Musty Smell, Fine Food

by Brian on April 14, 2013

in Food,Reviews

Racha_roomI’m not sure if the oddly wafting odor of mold, or was that mildew, emanating from the walls of Racha, a funky restaurant in the center of Jerusalem specializing in Georgian food (the country, not the U.S. state), was intended to be part of the experience.

Perhaps the smell was meant to evoke memories of the kind of small town inn one finds nestled in the foothills of the country’s Caucasus Mountain Range. More likely, it’s a remnant of the building in which Racha has settled, a mash-up of two former storerooms dating from the British Mandate period. Which is OK if the owners’ lack of scrubbing bubbles is intentional; a means of enhancing the establishment’s authenticity in contrast to casual carelessness, which would suggest a very different calculus.

No matter – the mold was entirely secondary to the food, which my wife and I ordered during a lunch visit to the restaurant this week – food which was both familiar and inventive, to at least this non-Georgian carnivore.

And carnivore you’d better be: the main courses, except for a skewered spring chicken, which my non-red meat eating partner chose, consist of beef and more beef. There are beef patties and beef stew; a couple of lamb entrees round out the cholesterol-busting menu.

The only place meat was banished: the opening salads. There the choices were eggplant, beets, and more eggplant. We started – what we choice did we have, really? – with an eggplant dish called adzhachili which was surprising both in that the promised eggplant strips were actually outnumbered by grilled onions and in the strong spice – perhaps this was the “chili” in the adzaha? We were compelled to order some crusty shutespuri, the Georgian house bread (worth the money in any case), to counter the sting.

Our second starter, beets mixed with nuts and herbs, was if anything even stronger; it would have done a fine job impersonating Yeminite schug in a falafel. If it seems like I’m complaining, you’ve read me wrong: I like my food strong and the insertion of a little heat into these dishes kept them from straying too close to the standard Israeli starter selection.

The business lunch menu is divided into options by price: NIS 79, NIS 89 and NIS 118; each includes different dishes but always with an appetizer, main course, juice, tea and Georgian cookies at the end. For an extra NIS 15, you can get one of the fried meat pastries. On recommendation of both the waiter and David Brinn, who reviewed Racha recently for The Jerusalem Post, we ordered one portion of chibureki – David described it as “fried crescents filled with spicy ground beef.” The dish is reminiscent of the pastilles you can find at Darna, a Moroccan restaurant, nearby in Jerusalem’s Russian Compound neighborhood. The combination of sugary fried dough and more red meat was my favorite part of the meal, in fact.

For main courses, my wife went with the above-mentioned spring chicken, while I chose something called shechamadi which was akin to a beef stew, with fairly fatty cholent-style beef chunks mixed with a casserole of vegetables in a sour, tomato sauce. I added my side of rice into the bowl and came away with a dish that could have come from my mother’s table but had enough ethnic twists to be something else entirely. Ditto on the chicken: shipudim are standard Israeli fare, but the spices in the Racha version were just unusual enough to keep us interested.

Which brings me back to the mold. Racha doesn’t blast your taste buds with an utterly un-Israeli dining experience, as you might have if you went out for, say, Ethiopian food. The spices were subtle but hold your attention, which was important in pushing the building’s ever-present odor aside…at least until the final tea, which our waiter said sheepishly was somehow Georgian but, if I’d demanded entry to the kitchen, would probably have found a box of ordinary Wissotsky black tea hidden in a cupboard.

Still, the combination of olfactory stimulation and a playful turn with the interior design – a medley of antique furniture, old world carpets, chandeliers and, improbably, a collection of shofars – make Racha a place to be visited during an extended trip to Jerusalem.

This review appeared previously on Israelity.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: