Shakshuka in pita, falafel, stuffed grape leaves and maybe the best Israeli-style schnitzel in New York are on the menu at the new branch of 12 Chairs Café.
Israeli-born chefs and restaurant owners in Manhattan usually try not to draw attention to their origins. It’s not that they are ashamed of their cultural background, but they tend to call the cuisine served at their establishments “Mediterranean” rather than “Israeli.”
What can you do? “Mediterranean” sounds more enticing and also befits modern, healthful dieting trends here. By contrast, Americans associate Israeli food with Jewish food or Middle Eastern food, like falafel in a pita. While the reputation of Israeli cuisine has been undergoing a dramatic improvement recently, in terms of its image here, apparently Mediterranean food still sounds more appealing.
Shimon Maman is thus an exception. He doesn’t hesitate to describe the cuisine at his two 12 Chairs Café restaurants as Israeli. His Manhattan location has been around 14 years, while the second one opened on super-cool Wyeth Avenue in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood in February. The menu is identical in both places, but I prefer Williamsburg because of its design.
Maman built this restaurant, he says, in the style of 1950s Tel Aviv. I regretfully missed that era in Tel Aviv, so I can’t confirm his claim. Still, there is something very pleasant and familiar in 12 Chair’s atmosphere.
“We brought everything from Israel,” says Maman, 37, who is both chef and owner of the eatery. “Alona Elias, a restaurant designer in Israel, did the work. The chairs, tables and chandelier came from Israel. There are Hebrew street signs from Tel Aviv on the wall, like Mohilever Street, and it all recreates the atmosphere of the White City – in Brooklyn.”