Published On: Sun, Jun 5th, 2016

Kurdish delights in Jerusalem: Ishtabach and Link

Review: The star of Chef Oren Sasson-Levy's Ishtabach restaurant is the shamburak —a boat-shaped, meat-filled Kurdish turnover his grandmother used to make; at Link, the iconic dish is meatballs with steamed white rice topped with blanched almonds, made by the owner's mother, Leah.

Kurdish delights in Jerusalem - food-  Leah Aslan's iconic meatballs.

Chef Oren Sasson-Levy trained and worked in some of Jerusalem’s finest restaurants—including the King David Hotel’s La Regence—but he always dreamt of having a place of his own. In particular, he wanted to devote his talents to recreating one specific dish from his childhood: shamburak—a boat-shaped, meat-filled Kurdish turnover his grandmother used to make.

Finally, 18 months ago, Sasson-Levy opened Ishtabach, a name meaning “the man is a cook, ” but also reminiscent of the word “yishtabach”—from the kaddish prayer, meaning “may He be praised.” Churning out hundreds of shamburak variations a day, the restaurant became so popular it had to expand, doubling in size just a year after opening (although it is still a small establishment, by any standard).

“Everything we serve here—the bread, meats, salads and desserts—is made in-house, ” says Sasson-Levy. “And so that every diner leaves with a sweet taste in his mouth, we offer up a complimentary spoonful of silan with tehina and sesame seeds.”


Kurdish delights in Jerusalem - food- The indoor bar at Link


The entire preparation process takes place in full view of everyone. Sitting at the bar, one watches the chef take a small disc of dough and flatten and stretch it in order to start building the shamburak: first comes a layer of mashed potato, which serves to absorb the juices of the meat and keep the bread crisp; then a generous mound of meat filling, chosen by the customer from a list of about half-a-dozen possibilities; then some grilled onions; and finally, a dollop of chimichurri. The edges of the dough are then wrapped up to encase the filling, and the shamburak is fed into the imported Italian oven, just like a calzone would go into a pizza oven to bake. Seemingly in no time, the golden brown treat emerges from the oven piping hot—“lava hot, ” as Sasson-Levy terms it. Too hot to handle, actually; it is meant to be eaten with the hands, so a minute is spent sampling from the little samplers of mezze while the main event cools.

The time between placing one’s order and taking the first bite is so short, it is certainly possible to call Ishtabach fast food. Except that the succulent meats are invariably slow cooked, so the experience is far from what we ordinarily call “fast food.”

Moreover, while the shamburak here is authentically Kurdish, its filling is what may be rightly called multi-cultural. The seasonings for the mashed potatoes are Indian, the ethnic background of Sasson-Levy’s wife Yasmin. Chimichurri, of course, is a popular relish originating in Argentina.


Kurdish delights in Jerusalem - food-  Mezze at Ishtabach


We sampled a cross-section of the shamburak varieties: the siske, tender and flavorful beef short ribs; chorizo, spicy ground sausage; chicken satay, delicious white meat chicken; and—my favorite—cheek meat that melts in the mouth. In addition to the mezze—hummus, tehina, spicy carrot, olives, tabouleh, cherry tomatoes with red onion, roasted red peppers, and a thick house ketchup that resembles matboukha—we had a large tossed salad, with vegetables and cashew nuts fresh from the market and the equivalent of a giant crouton, if you will, in the form of a flat, crispy pita loaded with zaatar.

There is even a vegetarian-vegan shamburak, consisting of the mashed potatoes, mushrooms, green onion and lentils; and for those who do not eat bread, Ishtabach makes a shepherd’s pie.

Whatever you eat here, it is washed down nicely with one of the three craft beers on tap from the Israeli boutique brewery Mosco.

Shamburaks are quite filling, but for those wanting dessert even after the free sweet treat, Ishtabach has an terrific flourless chocolate cake studded with amarena cherries, as well as a compote made with seasonal fruit.

The Ishtabach menu may be summed up in its slogan: “bread, meat and what is in between.” If you like any of those things, you must try a shamburak.


Kurdish delights in Jerusalem - food-   Ishtabach's shamburak


Link: You don’t mess with success

Ishtabach and Link share a culinary heritage. Link owner Yehudah Aslan’s mother Leah came from southeastern Turkey, a region associated with Kurdistan. Her traditional recipes that have become a cornerstone of what is practically an institution in Jerusalem. You do not succeed for nearly two decades in the fiercely competitive restaurant business without making a name for yourself and garnering a loyal following of repeat customers.

“One of the most satisfying compliments I receive is when a customer tells me, ‘this is just like my mother used to make, ’” says Aslan. “One constant that characterizes this restaurant is that there is always a ‘tavshil’ (cooked dish) of the day.”

That doesn’t mean that Link doesn’t also refresh its menu seasonally. It is now in the process of introducing its latest summer menu.

The other hallmark of Link is the generous portions. “Our guiding philosophy is that no-one should be hungry after eating a main course and feel the need to order anything else, ” Aslan notes. Combined with the restaurant’s reasonable prices, the copious servings mean good value.

The ambience at Link is the opposite of tiny Ishtabach. There is a sizable indoor seating area, but most customers are drawn to the large, pleasantly shaded al fresco patio that is also the entrance. Although it is just steps from busy King George Street, the atmosphere is quiet and almost rustic.

There is a well-stocked bar, and two relaxing places to sip a drink: the spacious patio, and a cool, inviting indoor bar. In addition to the classics from around the world, there are also specialty cocktails listed on the blackboard. On the afternoon of my visit, the fruity Italian liqueur Aperol was featured. The Ap & Rol—with bourbon, lemongrass and ginger beer, garnished with large sprigs of mint—was particularly refreshing and bracing, while the Captain Passion—Aperol, spiced rum, passion fruit and cranberry with a lemon twist—was sweet with a citrusy tang.

The daily tavshil was khreime: salmon and cod croquettes in a spicy Moroccan tomato sauce. The fish combination was intriguing and certainly a first for me; best of all it was in a sauce that cried out to be mopped up, with the excellent multi-grain house bread with seeded crust.

The iconic dish at Link is Leah’s meatballs with steamed white rice topped with blanched almonds. The secret to Aslan’s mother’s venerable recipe turns out to be cinnamon in the tomato sauce.

On the side, I had the Yehudah salad—for the most part a typical Israeli salad characterized by finely chopped vegetables, but with a little extra bite from chili pepper and cilantro.

The menu has a few dishes inspired by international cuisines, such as Italian pasta, New Orleans chicken breast, and an Asian curry named after regular customer Alon: chunks of tender, juicy chicken breast, cauliflower and mushrooms in a deliciously complex coconut milk curry sauce that leaves a pleasant tingle of gentle heat in the mouth.

For dessert, Aslan recommended the popular banana crumble: crunchy, buttery pastry atop warm banana, adorned with a scoop of chocolate ice cream.

Remarkably, Link has had the same chef for all of its 18 years. As the saying goes, you don’t mess with success.


Ishtabach: Kosher (mehadrin). HashikmahSt. 1. Tel. 02-6232997
Link: Not kosher. Ma’alot St. 3. Tel. 02-6253446

Via Ynet News

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