In a time when such tales are sorely needed, Izz and Eman Alkarajeh’s story is inspiring and truly heartwarming: A young Palestinian couple, they were forced to leave Saudia Arabia where they had been working and rearing a young family, winding up in direct provision in Ireland but, with the help of new Irish friends, eventually began trading from a small stall at Mahon Point Farmer’s market, selling Eman’s traditional dishes.
Success was instant: roughly a year later, they were able to establish a bricks-and-mortar presence in Cork City, though neither had any hospitality experience at all.
They’ve picked a good time to set up on George’s Quay, fast becoming a little gourmet enclave. A scruffy, often traffic-choked artery, running along the River Lee’s South Channel, it previously hosted a succession of fly-by-night fast food outlets until the excellent Filter coffee shop broke the mould some years ago, soon followed by Cafe Velo and Casanova Gelato ice cream parlour.
Budget is obviously minimal, but Eman’s interior design experience is evident in this simple, friendly space, while Izz’s previous career in IT and marketing suggests he’s responsible for the wall-mounted screen displaying Twitter and Instagram posts tagging the cafe.
(Mind you, a machine that ‘prints’ photos/images sent from your phone on to the top of your coffee — an essential part of the experience — also suggests Izz may just be yet another guy with a grá for gadgets!)
We are currently trialing a vegan cinnamon roll. Your thoughts will be greatly welcomed! 🌱 pic.twitter.com/0mmHqa3xz0— Izz Cafe (@IzzCafe) September 12, 2019
Mana’eesh — flat bread with toppings, baked in the oven — are the Palestinian take on a Levantine cousin of the pizza, although the finished article retains a softer, floppier, less crispy base than its Italian relative, tomato rarely more than a bit player. First up, though, is a mixed plate of ‘tasters’, which is served with a piping-hot pillow of soft yeasty flatbread.
Three different types of hummus are prettily garnished with spices, pomegranate seeds, fresh herbs and whole chickpeas. Alongside tangy citric chickpea hummus is sweet earthy beetroot and a pale green avocado number, plush with velvety sumptuousness.
Tabbouleh (bulgur wheat, mint, parsley, olive oil) zings with fresh herbs, pickled cucumbers, green chillis and olives add bracing sour crunch, but the jewel in this especially colourful crown is an innocuous looking grey globe that reveals itself as makdous — baby aubergine, steamed, then stuffed with walnuts, garlic and chilli and left to ‘pickle’ in olive oil for up to two weeks.
It is currently my favourite thing in the world to eat, most especially when keeping such ‘company’; this ridiculously bountiful plate, at an even more ridiculous €11.50, is superb value.
Manooshet Spinach is served calzone style, enclosing fresh spinach leaves, walnuts, and onions, juicy, sweet and tart, courtesy of sumac, pomegranate molasses, and lemon juice.
Manooshet Labneh is another ‘sandwich’, soft, creamy labneh flavoured with zaatar (this version — oregano, sesame seeds, olive oil, salt) and honey. With the preponderance of hefty flavours we’ve already taken on board, it comes across as positively demure.
Manooshet Beef is topped with minced beef, parsley, onions, mint, tomatoes, green pepper, and spices, although fattier meat would add necessary succulence, while Manooshet Falafel features Eman’s very popular falafel, roughly mashed, baked and then topped with hummus, tahini, chilli, pickles, salad leaves and yoghurt.
Though we are besotted with all, our favourite turns out to be Manooshet Mushkhan, topped with chicken, sweet braised red onions and pine nuts, with sumac and olive oil for seasoning, tastes and textures, all quite sublime.
We finish with Palestinian tea and Eman’s confections: traditional Warbat, cold set custard a perfect foil for the sugared excess of syrup-drenched filo pastry; dense, rich chocolate coconut cake, topped with creamy coconut fondant, strays well beyond Middle Eastern culinary borders; while Eman’s cinnamon roll —which she taught herself to make after her children became addicted to a cheap American imported version in Saudi Arabia — is better than any traditional Scandinavian version I have ever tasted.
Heartwarming stories are all well and good, but they don’t necessarily fill hungry bellies, so it truly is a pleasure to report this particular chapter has a very happy ending indeed: Not only are our bellies most exquisitely full after an extraordinarily inexpensive yet delicious repast, but Izz Cafe is displaying some very professional chops, suggesting yet another keeper for a local hospitality sector in increasingly rude health.
€68 (including soft drinks, coffees, teas; excluding tip)
Tuesday to Sunday, 12pm to 9pm