firstname.lastname@example.org Tel Aviv, Israel
“The best food in Israel, even before 1948, was always from Jaffa,” Hamoudi reminisces as he pours himself a glass of Argentinian Chardonnay. With eyes the color of bittersweet chocolate, he recounts his family’s connection to Jaffa, an ancient port city where the Middle East seems to converge. As an historical import-export hub, Jaffa has always been home to the region’s most flavorful cuisine. Centuries ago, the city’s merchants, sailors, and farmers gathered at their own coffee shops where they mingled with friends and family. In contemporary Jaffa, Al Matbah symbolizes the local food culture’s roots. The soft, sky blue paint on the walls creates a calm ambiance for Hamoudi’s storytelling. Next to our table, a Hamsa sign hangs on the turquoise wall where the paint has begun to peel away. This hand-shaped symbol features twelve twinkling gems and the Birkat HaBayit, the Jewish home blessing. Behind the mosaic-tiled counter, Alia dons a black hijab while she prepares the glistening grape leaves for the day. As we savor a traditional Arab meal together and listen to tales from generations past, the aroma of cinnamon-simmered rice fills the air. Hamoudi and Layla, his wife and business partner, share the enchanting story of Al Matbah...
Al Matbah is much more than a restaurant; it is a symbol. It opened only five months ago and represents Layla’s profound personal history. Coming from a family with a Jewish Iraqi mother and a Muslim Arab father, she firmly believes in the ideology of harmony among different peoples. Layla believes in “taking the beautiful things from each culture and using them in our daily lives.” With respect for all religions, she strives to portray food’s power to bring individuals together and inspire dreams of coexistence. This restaurant is an extension of Layla’s passionate belief in the goodness of people; it is this kind of spirituality that fuels her life work. At the dining table, Layla aspires to establish a peaceful dialogue among Arabs and Jews through this atmosphere.
In English, Al Matbah means “the kitchen,” which reflects Layla’s dedication to making guests feel at home. This hidden gem of a restaurant overflows with meaning and passion due to its origins as Layla’s social project; it allows Arab women the opportunity to get out of the house to earn money, engage in social life, and cook their age-old family recipes. While the dishes themselves inundate the palate with rich Mediterranean flavors, the warmth of the restaurant’s purpose speaks volumes about the beautiful integrity of the Al Matbah experience.
To start off our meal, Layla personally delivers a taste of Hamoudi’s special Arak concoction. For this recipe, Hamoudi mixes Arak with fruit compote made by boiling figs, dates, raisins, melon, lemon juice, and sugar. Glass bottles of this sweet elixir sit on the shelves of an antique bookcase with white distressed wood. Al Matbah also offers different flavors of this Arak creation that guests can purchase; Hamoudi also makes a savory version with pumpkin, quince, and squash. These unique beverages allude to the fact that this is not an ordinary place; rather, Layla and Hamoudi have created a restaurant with magical, intricate details.
Al Matbah’s tasting menu follows the traditional format of Middle Eastern food that originated in the Ottoman Empire. The meal begins with classic meze dishes like tabouli, beet salad, baba ghanoush, and hummus. The rest of the tasting menu includes warm meat dishes, and rice. As the finale, Layla serves black coffee with honey-drizzled pastries. This menu only costs sixty-eight shekels for a minimum of two individuals to share; thus, this price makes this experience highly affordable. Al Matbah also offers another set menu, called arucha iskit, which includes a main course, a side dish, and two meze items. The price of this meal ranges from forty to forty-five shekels, depending on the main course. With the succulent lamb, the arucha iskit costs fifty-eight shekels.
Al Matbah’s cuisine itself is heavily influenced by the region’s Turkish influences. However, Layla and Hamoudi elevate this experience to an entirely new level; they blend what they believe to be the best aspects of each Middle Eastern country’s recipes. Within the Middle East, the cuisine varies among the geographical regions, so Layla and Hamoudi choose which recipes they want to follow for each dish. They take pride in knowing that they serve the very best in terms of flavor and quality. For example, Lebanese and Syrian mujadarra recipes typically incorporate rice, lentils, and a modest garnish of roasted onions. Instead of following this recipe exactly, Al Matbah adopts Jaffa’s regional spin on mujaddara by using cracked wheat instead of rice and a generous portion of caramelized onion ribbons flowing through the dish. These changes amplify the flavor sensation: The cracked wheat adds a fluffy, creamy texture while the increased amount of onions adds a touch of sweetness to contrast the earthy lentils.
