to a city very rooted in tradition, like we are here. Michael Solomonov of Zahav in Philadelphia also has proven that it is possible to change people’s perceptions of what Israeli cooking is. In Israel, there’s Eyal Shani, who is the irreverent, crazy chef who pioneered modern Israeli cooking. Uri Buri, Lucas Zitrinovich, Haim Cohen, there are so many.

NG: I tried your matzo ball soup, a dish on the menu that I recognized from the Russian/Polish N.Y. deli traditions with which I am familiar. Are, or will there be, others?

DO: Yes, we do have a few ‘western’ i.e. Eastern European type recipes that you would be familiar with, such as gribenes which is chicken skin chicharrón fried in its own fat – shmaltz. For breakfast we do latkes, the potato pancakes that are typical of Hanukah. We have a Reuben sandwich, made with corned beef and cheese so it’s pure Ashkenazi, though obviously not the least bit Kosher. And we do a chopped chicken liver with egg from a recipe from my Russian side of the family. There will be more.

NG: Merkavá seems to be a big success. Do you have plans to expand or open another place?

DO: There has been an incredible reaction since we opened – it’s been all word of mouth. There are sometimes lines to get in and a waiting list. We’re obviously overjoyed about this, yet we will strive to refine and perfect every aspect of the restaurant from cooking to service. Soon, Merkavá’s little brother restaurant, called Tajaná will be opening in Lomas. The food will be based on the kind of simple falafel joints you see in Old Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and especially inspired by a very popular place in Tel Aviv called Miznon that does stone-baked pita filled with all kinds of amazing ingredients. I’m really excited about this!

Merkavá
Av. Amsterdam 53, Condesa
Tel. 5086 – 8065
Open Tuesday – Saturday 9 a.m. – 11:45 p.m., Sunday until 6 p.m., closed Monday

Food: (1-10) 8 — with a bit of time and polishing I predict this rating will increase
Ambience: 8 — friendly, relaxed
Service: 7— amiable, as of yet a bit uncoordinated
Prices: Reasonable; as little as $250 per person, no more than $500.

(first published March 1, 2017)

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