Elevated Israeli cuisine popping up on Chicago’s culinary landscape

Elevated Israeli cuisine popping up on Chicago’s culinary landscape

Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago |
Stacey Ballis |
Nov 28, 2018
Original Article: "Elevated Israeli cuisine popping up on Chicago’s culinary landscape"

While we have always enjoyed a vibrant Middle Eastern culinary scene here, things seem to be picking up speed in recent years.

Israeli cuisine is having a moment. Borne of the success of powerhouses like Zahav in Philadelphia and Shaya in New Orleans, the multifaceted and multi-cultural foodways of the Middle East in general and Israel in specific are spawning hummuserias and falafel houses all over the country, and fine-dining elevated restaurants galore. In a city with such a diverse and exciting culinary scene as Chicago, with its broad Jewish and Middle Eastern populations, it is no wonder that we are seeing some of this expansion here.

While we have always enjoyed a vibrant Middle Eastern culinary scene here, with exceptional restaurants focused on every culture from Yemeni to Persian to Lebanese, things seem to be picking up speed in recent years. From the ethereal hummus served up by Yosi Alhadif from his La Shuk Street Food stall in residence at the Wicker Park Farmer’s Market, to the Halal delicacies of Yemen at Shibam City, Chicago is a place to explore the foods of these cultures with open mouths and hearts.

Inspired by travels in Israel, and supported by his California upbringing, Chef CJ Jacobson has opened two upscale restaurants in partnership with Richard Melman and the Lettuce Entertain You group. Ema and Aba, the names translating to “mother” and “father” in Hebrew, have enjoyed critical success in recent years. While the initial idea behind the restaurants, elevated explorations of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines was Melman’s, Jacobson was immediately drawn to the concept.

As a young professional athlete, Jacobson lived in Israel for the better part of a year in Tel Aviv. He recalls a small deli on the corner near his apartment, a one-man show with a focus on fresh sandwiches. The homemade breads, often infused with herbs, layered with vegetables and cured meats, served with fresh pomegranate and orange juices painstakingly created by hand, opened his eyes to food that was fresh, simple, and seasonal.

Dishes like late-night warm hummus with fresh pita and celery salad, eaten in the wee hours after a night at the clubs, have become part of his menu development at the restaurants, and their influence is felt in his interpretations with nearly a dozen variants in rotation between the two restaurants at any given time.

While the offerings at Ema and Aba are not specifically what he would call Jewish or Israeli, the lines of connection to both are very present.

“I am constantly striving to show new ways of expressing this cuisine, not in a traditional sense, but celebrating the flavors and the style of it,” Jacobson said.

He also credits new broader commitments to health and clean eating as a big part of the burgeoning scene. These foods tend to be naturally healthy, focused on fresh and seasonal ingredients, simple preparations, with lots of vegetables and pulses, and meats taking more of a supporting role.

“My journey started 20 years ago in Israel, and even though I wasn’t yet a cook while I was there, there is no question that everything I do now as a chef is rooted in that experience.”

Perhaps the most exciting and authentic newcomer to the city is the imminent Galit, scheduled for opening early 2019, from acclaimed chef Zachary Engel. Engel’s bonafides couldn’t be more impressive. A self- and on-the-job trained chef who never went to culinary school, Engel worked with Michael Solomonov, the cousin of a childhood friend, in the early days of Zahav before shifting to New Orleans, where he helped Alon Shaya open his restaurant Shaya. The son of a rabbi, Engel traveled extensively in Israel and was always struck by the food he experienced there.

“We are solely focused on trying to tell the stories of ourselves and the narratives of the immigrant cultures of Israel through our food. We want to respectfully pay homage to our own history, and the history of the food that comes out of the blending of all of these cultures.”

Engel, who is Jewish, and his partner, Andrés Clavero, who is a quarter Palestinian, both realized that Chicago is the kind of city that would embrace the style of restaurant they are trying to create.

“We really want to be of our neighborhood, not just in our neighborhood,” said Engel of the Lincoln Park location at the six corners of Fullerton, Halsted, and Lincoln. “We want to serve our neighbors first and foremost, which is why we are going to have high chairs and changing tables in the bathrooms. Of course, we want people from all over the city to come and have amazing meals with us, but we also want the people who live nearby to feel like we are their regular place, that they can stop in for a glass of wine and a plate of hummus at the bar on their way home.”

This sensibility around hospitality, a natural outgrowth of the formidable tradition of Southern hospitality he was taught in his years in New Orleans, is what he hopes will make Galit a special place.

“Food is easy,” Engel said. “If you are willing to learn and experiment and train with the right people, if you are willing to solicit and take criticism and change, the food will come. But getting the ambiance, the staffing, the management right, that is the key to a great restaurant. I have been lucky to learn from the best, and I want to bring all of that experience to play here in Chicago.”

And Chicago is more than ready.

Media Contact

Emily Clark pr@leye.com 773-878-7340

You May Also Like...

