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A conversation with Assaf Rizi, restaurateurby simone • November 16 2008
As far as Jerusalem restaurants go, you can't get more involved than Assaf Rizi. A native Jerusalemite, Rizi co-owns Adom, Lavan and Colony, key hangouts for Jerusalem's hip and hungry. Rizi got into the restaurant business, along with his brother Noam, because he wanted to spend his time in a job he enjoys and that brings joy to others. The brothers opened their first restaurant, Adom, seven years ago, timing that unfortunately coincided with the start of the second intifada. The brothers, and the restaurant, nevertheless managed to pull through, and three years later opened Colony. The latest restaurant in their empire, Lavan, opened last year.
Your three restaurants are very different from each other. For the uninitiated, would you please explain a bit about the concept behind each one? And what is the common thread between them, aside from the ownership/management team? Adom has the most complicated food - the cuisine is a combination of Jerusalem and France. Colony is a more populist place with simpler food, food that is more understandable to people. At Colony people know before they get there what they want to order - there are no surprises. Lavan is Italian and dairy - it's more like a coffee shop than a restaurant. It's a place to go to relax at the Cinematheque (where it is housed), with views of The Tower of David.
Only small things connect the restaurants: our service style; the way our staff treats the customers. There are not things you see on the outside - they're more internal.
One of the elements of Jerusalem's character that is so distinctive is the city's mixture of high-class poseurs and working-class grit. How has this mixture influenced the foodie scene here in recent years, and how has that affected your businesses? We try to connect to both these elements in each of our restaurants. Each restaurant has a range of prices, so anyone can eat there. We have very expensive dishes as well as cheaper ones, so that we're open to all Jerusalemites, from people coming to celebrate with a fancy dinner or people just coming in to drink beer and order a carpaccio or pizza. We want our waiters to treat all our diners as if they were their [personal] guests and as people deserving of attention no matter what their background or how much they spend - whether they're getting a big meal or just coming in for a glass of wine and a bite to eat.
Since your three restaurants in Jerusalem are so successful, have you felt any pressure to open one in Tel Aviv? Many people have asked us if we plan on opening a Tel Aviv restaurant, and many people have requested that we do so, but right now we're very comfortable here, both with our businesses and with the city. If we open a restaurant in Tel Aviv, it would only be because one of the partners [only the Rizi brothers are partners in all three restaurants, but each restaurant has additional partners as well] moved there, which can happen, but it won't happen until somebody moves, because we don't want to have to commute to our restaurants. We want to stay near our business.
How has Jerusalem's unique character influenced your various menus? We learned that there are some things that Jerusalemites don't react so well to. Jerusalemites didn't really like some of the [more exotic] dishes we used to serve, so we stopped serving some of them. But there is also a population here that wants to try new dishes, as long as they know what they're eating, so we try to describe all of our dishes to our diners.
We try to serve things that weren't traditionally served in Jerusalem, but in a way that is understandable to the Jerusalem crowd, who like to know what they're ordering.
We also try to use dishes and ingredients that are connected to the area. We like to use local spices, we try to support local business, we get our wine locally, etc. All of our restaurants combine elements of Jerusalem, of Israel, and of another, foreign, country. Adom and Colony are fusions of Israeli and French cuisine, and Lavan is a fusion of Israeli and Italian cuisine. But they all have that Jerusalem element.
What does the future hold for the Rizi brothers? Do you plan on opening any new restaurants? We're hoping to open a chain of delis. A lot of people have been asking us to do this. They want to be able to take our food home, to order and eat it in their own homes. We thought opening a chain of delis would be a good way to answer this need. At these delis we'd serve gourmet food, but food that also allows for a take-away option. We feel that this mixture of gourmet food and take away convenience is something that's missing in Jerusalem right now.
What are your three favorite restaurants that are not Rizi-owned? Where in Jerusalem can you go and sit down for a good meal, with no one knowing who you are, and maybe walk away with a little inspiration? I don't know if they don’t know who I am there, but I really like Mona and Chakra. Kadosh is also a nice place to go. There are a lot of nice places to eat in Jerusalem.
Photo of Assaf Rizi haunting the bar at Colony (top), the Colony crowd (top right), the lights at Lavan (left), and the Colony bar (bottom right) by Adina Polen for Jerusalemite.
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