The $5 Meal Challenge Continues: Jerusalem

Food, Nightlife — By Diana on June 20, 2010 at 8:02 am

The hungry Jerusalem tourist on a budget can find satiation at any one of probably a few hundred falafel places throughout the city, where 20-35 shekels (about $4-$7) can buy you a pita overflowing with schawarma or falafel and an array of dips, salads, and greasy delights. But choosing just one to recommend is nearly impossible, as every real Jerusalemite cites a different stand as the place for falafel/hummus/schawarma and will tell you his opinion as gospel truth.

When your stomach starts rumbling its need for a break from the bean-y, pickled, oily pickings of Middle Eastern fast food fare, take it for restorative therapy to the Marakia. Located on Koresh street in the city center, the Marakia (literally, the “Soupery”) has a homey, hole-in-the-wall feel to it that cannot be matched.

Every day, a chef prepares a variety of fresh soups whose names are etched on the chalkboard which serves as a menu. The day I visited, they had sweet potato soup, chickpea and vegetable soup, tomato soup with green beans, and my personal pick – creamed leek and zucchini. Memorable dishes from other visits include the cheesy onion and cream of mushroom soups; in winter months (contrary to popular misconception, it does get cold in Jerusalem!), lentil soup is a favorite. For 28 shekels ($6.41), you can get a bowl of soup with complementary bread (whole wheat is 5 shekels extra) with butter and homemade pesto (secret ingredient: Parmesan cheese). Soup to go is 20 shekels ($4.58).

Soup is the Marakia’s main event, but it isn’t all they do – 25 shekels ($5.73) will get you a shakshuka, a fried egg served sunny-side up in a steaming saucepan and covered in a delicious tomato and pepper sauté (from mild to very spicy), with optional cheese. Desserts are 15-20 shekels ($3.44 to $4.58) and include mouth-watering titles like “chocolate mousse” and “vanilla ice cream with pears caramelized in wine.” A bottle of wine is 40 shekels ($9.16) and a glass of hot wine is 15. Beers range from 14-18 shekels, depending on brand, and you can also wash your meal down with a glass of arak (12 shekels) or fresh-squeezed juice, such as orange, lemonade, or grapefruit.

The Marakia is open on Sunday through Thursday from 6 pm and on Saturday nights from half an hour after the stars come out (when Shabbat ends), until “whenever the last customer leaves,” says waiter David Lockard – usually around 1-2 am. It is a kosher dairy restaurant run by an observant man named Noam who is happy to explain to any interested patron why his place is “kosher in spirit but without certificate” – he has been known to spend half an hour speaking to an ultra-Orthodox visitors about the ins and outs of his kitchen practices, and why he is ideologically opposed to paying a rabbinic organization for a formal certificate. Invariably, Lockard smiles, “they end up staying.”

Music fills the Marakia throughout the week as patrons take turns on the standing piano, and on Wednesday and Saturday nights, the dining experience is enhanced by live performances – usually jazz but also folk or world music.

The décor is an assortment of tables and cushy chairs with vintage decorations all around. A bookshelf overflowing with old newspapers and magazines separates the eating area from the kitchen. Out back, a bunch of tattered old couches and rugs provide space for soup under the stars.

“There’s no better place to work,” Lockard says. “The place is run like a democracy. There are no rules; anyone on staff can contribute their opinion.” He adds, “It feels like home.” Seems like this is a popular opinion among the staff of the Soupery; legend has it that in the 9 years since it opened, not one person has ever been fired.