The table, with 30 settings, was ready for Shabbat dinner. Except it was Wednesday afternoon, not Friday evening.
The mid-week event was to showcase the Sabbath meal at Jerusalem’s five-star Mamilla Hotel for Open Restaurants Jerusalem, the cuisine and dining festival that brings participants to all kinds of culinary experiences.
“Every Friday night, we serve Shabbat dinner to all our guests, and it’s a chance to taste Israel,” said Chef Oshri Za’afrani, as waiters served still and sparkling water and the sommelier poured a Golan Winery Chardonnay or Merlot.
It was Shabbat dinner on steroids. There were the standards of the Ashkenazi table, individual challah rolls studded with sesame seeds, platters of neatly sliced gefilte fish, bowls of creamy chopped liver and pots filled with steamy cholent.
There were also the classic salads of the Sephardic Shabbat meal, a meze that included Moroccan carrots, fried cauliflower, stuffed grape leaves and preserved lemons. And that was all before the platters of chicken and noodle kugel and a dessert of delicate petit fours.
Za’afrani and his sous chefs — there are 47 cooks in all — explained the various dishes on the table, including the homemade challah and the ritual blessing made during its kneading process.
One chef, Simone Shapiro, talked about the hotel’s massive kosher kitchens, and the use of almond milk in many of the hotel’s vegan and lactose-free cheeses, as well as the fact that all of the hotel’s salads are vegan and dairy-free.
“There is no vegetable that is not a staple in our kitchen,” she said.
Sous chef Yehonatan Yosef, who was born and raised in Jerusalem by his Iraqi father and Kurdish mother, said he has learned to appreciate the dishes of the Ashkenazi kitchen through his work at the hotel. But when the hotel chef staff wanted to improve on their kube, the bulgur balls stuffed with finely ground beef spiced with cinnamon, he brought in his mother.
“She came to show how to stuff them properly,” said Yosef, demonstrating the two-finger method of stuffing the mini-football-shaped balls that offer a slight crunch on the outside and a steamy, aromatic interior, and are a staple of Friday night dinners.
“I like having the mix of Jewish regional specialties on the table,’ he said, pointing to the array of dishes. “It’s the Shabbat ingathering of the exiles.”