Siniyeh koutfta, another scrumptious traditional dish, combines meatballs of lamb and beef, cooked with tahini and potatoes. For the menu, Hamoudi chooses to adopt the Lebanese version of tahini, which gives the sesame paste a more pickled flavor. Another one of their famous dishes is maklouba—slow-cooked brown rice with sautéed vegetables (carrots, cauliflower, tomatoes, eggplant, and chickpeas), olive oil, cinnamon, and nutmeg.
With its exotic yet comfortable design elements, the ambiance expresses the restaurant’s opulent yet cozy character. Here, the vibe is reminiscent of an actual family kitchen, which creates an intimate feeling. The tall, rustic wooden doors spill out onto Yefet Street, and the ceiling features two colossal Moroccan-style chandeliers. From each of the seven tables, guests can see Mama Amna, Layla’s mother-in-law, carefully filling red and yellow peppers with herb rice or pouring steaming tea from the kettle into dainty teacups. The ornate, gold-framed mirror in the kitchen is angled precisely so guests can watch her cook. As the classical Arabic music plays in the background, guests unwind in awe of the delicious dishes in front of them. From the homemade za’atar-sprinkled bread to the juicy chicken topped with spices, it is evident that immense care goes into cooking these dishes.
After we taste some refreshing tabouli, Hamoudi pours me a taste of the same Argentinian Chardonnay. As we sip our glasses of wine, I inquire about the story behind the rows of rustic olive oil bottles lining the bookcase. He tells me that every year, he takes his two sons on “the journey of two days.” According to tradition, he travels to the West Bank to carefully select and handpick the best olives from olive orchards. He then takes them to an olive press and produces enough olive oil to last the entire year. Al Matbah uses this handcrafted olive oil for its cooking and also sells it to guests.
Over the years, Hamoudi learned to cook from his mother and grandfather. He also spent two years as a fisherman; during this time, he learned volumes about seafood and established a rapport with the fishing community of Jaffa. While Hamoudi expresses his talents in the kitchen, Layla manages the business aspects. Layla’s experience stems from decades of managing her father’s businesses, which ranged from a real estate company to a mechanic shop. Since her father could not read or write, Layla ran these businesses and managed her father’s accounts from the tender age of twelve. Over the years, she gleaned a wealth of knowledge in the techniques of organizing and operating a business.
Layla eventually decided to open her own business and that is when House Number 3 (http://www.housethree.co.il/) came into fruition. For the past nineteen years, this lovely couple decided to host private dinner parties in their own home—“a beautiful old Arab building from the Ottoman Empire period.” Layla kindly invites me for a tour of this awe-inspiring Middle Eastern palace around the corner from Al Matbah. Built in 1870, this castle-like building is architecturally stunning, and the life that Layla and Hamoudi bring to it enhances the magic of this fairytale place. Two to three times a week, they host extravagant, Mediterranean-style dinner parties. They welcome guests from all over the globe into their home for wedding celebrations, business meetings, holiday soirees, and other events. As we walk up the candlelit steps made of weathered stone, Layla tells me about the inspiration behind this business venture. Almost two decades ago, she and Hamoudi needed money to restore and renovate this ancient building, which inspired them to embrace the beauty of their home for business.
Her mission to connect people to Arab culture began with House Number 3 and carries on with Al Matbah’s central goal to employ low-income Arab women. So far, Al Matbah only employs two Arab women, and Layla deeply wishes to be able to touch more lives with this project. She realizes that it is difficult for Arab families to adjust to the idea of their daughters, sisters, or wives working outside of the home. Nevertheless, she opens Al Matbah’s rustic wooden doors to this possibility of change. Also, Layla yearns for more help in making a lasting impression on society through Al Matbah—a goal she could only achieve with additional loving hands in her kitchen.
Layla’s presence is a gift, and she offers people a haven unlike any other. Al Matbah represents a world within us—a microcosm of tranquility, love, and simple pleasures. She adopts the world as her classroom; Layla is “always a learner,” for she eternally “studies people.” Every person she encounters is a better human being from that point forward. Her sagacious words emanate from the kindness of her heart. The sweet emotion in her caramel-brown eyes reflects her inner peace as she speaks of her dreams of coexistence. With her hand pressed against her heart, she says, “This is the life. You have to feel it…”