A customer came out of the restaurant as my son, Eliezer and I, stood at the door, wondering if we should go in.
“It’s the best food in the Bourse,” the man said, holding the door open and waving us in. “Don’t go anywhere else.”
I wasn’t vaguely tempted to try anywhere else.
Workers at the Bourse, also known as the Diamond District, can choose between a few dozen cheap eateries serving tasteless versions of falafel, shwarma, pizza and burgers. Some more pretentious places set tables out on the sidewalk and you can order Asian-style or Italian-style or Something-style food. Of course you can always fill yourself up on greasy bourekas too. Beware the cheap burgers anyhow – Eliezer got food poisoning from one such place. (Sigh. If he’d just waited till he got home, where there was mushroom-broccoli soup and biscuits with basil and cheese in them…)
There are another two or three places that serve real food in the area, but for Israeli down-home cooking with meat, Menza is the place to go.
Meet Ro’i Shadur, owner and manager.
“I don’t consider myself a chef,” he told me. “I manage the place.” And very well managed it is, too. “I like to serve good, fresh food, and I’m open to new recipes.” He jumped up to fetch a food magazine and opened it at a photograph of a spinach and chickpea dish. “One of my workers showed me this, and I’m going to try it out.”
Later he revealed that he’s a graduate of the Cordon Bleu in Sydney, Australia.
You can see how clean the place is. I like the homey feeling, the open pantry that’s not ashamed to display kitchen staples, the little coffee corner and the soda fountain where you can refill your glass as often as you like for five shekels.
This is Ro’i’s famous chicken kadrah – a stew that varies from day to day. The chicken might cook slowly for hours with root vegetables, or black beer sauce, or curry, or simmer with dried fruit from 7:00 a.m. until noon. Today, it was chicken with apricots. Ro’i dipped a spoon in the stock to give me a taste. Just that little spoonful told me how good it was.
It’s hard, and dangerous too, to shlep that immense pot off its flame and onto the hotplate for serving.
Safely in place, right next to the meatballs. That’s the kind of food you can expect at Menza: the kind of food your mother and grandmother make (if you’re Israeli, from parents who have accepted the big North African influence in Israeli cooking). Eliezer also recommends the chili con carne, served over spaghetti, and the beef with mushrooms. There are always at least two cooked vegetables too, like cabbage cooked with tomatoes, and salmon in green curry. Grilled chicken breasts are treated to a cover of sauce. It’s not an extensive menu, but there are new or different items every day and everything is fresh, tasty, and clean.
There must alwyas be at least one salad on offer. This lovely mixed one incorporates all those fresh vegetables that Israelis love so well.
At exactly noon, the office workers start lining up. You point to the foods you want on your plate and pay up front, cafeteria style. Six kitchen workers stand and serve behind the counter, so that the line moves fast.
Some customers ask for packaged food to take away. Ro’i says that working mothers show up at around 2:o0 and buy food to take home.
“After I came back from Australia, I worked in the diamond industry for a while,” Ro’i said. “I’d go out and look for lunch, but there was nowhere to eat. I can’t stand food that’s been fried in yesterday’s fat, food that depends on soup powder for flavor. Onions, parsley, tomatoes, celery – they’re so cheap and abundant, why don’t people cook with them instead of instant soup powder that makes your throat burn?
“So I decided to establish a place where people could go for popular fresh food, at an affordable price.”
I could have chosen brown rice as a foil to the apricot chicken, but thought that white would photograph better.
The potato wedges are first seasoned, doused with a little of the fat from the chicken, and baked. Then they grill for a few minutes on the same grill that cooks the chicken breasts. Divine.
This sign amused me. It says: “Please don’t save a seat for yourself before getting your food. It disorganizes traffic.” Then I realized it’s just one more sign of good management. People eat communally at Menza, sharing tables with whoever else needs a seat. Reserving a seat before you have your tray results in explanations, apologies, moving away to find somewhere else – traffic snarls. People used to eating there understand the reason for the sign and accept it.
The meatballs are rich in onions, tomato sauce and parsley, with a minimum of breadcrumbs to keep them light.
Slices off a standard white loaf. This is the bread for which Israelis have rioted in the past; the bread that school children’s sandwiches are made of and that everyone has grown up with. In the background, grilled chicken breast in curry sauce and those delicious potatoes.
You just can’t get more Israeli than this huge pot full of meatballs in simmering tomato sauce.
R. Tubal 28