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Ishtabach is a small Kurdish-inspired restaurant nestled in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda Market. They have already made a name for themselves as one of the best restaurants in the area. The place is tiny and easy to miss if you don’t know what they have to offer, but once you step inside, the magic of Ishtabach speaks for itself.
Ishtabach serves one dish, called shamburak, which is a pastry filled with different options of meat or vegetables. Everything is passed down from family recipes and made in-house. They use only fresh local produce from the market, which means Ishtabach’s menu is constantly changing based on availability, which keeps their customers constantly surprised. ‘A chef is a host, and I see this place as my home,’ said founder Oren Sasson-Levi. ‘I’d never let anyone eat what I wouldn’t eat myself.’
Their signature pastry is the siske, filled with, beef that has been slow cooked over 15 hours, their mixture of sweet and regular mashed potatoes, caramelized onions, sweet peppers, and chimichurri.
With every mouthful you can taste the hours of preparation and dedication. The meat is flavorful and so tender that it almost melts in your mouth. The pastry itself is light with the perfect amount of crunchiness, and the subtle flavor of the sesame seeds really round out the whole experience. The mashed potatoes are a subtle base that complements the meat’s explosive flavor.
One of their signature accompaniments is their garlic jam. Without a doubt, it is one of the best things we’ve ever tasted. The sweetness of the jam paired with the heady flavor of the garlic is a perfect complement to combination of flavors of the shamburak. For the spice lovers, make sure to try the hot chili jam, which will makes your eyes water in the best way possible.
Each meal comes with three salads, which change on a daily basis. We recommend the garlic-tomato jam with anise – and carrots with arak, or cabbage salad with grapefruit cream, or be sure to ask Oren or colleague Yanir Zaken what they recommend.
As if their pastries weren’t enough, Ishtabach proudly serves their homemade arak, and it’s unlike any arak you’ve ever tasted. Their’s is made with different citrus fruits, which they blend with the alcohol, creating a fruity alcohol shake. If you still need a sweet treat, they make a chocolate truffle that is small, sweet, and a wonderful ending to your meal. The truffles are not on the menu, but they tend to give them out, just to see people smile.
The atmosphere makes you want to sit there all night, nurse a glass of wine and watch what happens. They manage to capture the feeling of entertaining in someone’s home, and transport it to their restaurant. Each customer is greeted as if they are a member of the family. People come to eat and stay for the experience.
And the smiles! Everyone here is smiling, from the customers to the staff, the two men who make this place so special Oren and Yanir. More often than not you’ll find these two singing along to 70’s rock, often pausing their work to burst into a rockin’ solo. (Oren especially loves ‘Stayin’ Alive’ by the BeeGees).
‘I love seeing people smile. Food is a connection between humanity,’ says Oren. He came up with the name Ishtabach based on his unique life story. The name itself has two meanings: praise the lord; and a man (ish) who cooks (tabach).
Oren, 40, was born and raised in Jerusalem. At the age of 37, he fell into a coma, which he was in for two months. His recovery time took three and a half years, and during that time the idea for Ishtabach was born.
Oren has been a chef and restaurant consultant for over twenty years, and after his coma, decided it was time to own his own place. His grandmother inspired his love for food. As a child he would often go to his Kurdish grandmother’s house and she would prepare these pastries in a hole she would dig in the in her backyard. Oren swears that he could taste the love in the food she made, and inspired his love of hosting and feeding people.
The second face of Ishtabach is Yanir Zaken, a 29-year musician. He was the former proprietor of Jerusalem’s only heavy metal bar, and after five years left for the kitchen of Ishtabach.
Yanir loves food, and more importantly, he loves people, which becomes completely obvious through his interactions with customers. When people come in, he stops everything to explain how the restaurant works. He explains the dish, the types and options that they have, and cultivates a personal experience that is unforgettable. ‘At a bar you don’t get compliments every two seconds,’ Yanir explains, laughing. ‘This is doing wonders for my self esteem!’
Many restaurants can produce a good dish, but not many places can put love into each and every dish that they create, and this is a skill that has been effortlessly mastered at Ishtabach.