Food Matters: Middle Eastern promise
Tales behind the authentic Israeli specialties at Jaffa Kitchen in El Jebel
IF YOU GO…
Open daily 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
400 E. Valley Rd., El Jebel
City Market Plaza
The oldest port city in the world serves as inspiration for Jaffa Kitchen, an authentic Israeli eatery that opened in El Jebel in early February.
“It’s all small (narrow) streets, every building is made out of stone,” says expat and co-owner Lior Lilah of Jaffa, an ancient coastal hub crowded with colorful markets and perfumed with the heady scents of spices and spit-roasted meats. “It’s a beautiful, beautiful city.”
Lilah’s business partner, Alexei Rotaru, native to the Republic of Moldova and a trained finish carpenter, designed and built the bright, modern interior with help from A&L Construction. A wall of marble acts as backdrop to the restaurant’s most recent installation: a segment of 200-year-old wooden ceiling from a Moroccan casbah. “We’re bringing the feeling of Israel to this valley,” Rotaru says of the intricately painted relic, on loan from a collector friend. “It’s a cool piece of history.”
During lunch last Friday, Lilah and Rotaru settled into a table to share stories behind the dishes on Jaffa Kitchen’s menu. Their third partner, Doina Musteata, handled the noontime rush of dine-in and takeout orders from a counter flanked by a refrigerated display case. Inside, 10 red casserole dishes were filled with bulgur wheat and parsley salad (tabbouleh), stuffed grape leaves (dolma), and cumin-spiced carrots, among other specialties. Despite the pandemic, the place has been busy, consistently.
Lilah, feeling lethargic after a second coronavirus vaccine shot, slurps Moldovan chicken soup (zeama) between bites of chicken shawarma — “Keto diet,” Rotaru explains. Rotaru dips braised brisket and cabbage salad into zhug, a vibrant green, spicy herb chutney.
“See all the salads? People in Israel eat a lot of salads…falafel, shawarma, a little hummus, pita bread,” says Lilah, who grew up in the “beach town” of Tel Aviv, about a 20-minute walk from Jaffa. “I want to keep it simple and traditional. I think people appreciate ethnic food in the valley because nobody else provides it.”
Lilah conceived the menu of mostly sandwiches, salads, soups, and sampler platters with Rotaru, whom he met in 2008 while serving at Brexi Brasserie in Aspen (now The Monarch; Rotaru helped owner Craig Cordts-Pearce design and build many CP Restaurant Group properties, including The Wild Fig, Steakhouse No. 316, and CP Burger). The team prepares all ingredients fresh every morning, including blending soaked, boiled chickpeas into Jaffa’s signature silky hummus, always topped with a generous swirl of extra-virgin olive oil. Lilah purchases cumin by the five-pound sack and his chicken shawarma is a labor of love (more on that below).
“My whole family cooks: my mother, sister,” Lilah says. “My grandma, from Tunisia, used to be the best cook in the world.”
Here are a few other morsels that make Jaffa Kitchen worth a jaunt to El Jebel:
The chicken shawarma on rotating spit is a showpiece.
“Yes, of course, we designed (Jaffa Kitchen) to see (the vertical rotisserie) in the open kitchen when you open the (front) door,” Rotaru says. The slow-turning spit is stacked with a mass of meat, carved to order. “We only use chicken thighs, soaked in onions, vinegar, spices, and salt overnight,” says Lilah, whose brother in Israel originally sent over shawarma spice mix that is now replicated here. “We get lamb fat, slice that, and layer it: chicken, fat, chicken, fat, chicken, fat, chicken, fat. That’s done every day—about 30 pounds of chicken! By six o’clock it runs out.”
Crispy, savory falafel is a ringer for the real thing.
“Simplicity, and lots of love,” Lilah says of his base ingredients, along with soaked chickpeas, onions, garlic, cilantro, cumin, and salt. “When you don’t try to overdo it, it tastes good.”
The baba ganoush (roasted eggplant dip) is seriously smoky.
“The eggplants are burned directly onto the open (gas) flame for 20 minutes,” Lilah explains. “If you see when they come off the stove, you’d be like, Gotta put this in the trash. We peel the skin, but some of that burned skin (ends up) in the baba ganoush. That’s where the smokiness comes from.”
OMG: BEST. PITA. BREAD. EVER.
“We tried probably 75,” says Rotaru, who spent months scouting the perfect pita bread from producers across the country. The fluffy winning pick is made using just five ingredients by an Israeli family that opened Angel Bakeries in New York City in 1927. “If you go to Israel, the pita is very thick because we stuff everything in it,” Lilah notes. “It’s the pita that never leaks.”
(Gluten-free pita is available now, too.)
A sauce called matbucha (‘maht-boohkha’) is simmered from scraps.
“You don’t throw anything away,” Lilah says about the origins of this chunky crimson sauce. “We make Israeli salad (the national dish of diced tomato and cucumber), but we only use the outer part of the tomato; we don’t use the pulp and seeds.” The castaways are added to a huge pan with olive oil, garlic, red pepper, and smoked paprika, then left to cook for eight-plus hours. “The result is what you have in the Jaffa Sandwich.”
The Jaffa Sandwich is a local tribute of sorts.
“Franck Thirion French Pastry (offered) a Milanese sandwich,” Lilah says of the inspiration behind his signature Jaffa Sandwich, stuffed with a lightly breaded chicken cutlet on French baguette. Eggplant, cucumber and matbucha lend a Middle Eastern twist.
Vegetarians adore the traditional Sabich Sandwich.
Say ‘sah-bik,’ no relation to the Aspen ski racer who competed in the 1968 Winter Olympics. The vegetarian classic is layered with hardboiled egg, hummus, red cabbage, and eggplant on pita. “It’s a little bit different in Israel; it’s hard to reproduce that flavor we have over there,” Lilah says, though it does include “the secret of all the sandwiches: tahini.”
Expert heat-seekers will love this zingy chutney.
“It’s called zhug—’skoogh’: cilantro, parsley, jalapeño, serrano, onion, garlic, and lots of spices,” Rotaru says, of the bright green purée on his plate. “If they want spicy, this is the key.”
The Merguez Sandwich is a European football fan favorite—and Lilah’s, too.
“I lived in Paris, France, for almost 20 years,” Lilah recalls. “We used to go to soccer games and outside they were selling a merguez sandwich: two orange lamb sausages and French fries on a piece of old baguette. I used to love it so much! So, it’s here.”
Laffa is morning medicine.
Served until 11 a.m. daily alongside a toasted pita breakfast sandwich and bagels with lox, the handheld Breakfast Laffa Wrap is stuffed with scrambled eggs, roasted potatoes, bacon or sausage, tomatoes, onions, and cilantro. “Laffa is an Iranian bread,” Lilah says. “Here they call it lavosh: the Arabic version of the Mexican tortilla.”
A sweet finale: handmade pastries and desserts such as baklava
“We sell a lot of desserts,” Lilah confirms, and baker Zenon Flores spends about half a day to make everything from scratch. A surefire sellout is baklava, the flaky pastry layered with chopped nuts and soaked in honey. The delicacy is thought to have originated circa-800 B.C. in the Assyrian Empire off the Mediterranean Sea.
“That’s my recipe, my sister taught me: it’s just phyllo dough, honey, walnuts, cinnamon, and sugar. And fleur d’orange — orange flower water — that gives (the honey) a little bit of acidity, though it’s so sweet. We sell a lot of that.”
Amanda Rae is the editor of “The Aspen Cookbook,” out now as a fundraiser for local restaurant workers: AspenCookbook.com. firstname.lastname@example.org
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