In The Restaurants
5 Chef-Approved Ways to Enjoy Spring Produce
May 20, 2019

Spring's showers have given way to flowers and we couldn't be happier to welcome warm(er)…

read more >
In The Restaurants
The Best Time of the Year: Patio Season in Chicagoland
May 15, 2019

Warm weather is here, which means al fresco dining is too! We've rounded up the best patios at…

read more >
In The Restaurants
In Season: Spring Peas
May 9, 2019

Spring has sprung and with the change in the season, our chefs have beautiful green veggies on their…

read more >
How To
Recipe: Spice Up Your Hummus
May 8, 2019

We have a confession: we love hummus. We love it as a healthy condiment on a sandwich, as a dip for…

read more >
In The Restaurants
21 Dishes for Celiac Awareness Month
May 8, 2019

May is Celiac Awareness Month, so we've rounded up our favorite gluten-free dishes that you have to…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Gluten-Free Friendly Restaurants in Chicago
May 7, 2019

At Lettuce Entertain You, we aim to make finding gluten-free friendly restaurants a lot easier. Many…

read more >
In The Restaurants
A Few Of Our Favorite Vegan Dishes
Apr 15, 2019

With warm weather upon us, we're all about eating lighter and brighter - so why not try some of our…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Lettuce Life: Meet Avril Zayas, Senior Designer
Mar 26, 2019

Welcome to Lettuce Life, a behind the scenes look at what makes Lettuce Entertain You special: our…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Get a Slice of Our Favorite Pies!
Mar 24, 2019

We love sweet and savory pies of all kinds, so open up your pie hole and explore all of the slices…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Try These New Cocktails at Aba
Feb 25, 2019

Grab a seat at the bar because Aba's Lead Mixologist Liz Pearce is mixing up some new cocktails to…

read more >
In The Restaurants
You Can Now Enjoy Aba’s Patio All Year Long
Feb 19, 2019

Introducing the new rooftop igloos at Aba! Why are we so excited for these? Well, it means you can…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Kid-Friendly Dining Options and Activities
Feb 10, 2019

You've been to the zoo, the beach, the pool... the kids are starting to get stir crazy. We've got…

read more >
In The Restaurants
8 Food Trends We’re Looking Forward To In 2019
Jan 20, 2019

Just like fashion, food is always trending and it’s up to the experts to decide what’s “in”…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Your Guide to Our Favorite Salads
Jan 14, 2019

A salad a day keeps the doctor away. Well, maybe not. But we know it can be tough keeping your New…

read more >
In The Restaurants
5 Healthier Menu Alternatives to Help You Keep Your Resolutions
Jan 8, 2019

January is here, which means it's time for New Year's resolutions. It's not our fault that the cold…

read more >
How To
Spend Your Scratch Off Reward $$$
Oct 14, 2018

You’ve worked hard all summer playing and earning points during Scratch Off, and now you’ve got…

read more >
How To
Mix It Up: Life on Freezy Street, A Sauv Blanc Cocktail
Aug 13, 2018

It's August which means heat, humidity, plus some more heat. There's no better way to cool down…

read more >
How To
Treat Your Vegetables More Like Meat
Jul 25, 2018

Summa time, and grilling's easy... but what if you just aren't in the mood to eat meat? CJ Jacobson,…

read more >
How To
This Summer, Grill Like A Chef. Here’s How
Jul 19, 2018

Executive Chef Justin Diglia of Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab in Chicago and his…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Your Summer Ice Cream Checklist
Jul 19, 2018

I SCREAM, YOU SCREAM...we all know the drill so let's get to the good stuff. July is National Ice…

read more >
How To
Recipe: Mix Up the Picnic Basket Cocktail from Aba
Jul 19, 2018

Cocktails are best shared with friends and Aba's Lead Mixologist, Liz Pearce has created a list of…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Somm Picks: Top Bottles Under $50
Jun 26, 2018

Searching through wine lists can be a daunting task. Thumbing through dozens of pages filled with…

read more >
In The Restaurants
5 Ways to Play Summer Scratch Off
Sep 13, 2010

Summer is coming to an end, but that doesn’t mean the fun has to stop. Lucky for you, you can play…

read more >

Recent Posts

In The Restaurants
Here’s Where to Happy Hour in Las Vegas
May 24, 2019

It's 5 o'clock somewhere! Treat yourself to happy hour on The Strip at one of our Lettuce Entertain…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Here’s Where to Happy Hour in the D.C. Metro Area
May 24, 2019

It's 5 o'clock somewhere! Here are all the happy hour deals at our D.C. metro area restaurants, from…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Here’s Where to Happy Hour in Los Angeles
May 24, 2019

The workday is done, so grab your friends and co-workers and head to Stella Barra in Santa Monica or…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Here’s Where to Happy Hour in Chicago
May 24, 2019

TGI- (insert day of the week here)! Here are all the happy hour deals available at Lettuce Entertain…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Here’s Where to Happy Hour in the Twin Cities
May 24, 2019

Happy Hour is even better when the drinks and food are half off! Treat yourself after work at one of…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Memorial Day 2019: Chicago
May 24, 2019

On Monday, May 27, our Chicago restaurants will honor Memorial Day with brunch, lunch and dinner…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Memorial Day 2019: Metro D.C. Area
May 24, 2019

On Monday, May 27, our Metro D.C. area restaurants will observe Memorial Day with brunch, lunch and…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Memorial Day 2019: Las Vegas
May 24, 2019

Our Las Vegas restaurants will honor Memorial Day on Monday, May 27 with brunch, lunch and dinner…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Memorial Day 2019: Twin Cities
May 24, 2019

On Monday, May 27, our Twin Cities restaurants will honor Memorial Day with lunch and dinner…

read more >
In The Restaurants
Memorial Day 2019: Los Angeles
May 24, 2019

Our Los Angeles restaurants are honoring Memorial Day on Monday, May 27 with brunch, lunch and…

read more >
How To
VIDEO: How To Mix Up Joe’s Clevelander Cocktail
May 21, 2019

Whether you're looking to impress guests at your next cocktail party, or simply want to shake things…

read more >
In The Restaurants
5 Chef-Approved Ways to Enjoy Spring Produce
May 20, 2019

Spring's showers have given way to flowers and we couldn't be happier to welcome warm(er)…

read more >
Lettuce Consulting Group

Grow Your Business

Learn More
Career Opportunities

Join Our Team

Search Jobs
Latest Articles

Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Sign Up Now