Chef Michael Solomonov is sitting in a green plastic lawn chair in a smoke-filled alleyway deep within Jerusalem’s Machane Yehuda market. We’re at a late-night charcoal-grill eatery called Morris: a hole-in-the-wall that sets up folding tables in the market aisles after the daytime produce vendors shutter their stalls. This is our first stop on a whirlwind Israeli-soul-food tour.
Over the next two days, I’ll be eating reckless amounts of tahini as Solomonov brings me to some of his favorite Jerusalem spots. In the market alleyway, stone walls rise up on either side of us. The impression of being inside a cavern is heightened both by the smokiness of the grill—manned by a hyper-focused bearded dude turning meat-laden kebab skewers with one hand while blowing a hair dryer at the coals with the other—and by the dangling naked light bulbs overhead.
The lighting here is in stark contrast to the warm candlelight at Zahav, the plush Philadelphia restaurant where Solomonov is turning Americans on to fine Israeli cuisine. Zahav’s success has garnered the Israeli-born Solomonov impressive accolades, including Outstanding Chef at the 2017 James Beard Foundation Awards, the highest culinary honor in America. Solomonov says he gets his inspiration from this country’s simple, tiny, family-run establishments—particularly those close to the shuk, as this sprawling marketplace is known. (Zahav is decorated with a mural-sized photograph of Machane Yehuda’s fruit sellers in action.)
Morris is located on butcher’s row in the shuk, somewhere near the corner of HaCharuv and HaTut Streets. Their business card (“charred meat restaurant”) neglects to include a street address. To get here, you simply follow the scent of sizzling kofta through the market’s warren-like aisles. As Solomonov puts it in his new cookbook, Israeli Soul, cowritten with Steven Cook, his partner at Zahav: “You could probably find your way to Morris Restaurant blindfolded on the smell of charcoal smoke alone.”
Our blue-polka-dot tablecloth is quickly covered with an assortment of colorful salads, known here as salatim: Palestinian-style hummus, heavy on the tahini; spicy Moroccan carrots in red-hot harissa; Turkish chopped salad; a distinctly Eastern European–flavored cabbage dish; a bowl of tomatoes with amba, the Iraqi chutney of pickled green mango with turmeric; some North African matbucha, consisting of onions and garlic cooked down with tomatoes and red peppers; and, finally, a deeply satisfying beet salad of indeterminate, possibly universal provenance.
Solomonov instructs me to top some of my pita and hummus with a spicy green paste called schug. The hummus, already sensational, becomes even crazier with the bright kick of that coriander-and-greenpepper hot sauce, a Yemeni-Jewish creation. I am an immediate convert and begin scribbling notes about how it deserves to be considered among the world’s finest condiments. Maybe it’s the schug talking, but it seems clear to me that, as divided as this part of the world may be, there’s a unifying sense of togetherness to the food we’re eating. Solomonov agrees.
“This table embodies the basic principles of Israeli cuisine, which is a combination of Middle Eastern, Levantine, North African, Palestinian, Mediterranean, Far Eastern, and Central European,” he explains. “It’s all those things, but not in a pretentious way.” Solomonov’s conviction that food can be a way of bridging cultures may stem from the fact that he’s spent his entire life going between the U.S. and Israel. Born in Savyon, just outside Tel Aviv, in 1978, to a Jewish American mother (and a Jewish Bulgarian father), Solomonov spent much of his youth in Pittsburgh.
By bringing his two worlds together through the food at his restaurants in Philadelphia, he seems to emphasize humanity’s common ground. “It may sound controversial, but I’m pro-Israel as well as pro-Palestine,” as he puts it. “I’m pro-humanity.” The salatim before us are soon joined by a cavalcade of meat skewers: juicy merguez sausage, perfectly cooked lamb kebabs, and a variety of animal innards and glands I’ve never eaten before, including turkey testicles and beef spinal cord.
As insanely delicious as everything is, it’s also notable that Morris is such a utilitarian place, the sort of simple, homey spot where families go out on a casual weeknight. “Anybody can afford to eat here, and yet the cooking is so exciting,” Solomonov says. “That’s the beauty of the cuisine here—it’s super complex, yet it’s for the common person.” This back-alley grill is a world apart from Zahav’s hand-carved tables and two-month waiting list.
