What is newsworthy is when a restaurant in the market precinct hires an executive chef with a background that includes training in Michelin-starred restaurants, membership in the Belgian association of Master Chefs, and teaching at Cordon Bleu in London.
All of these qualifications are part of the extensive resume of Chef Michael Katz, who recently assumed the helm at Trattoria Haba, a bistro that occupies the expanded premises of the venerable bakery of the same name whose storefront is right on Jaffa Road.
Restaurant patrons now have the choice of sitting in the retail area next to picture windows (great for people-watching on the main street), upstairs in the quieter dining area, or outdoors in the rear al fresco area adjacent to the Georgian Market.
Clearly, the word is out about Chef Katz; on a recent evening – despite its being in the middle of the week – there was barely a vacant seat at any of the tables. And the culinary talent here extends to the art of mixology: There is short but intriguing list of specialty cocktails.
We chose a chili mint margarita, and the "special of the day": A rosewater and lychee martini. The former was barely recognizable as a margarita, but the tingly concoction was still delicious and refreshing; in the latter, the gin cut the sweetness of the lychee syrup – while the combination of the fruit with the exotic rose water practically exploded with flavor.
While we perused the menu – all the while enjoying the pleasant and non-intrusive background music – a generous portion of one of the house breads was served, with olive oil and balsamic vinegar for dipping. The different varieties of oven-fresh house bread are all sourdough, chewy and flavorful.
Those who prefer their bread in focaccia form will find some creative variations here as well. We sampled a sweet-and-savory loaf that was topped with dates and Sainte Maure cheese. It was an inspired combination: the slightly acidic goat cheese tempering the sweetness of the fresh dates.
Cheese is bound to play an important role in a restaurant that is kosher dairy, and Haba’s cheese croquettes take pride of place: Cubes of a mixture of pecorino and brie, very lightly breaded and fried. Cutting into the golden brown crust yields a rich, molten center that was complemented nicely by a small side salad of crisp greens, cucumber and pecans, in a shallot vinaigrette.
Additionally, the croquettes could be dipped into the accompanying cherry tomato chutney – decadently good! (The croquettes were fried so perfectly that it bodes well for the other menu items in the same category).
One doesn’t often find ceviche on a Jerusalem menu, so I was pleased to see it at Trattoria Haba (although it only makes this specific Italian designation of this restaurant all the more confusing). It contained more vegetables than one would ordinarily find in ceviche in Latin America; but the freshness of the croaker fish was still evident, and the tangy dish very satisfying.
Fish was the star in the next two courses we tried as well, although there were some tempting pasta options on the menu as well. The cured trout – with a pinkish tint resembling smoked salmon – was served with wasabi cream, and finely chopped onion and cucumber. It was good with either the spread or the veggies – but better yet was an improvised sandwich with all three components together. I would match this treat against any lox and cream cheese sandwich available in Israel.
Every day there is a fish "fillet of the day," cooked and served whole. We had Mediterranean sea bass, served with a warm pink tehina sauce. The white flesh of the small fish was firm yet moist, while the beet-tinted tehina gave the bland fish just the right boost of extra flavor.
There was barely room for dessert – but Haba’s roots are its bakery, whose pastry chefs supply the restaurant – so skipping it was out of the question. Unlike the main menu, which is in Hebrew and English, the dessert menu is only in Hebrew; but all 11 homemade desserts (or at least the ones that are not sold out) are on display, and the wait staff can explain the choices.
Our waitress recommended two of the most popular tarts: Mocha and lime. The lime custard had just the right balance of sweet and tart, while the complex coffee tart -- laced with milk chocolate cream and infused with cardamom -- was exquisite.
With so many dining establishments to choose from in Mahane Yehuda, it’s good to know which ones have an edge. Trattoria Haba, with its extraordinary pastries and accomplished chef, definitely qualifies on that score.
119 Jaffa Road, Jerusalem
The writer was a guest of the restaurant.