Two friends seduce Paris with the Tunisian Jewish couscous of their childhood

PARIS, France (JTA) — When they were still children roaming the Parisian tarmac, Alexandre David and Alexis Memmi eagerly awaited the start of summer each year – that privileged time during which they went to spend their holidays at their homes. grandparents in Tunisia.

In summer, it was frolicking on the beaches, under a scorching sun; it was the games in the streets of the Jewish quarter of Tunis, the capital, where their families lived – but it was also the myriad of Sephardic dishes lovingly prepared by their grandmothers, with recipes handed down and improved over the years. generations.

These two childhood friends had solemnly made a promise to each other during one of those summers.

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“We said to ourselves that, when we grew up, we would open a restaurant together and that we would serve all these dishes in the center of Paris”, confides today David, 35, to JTA.

It took a little longer than expected, but that childhood dream finally came true with Mabrouk, a kosher restaurant the two friends opened in 2019 that aims to introduce Parisians to Sephardic Tunisian dishes.

Le Mabrouk, which has won rave reviews in major newspapers – including She and Gastronomic News – was created as North African cuisine became more and more trendy in France. While couscous and merguez sausages have been present in immigrant communities and in many restaurants since immigration from the Maghreb took hold in the 1950s, a new generation of restaurants now offer a much wider range. of dishes, aimed at a much more diversified customer profile.

This trend includes the 1000 & 1 Signes establishment, which opened in 2013 and whose list of goals includes support for the deaf and hard of hearing, as well as Kous Bar, a thoughtful restaurant where customers can choose the filling of their couscous, as is the case in salad bars.

But the Mabrouk is undoubtedly the only openly Jewish player to shine in this new culinary wave, with a menu that reflects the habits and sensibilities of North African Jews. Mabrouk customers can order Pkaila — a typical Tunisian Jewish hot dish which, according to some, is a local variant of cholent – and sabayon, an egg ice cream popular with observant Jews because it contains no dairy, making the ban on mixing milk and meat easier to enforce. In Mabrouk, it is served with a zest of lemon which contrasts exquisitely with its nicely yellow creaminess.

“We serve Sephardic dishes with a contemporary French twist,” Alexandre David recently explained to JTA.

Le Mabrouk serves Sephardic dishes with a contemporary French twist. (Cnaan Liphshiz/JTA)

On the menu are the dishes his and Memmi’s grandmother served at the family table in Tunis, said David, who has been serving during the lunch rush lately due to staff shortages. caused by COVID-19.

An entry is called Memmi Bottarga — salted mullet eggs with lemon — and it bears the name of the grandmother who inspired it.

Alexis Memmi, 32, is a self-taught entrepreneur who never attended college and worked for several years at an Asian restaurant in New York, Beau Café, where he started as a waiter before becoming manager (the restaurant has since closed). Alexandre, his childhood friend, also worked in the restaurant business and was responsible for a brasserie in the Marais, the historic district of the Jewish community in Paris.

The two friends, who both call themselves secular but say they have “great respect for Jewish traditions” – as David puts it – decided to open Mabrouk immediately after Memmi returned from New York in 2018.

Another dish served at Mabrouk, the Djerba-Bowl, is named after the island in southern Tunisia that has been a center of Tunisian Jewish life for centuries. This is sea bream tartar with olives, carrots, zucchini caviar, tahina with eggplant and green hummus served with semolina, rice and quinoa, which is rare in Tunisian restaurants.

And a third course, the Abit Bowl, combines spicy meatballs, sesame cream and caramelized onion. Its name comes from a pun on Abitbol, ​​a Sephardic Jewish surname extremely common in North Africa, France and Israel.

The meat served at Mabrouk is certified kosher and the methods of preparation respect kosher and also halal rules – but the restaurant itself is not certified kosher or halal, and it is not supervised for that, says David. Obtaining a kosher certificate would require closing on Friday evenings and Saturdays, which would mean changing the accessibility that is at the heart of the restaurant’s business model (the price of main courses ranges from 13 to 20 euros).

