In one of the alleys between Agrippas and Jaffa Road is an area in front of a restaurant, packed with full capacity of 25-30 at the tables. Large picture windows attract the eye as you walk down six steps, holding the white iron decorative banister. You are in a large room, with natural stone arches, some stone on the walls and decorative tile floors. All the green Formica tables have a cute pottery “tagine” holder with salt in one and crushed red peppers in the other. (A tagine is an earthenware cooking pot with a cone-shaped top.) Almost all of the 39 available seats as well as those at the bar are filled.
On each table is also a wood box with silverware and large, placemat size cloth napkins.
Middle Eastern music is in the background but difficult to discern because people are talking so animatedly while enjoying the food. Our host is restaurant manager, Nadav Ron, who worked in Tel Aviv restaurants, managed kitchens and worked as a chef before coming to Hamotzi when it opened in May 2012. (Hamotzi is the Hebrew word for who brings forth, as in the blessing made over bread–Blessed art thou who bring forth bread from the earth.)
Hamotzi Appetizers Photo by Barry A. Kaplan Jerusalem
Before choosing what to try, the waitress, in a T-shirt and slacks (like all the waiters and waitresses wearing their daytime clothes) carries a large silver tray with a silver cake pan holding challah from the Duvdevan bakery in Talpiot. The chef chose this particular bakery’s challah because challah is a unique Jewish bread, typically symbolizing the Sabbath, and it is a soft bread that goes well with the appetizers. All guests are served: eggplant with tomatoes; matbucha (a salad or tomato dip, cooked with roasted peppers, garlic and chili, with just a slight taste of spices); Swiss chard picante; preserved lemons with black olives; and green tchina.
At the back of the main room is the bar where a few can sit and eat with an open kitchen beyond overseen by owner, Avi Levy.
In September 2011, the second season of Master Chef, an international competitive cooking reality show, aired in Israel, and Levy, the then-35-year-old recovering drug addict, who learned to cook Algerian food from his mother and grandmother, won first place.
Hamotzi Best-selling entree, Boulette Photo by Barry A. Kaplan Jerusalem
Food is cooked on ptiliot, Israel kerosene slow cookers, and then kept warm. One wall of the kitchen/bar area has in Hebrew a verse from Psalm 145 recited daily – “You open your hand and satisfy every living thing with its desire.”
Appetizers were presented to us first – maakud, a very tasty vegetable roll, served with a red pepper and tomato sauce and green tehina on the side; next was a piping hot, crispy fried “cigar” stuffed with sweet breads and served on a charmoula sauce (lemon, garlic, herbs); fried fish (either St. Peter’s or sea bream) was served on colored, flowered plates with sauce, a little tangy but enjoyable. Not being a tehina fan, I particularly liked the green tehina made with ground parsley giving the color and only a slight taste, and served as an accompaniment to the various appetizers.
Entrees started with slow-cooked beef (cooked on the ptilia all night) thus rendering it soft enough to melt in your mouth, with potatoes, chick peas and onions, which my companion, a meat and potatoes guy, liked very much. Pargiot (the Israeli version of Cornish hen) was made into a roll stuffed with meat and sweetbreads and a tomato sauce and served on a bed of rice cooked with wheat grains, similar to barley, which my companion liked the best.
My favorite was the Meurav hamotzi , their version of the creative Jerusalem mixed grill. This dish is traditionally made with chicken, hearts, livers and onions. Here it is presented in a small copper-bottom serving dish and is made with ground lamb, chicken, sweetbreads, onions, sweet red peppers on a bed of fine noodles. To me, the taste is light and exquisitely different.
Finally, we tasted one of the best sellers, a boulette (meatball), served in a small, copper-bottom frying pan. These are semolina coated Algerian style, stuffed with rice, with a cabbage and onion stew on top and a little spicy tomato sauce.
All of the entrees were attractively served without garnishes, like you would serve your family at home and that is the aim of the restaurant, to create a special, home-like atmosphere. I especially liked that each serving pan had a paper napkin under it, between the pan and the serving plate.
Hamotzi Chef Avi Levy Photo by Barry A. Kaplan Jerusalem
After all of these very unique foods, we couldn’t leave without seeing what kind of desserts they would create. We tried the Yoyo – a cookie with almond cream inside, rolled in coconut; and the rich, elegant-tasting pistachio “cigar,” resembling baklava, served in a Sabayon sauce.
A small silver teapot with hot water and decorated glass cups were then brought to the table. That was the only incongruous part of the meal: the mint tea was a Lipton tea bag.
We glanced around to see the bill is served in a small, designed metal box with a lid. The service was excellent; the waitress was attentive and knowledgeable. My companion and I enjoyed the experience and the food immensely.
The reviewer and photographer were guests of the restaurant.
Sybil Kaplan is a journalist, food writer and cookbook author who lives in Jerusalem and leads walks in Machaneh Yehudah, the Jewish produce market.