Even so, its flavors are so impressive that Solomonov is looking to open a new restaurant in Philadelphia modeled on the Morris formula: charcoal-grilled meat, salatim, and dips with pita bread. This venture would be the latest in a suite of Israeli influenced endeavors that Solomonov has brought to the U.S. He operates three falafel joints called Goldie. His restaurant Dizengoff brilliantly replicates Tel Aviv’s famous hummusiyot (hummus stalls).
He has a fried-chicken-and-doughnuts chain called Federal Donuts that highlights Middle Eastern spice blends. He also runs a deli called the Rooster (whose profits go to support vulnerable Philadelphians) and an outrageously good contemporary-meets-classic European Jewish restaurant named Abe Fisher. Alongside the Morris-inspired venture, Solomonov and his partners are also considering opening a new bakery that will specialize in Israeli-style pastries.
To give me a sense of what that bakery might be like, Solomonov whisks me around the corner from Morris to an open-air pastry shop called Marzipan. “They make the sickest rugelach ever,” Solomonov says, noting the way syrup is drizzled over the pastry, as with baklava. “It’s East-meets-West, happening right here,” he adds between bites. The rugelach also tastes like it’s been flavored with a splash of rum or Cointreau. We ask the owner what the ingredients are, but he refuses to divulge his recipe’s secrets.
Our next stop is just down Agripas Street at a place called Hatzot Steak House, which means “midnight.” As with Morris, the sign overhead is written only in Hebrew letters, but everybody here knows Hatzot because it’s the place for “Jerusalem mixed grill,” a trademark blend of spicy and oniony chicken meat, hearts, spleens, livers, and gizzards, all griddled on a flattop and then stuffed into a deliriously fresh pita.
Our feasting at the shuk continues the next day with bourekas, a savory, feta-cheese-filled pastry made with laminated dough that Solomonov says is the dish that first made him fall in love with food—his Bulgarian grandmother made it for him as a child. We sample them at two different market stalls: Bourekas Ramle and Original Bourekas from Haifa.
“Choosing one over the other is kind of a Pat’s versus Geno’s thing,” Solomonov says, referring to the long-standing debate over who does the best Philly cheesesteak. He personally prefers Haifa, finding their lacquered dough flakier. I end up liking Ramle’s iteration more, finding it crispier and more irresistible. They’re both pretty amazing, though—even for someone who didn’t grow up with grandparents from Bulgaria.
Azura is a venerable sit-down restaurant located in the Iraqi quadrant of the market. Moshe Shrefler, a chef and son of the owner, tells me that their cuisine is mixed. “Turkish, Syrian, Kurdish, and Iraqi cooking are the main styles,” he says. “But there are also hints of the Persian Gulf, and from Tripoli in Libya, and Morocco. And of course the Sephardic Jewish influence is immense. It’s what we call Jerusalem food, basically.”
One must-try dish is their kubbeh soup, with stuffed semolina dumplings in a lemony, Swiss-chardrich broth. For mains, we have chicken meatballs with turmeric, a platter of sofrito (a medieval Spanish recipe of savory meat and potatoes), and the restaurant’s namesake Azura eggplant stuffed with lamb, cinnamon, and pine nuts. One of the spice blends used here is actually called Philadelphia spice—a factoid that wows Solomonov, who vows to incorporate the paprika-garlicherb mix in his restaurants back home.
After a serious power nap that afternoon, I end the day at Aricha Sabich with a deeply flavorful sabich pita, filled with golden fried eggplant, hard-boiled egg, and amba. There’s also another can’t-miss sandwich at this market, at a place called Arais, a couple of blocks over. It is named and renowned for its specialty: arais (or arayes), the meaty Palestinian concoctions whose patty-like fillings are actually cooked inside their own pitas on a grill.
Our final meal can’t be replicated anywhere else. Majda is a restaurant inside a home in the Judaean Hills outside Jerusalem. The chef is Michal Baranes, a Jewish woman with roots in Libya and Morocco, whose husband, Yaakov Barhum, is a Muslim Arab from this town, Ein Rafa. The restaurant occupies the ground floor of the couple’s open-concept, shabby-chic home. Their dishes, using ingredients like vine leaves, yogurt, and pomegranate seeds, seem to transcend all borders and preconceived notions.
With different cultures coming together and coexisting happily right here in her own home, how does she describe the kind of food she makes? “I don’t,” she says, with a knowing smile. “You just have to taste it to understand.”