Gideon Sasson, co-owner of Moti’s Market and Carmel Caterers, was perusing Michael Solomonov’s cookbook Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking when an idea began to take shape. Reading the section on salatim (salads), he recalled with fondness the shipudiya grill restaurants he enjoys on frequent visits to Israel with his wife Debbie.
“There’s nothing like it here. Why not bring this experience to DC?” he thought. And this is how Michael Solomonov came to fan the flames for a new kosher Israeli restaurant in Rockville: Al Ha’Esh.
The literal translation of al ha’esh, the word Israelis use for barbecue, is “on the fire.” And it’s the wood charcoal grill that is central to the restaurant. In his planning, Sasson painstakingly researched charcoal. How fast does it burn, how much smoke is emitted, does it stay hot, and is it economical? He also visited Israel with Executive Chef Daniel Yitzhaky to gain inspiration for the menu. A trip to the Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem continued to fuel the excitement.
Ask Sasson what to order at Al Ha’Esh, and he lights up. “Skewered chicken livers,” he says proudly. “We are the only kosher restaurant in the country to serve them.” Chef Delfino Lopez also cooks up various preparations of grilled lamb, beef and even sweetbreads. Grilled meat is only part of the mix. Vegetarians can enjoy seitan shashlik (kabob) or eggplant prepared on the grill. And, in traditional Israeli fashion, there are four kinds of hummus, plus shawarma and falafel.
What about the salatim that initially inspired Sasson? The Al Ha’Esh experience includes an ambitious array of shareable fresh salads. They glimmer with Israeli spices, showcasing a medley of the multiethnic ingredients that distinguishes Israeli cuisine. There’s a bright beet salad with tehina (tahini), roasted zucchini with za’atar, curried chickpeas, pickled parsnips and matbucha, a popular mix of cooked tomatoes and peppers. The salads rotate so what comes to your table on one visit may be replaced on another. The thick pita is baked in-house, ready for tearing and dipping.
Refillable salads encourage lingering, and it’s hard not to leap out of your seat and schmooze with neighbors if you’re part of the DC area’s tight-knit Jewish community. But Sasson and his partner Tracy Yitzhaky have aspirations to appeal beyond the under-served kosher diners in the area. The Israel-born Sasson hopes to attract local Israelis, and others who yearn for a taste of Israel closer to home.
Israeli cuisine has surged in popularity, with James Beard Award-winning chefs like Solomonov and Alon Shaya, of Shaya in New Orleans, blazing culinary trails nationwide. An article just published in Forbes, “Why Israel Just Might Have the World’s Best Restaurant Scene,” confirms why the cuisine is hot in the US as well: fresh vegetables, grilled meat and “festive rooms full of people having fun,” cites Forbes contributor Ann Abel.
Al Ha’Esh has mirrored that trend by including a communal table and a bar. The space, previously occupied by Moti’s Grill (also owned by Sasson and Tracy Yitzhaky), has been completely renovated. The new look is fresh and modern. Israeli music playing in the background enhances the experience.
Al Ha’Esh has all the ingredients for success. Will it translate to the DC area, attracting observant diners as well as Jewish restaurant-goers seeking a transportive Israeli experience? On its first night post soft-opening, the restaurant is bustling. Clearly, the heat is on.
Al Ha’Esh, 301-231-0839, 4860 Boiling Brook Parkway, Rockville, MD, Sunday–Thursday 12 pm–2:30 pm and 5 pm–8:30 pm, Friday 12 pm–2:30 pm. Closed Friday evening and Saturday. Kosher.