The Mabrouk is located on the outskirts of the Marais, the historic Jewish quarter of Paris. (Cnaan Liphshiz/JTA)

But it would also change something important in the very character of the place, adds David.

“We want to leave communitarianism. Mabrouk should be a place that Jews, Muslims, Christians and Buddhists should be able to call their own,” says David.

Kosher meat appeals to a large number of French Jews and Muslims – if not all – because the majority of French Jews are not very observant and the majority of Muslims consider kosher meat to be halal, he continues.

The owners have chosen not to emphasize or hide the Jewish character of the restaurant, he continues.

“Our mission was to present Tunisian Jewish cuisine and put it at the heart of a 2.0 restaurant. We wanted to make it trendy, give it its side hipster“, explains David. “And we do that by taking dishes and adapting them by giving them the cultural codes of French restaurant culture. »

Le Mabrouk – whose name, in Arabic, means “Congratulations” – is nothing like the other restaurants selling couscous that dot Paris. The interior design is rich in Mediterranean blue and mosaic patterns – but it still looks like a typical brasserie, without any of the kitchen equipment or background music that often characterizes traditional couscous restaurants.

“The dishes are authentically Tunisian, authentically Sephardic, but it is definitely a French restaurant located in the heart of Paris,” says David.

The main design inspiration for the Mabrouk was the famous, oh so Parisian Café de Flore, which is one of the oldest and best-known cafés in the capital, reputed to have been the favorite refuge of intellectuals and artists – among others, Georges Bataille and Pablo Picasso.

“We never wanted customers to have the feeling of being in Tunisia. It’s not necessary,” says David.

Laura Ventura, a regular customer of Mabrouk who is herself the owner of a Parisian restaurant, explains that it was precisely the discretion of the design and decoration that first seduced her.

“It’s different from other couscous restaurants because it’s not kitsch. He is a Tunisian Jew without constantly reminding you that he is,” comments Ventura, a Sephardic Jew of Tunisian and Moroccan origin.

“I love the cuisine, which I know because I ate it at the family table, and I love the place because it’s a restaurant that speaks to me, in the center of Paris, where I work”, adds she.

The Mabrouk is nothing like those usual couscous restaurants many in Paris. (Cnaan Liphshiz/JTA)

Tunisian Muslims also come to Mabrouk. This is particularly the case of Malika Bouchareb, manager of a decoration shop from Paris.

“It’s a very welcoming place, I love coming here with friends and I appreciate that there are dishes that speak to me culturally,” she says, adding that while she loves the Pkailahis favorite dish remains the mechouia, a grilled vegetable salad rich in eggplant and garlic, sometimes served with a cooked egg. “I don’t eat halal and I don’t mind eating kosher or Jewish food. I don’t care, frankly. »

For Mabrouk to stand out in Paris, family recipes had to be brought up to date.

“We needed to lighten it up a bit,” says David, noting the oiliness of traditional Tunisian food. Her grandmother, Aline, 85, “began to cook by putting a generous amount of olive oil in a pan. It’s only afterwards that she thinks about what she wants to cook,” laughs her grandson.

To help them, they hired Daniel Renaudie, a former Franco-Israeli journalist who became a recognized chef in Paris.

David and Memmi understood that they had won their challenge even though Japanese tourists, who David says have an aversion to fatty cuisine, were satisfied. “When we saw that, we said to ourselves: mission accomplished,” says David.

And things are working well for Mabrouk. It is often crowded, with customers waiting for a table. This makes its owners think about opening new stores: in New York first, then in London, and then, perhaps, in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.

The COVID pandemic, which forced the restaurant to lower the curtain for months shortly after opening, had led David and Memmi to doubt.

“We really wanted to become ambassadors for Tunisian Sephardic cuisine in French society in the broad sense because we were passionate about it,” explains David. “And it’s great to see things really take off today. »

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