Jerusalem cocktail bar drops kosher certification in bid for broader clientele

The Brown Jerusalem hotel’s Ruhan cocktail bar switches to non-kosher menu after four months as a Tzohar-certified brasserie

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Some of the menu options at Ruhan, a previously kosher bistro cocktail bar at the Brown Jerusalem hotel, which was using vegan Redefine meat in some dishes in order to expand its kosher options (Courtesy Anatoly Michaelo)
Some of the menu options at Ruhan, a previously kosher bistro cocktail bar at the Brown Jerusalem hotel, which was using vegan Redefine meat in some dishes in order to expand its kosher options (Courtesy Anatoly Michaelo)

When the new Brown Jerusalem boutique hotel opened in December, it also launched Ruhan, a kosher brasserie cocktail bar in the hotel lobby that served fish, pasta and Israeli-made plant-based Redefine meat — all under kosher certification from the religious Tzohar organization.

Just four months later, the central Jerusalem restaurant has decided to serve real meat, along with butter sauces and creams, giving up its kosher certification. Kosher dietary laws proscribe the consumption of meat and milk together.

“We wanted to be successful, but we didn’t see it working with a kosher restaurant,” said Liran Alayoff, head of OTH group, which is the Brown hotels’ restaurant, bar, club and event business. “Sometimes you’re able to get both kinds of customers, and sometimes you don’t get anyone.”

The Brown Hotel chain, which will have more than 50 hotels in Israel, Greece and Europe by the end of 2022, has Tzohar’s certification in some of its kosher restaurants, while it others it has acquired the more broadly accepted certification by Israel’s chief rabbinate.

It was looking to experiment with this latest Jerusalem opening.

While there are three other Brown hotels in Jerusalem — the Villa Brown, Villa Brown Moshava and Brown Machane Yehuda — Ruhan was the group’s first full restaurant in Jerusalem.

It chose to work with Tzohar, which launched its own kosher certification agency in 2018 in a bid to break the chief rabbinate’s hold and has gradually expanded its reach throughout food establishments in Israel.

Cabbage stuffed with Redefine meat at Brown Jerusalem’s Ruhan hotel, where the vegan meat substitute created broader options for a kosher menu, April 2022 (Courtesy Anatoly Michaelo)

Ruhan hired Orel Kimchi, a well-known chef from the Popina restaurant in Tel Aviv’s Neve Tzedek, who created a tasteful menu of dishes such as pumpkin carpaccio sprinkled with parmesan, a savory bread pudding with crème fraiche, and cabbage stuffed with Redefine meat served with kohlrabi cream and almond chimichurri.

“It’s great material,” said Kimchi, speaking about Redefine meat a few weeks ago at Ruhan. “I don’t see any disadvantage in creating a kosher menu. These are the ingredients and you work with them.”

Ruhan’s menu was seen as exciting for Jerusalem’s kosher diners, with unusual offerings and a stellar Israeli wine list, as well as inspired cocktails that included locally made spirits. Patrons included tourists and locals, some clearly religiously observant Jews and others not, in the intimate first-floor space of the boutique hotel.

The exterior of the Brown Jerusalem hotel which opened its kosher Ruhan restaurant in December 2021, deciding a few months later to lose its kosher certification in order to attract a different clientele (Courtesy Karin Perez)

But the number of customers who came wasn’t enough, said Alayoff. Neither was the Tzohar certification.

“We were on the seam,” he said. “We weren’t offering kosher certification with the Jerusalem rabbinate and we didn’t serve real meat. So the kosher customers would call us and say, ‘Ah, you’re Tzohar, that’s not kosher enough for us; and the non-kosher diners said, ‘What, no meat?'”

Ruhan won’t be outright treif, insisted Shahaf Segal, who handles public relations for the Brown hotel group, based on the fact that it won’t serve seafood or pork. But the kitchen will mix meat and milk, rendering it wholly non-kosher.

Strictly kosher hotels in Israel must have separate meat and dairy kitchens, and kosher restaurants serve either meat or dairy, bit not both.

Kosher food establishments must close on the Sabbath, and Ruhan can now remain open on Friday night and Saturday — another benefit of not being kosher.

Being kosher felt like something of a liability, said Segal, even in Jerusalem with its large religiously observant population.

“We’re used to places in Tel Aviv where you open and the crowd is excited, they show up right away,” she said. “Jerusalem is different. It takes time.”

The bacon cheesesticks at Zuni, a non-kosher Jerusalem bistro that has built its business on its non-kosher comfort food and open-on-Sabbath business hours (Courtesy Zuni Instagram)

Jerusalem is different, agreed Anat Kirsh, the long-time owner of Zuni, a non-kosher bistro located in the nearby cobblestoned Nahalat Shiva.

Kirsh and her former husband opened Zuni 16 years ago in what was a former dilapidated woodworking shop, bringing a taste of their hometown of Tel Aviv to the capital with a 24/7 bistro that serves breakfast and brunch as well as lunch, dinner and drinks, every day of the week.

They later brought Zuni’s famous French toast and Tel Aviv spirit to New York City’s Upper West Side.

The couple later split and Kirsh came back to Israel with her children, continuing to run Zuni Jerusalem and commuting from Tel Aviv almost daily.

Zuni owner Anat Kirsh, at the front door of the Nahalat Shiva bistro in Jerusalem, which serves non-kosher comfort food seven days a week (Courtesy Anat Kirsh)

“With Jerusalemites, you need patience,” said Kirsh, remembering the long, empty nights during Zuni’s first year of business. “It’s very hard here. Jerusalemites are suspicious of new places. But once you have them, they’re yours forever.”

Zuni remained open during the coronavirus lockdowns, with her kitchen staff making home deliveries. Customers called often, telling Kirsh to swipe their credit card or making “unnecessary” orders, because they wanted her to survive.

Zuni has survived, although the gastro pub is no longer open all night and Kirsh has found it harder to find good waitstaff — a continuing problem for restaurateurs during the pandemic.

Still, her Jerusalem establishment will never become a kosher restaurant, said Kirsh; some of its favorites are BLTs, bacon shakshuka and mussels. That said, she’s convinced that every non-kosher restaurant in Jerusalem has a Plan B for turning kosher.

“The question is,” said Kirsh, “when do you need to use that plan B?”

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