Chef Daniel Asher distinctly remembers his first hummus moment of clarity. He was nineteen and visiting relatives in Israel, and his cousins took him to a street market in the historic port city of Akko (Acre). There they watched a cook grind chickpeas in an enormous stone mortar and turn it into the most wonderful food with the addition of salt, olive oil, tahini and lemon juice.
"I was completely mesmerized," Asher recalls, "not only by the food, but by the city and the ancient culture."
Asher isn't sitting with a stone bowl in his lap grinding chickpeas at his new restaurant, Ash'Kara, but he's channeling that culture and that experience as a young adult into a soulful menu that might read as a little academic and intellectual if it weren't so tempting. After all, how many people who pick up tubs of hummus and stacks of flat pita in plastic bags at the grocery store also know what zhug, dukka, muhammara and chermoula are, much less how they interplay with the more familiar dishes on the menu?
The answer is that these are all part of the Israeli culinary tradition, where spices, sauces and entire dishes have found their way from Morocco, Yemen, Turkey and other parts of what most of us know simply as the Middle East. Following that tradition results in fresh and handmade ingredients, elevating even simple hummus and pita into eye-opening experiences. And despite all those unfamiliar terms, Asher's menu coalesces into a series of bar bites and shareable plates meant for groups of friends to dive into with torn pieces of steaming pita in hand. Other than three "feast" platters ranging from $36 to $48, everything on the roster rings in at under $15, and the four primary dips — hummus, muhammara (a walnut and red-pepper purée), baba ganoush and labneh (yogurt cheese with accoutrements) — all come with pita bread straight from a wood-burning oven.
And because the food is so booze-friendly, a bar program comprising bright cocktails in Mediterranean flavors, natural wines (many from Israel) and craft beers has been created. Exotic cocktail ingredients include myrtle liqueur, saffron, date syrup and mastiha, a liqueur made from tree resin.
The chef's vision for Ash'Kara is backed by an ownership team that includes Juan Padro and Katie O'Shea of Culinary Creative Group (which also runs Señor Bear next door), Dina Castillo, Josh Dinar (who owns River and Woods in Boulder with Asher), and Ben Higgins, whose previous claim to fame was as a contestant on The Bachelorette and The Bachelor. Asher has also rounded up a team of industry veterans to help execute his plan: chefs Chris MacGillivray and Jeffrey Weston in the kitchen, Rob Ballantyne as general manager and Kasey Zuhlke behind the bar.
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Shike Design pulled off the interior decor, which Asher describes as a cross between 1980s Tel Aviv and a Moroccan spice market. While the pink-and-turquoise color scheme and the breezy, coastal ambience might feel a little like retro Miami Beach, Asher says Tel Aviv was doing it first. He also points out subtle nods to Jewish tradition, such as the cedar-and-canvas canopies over the row of booths in the middle of the dining room; they're intended to evoke a chuppah, the four-posted wedding canopy under which Jewish couples get married.
"This is my family's tradition," Asher explains of the restaurant and its menu. "I want to make sure the feeling and the culture are being expressed."
Ash'Kara opens tonight (Wednesday, December 19) at 2219 West 33rd Avenue. The restaurant will be open from 4 p.m. daily for happy hour, with dinner service beginning at 5 p.m. Visit the Ash'Kara website for more information and reservations.
For more photos, see our complete Ash'Kara slideshow.