I know a sweet little place where we can go downtown. We can sip strong Turkish coffee; eat shakshuka and hummus for breakfast; falafel and burgers for lunch; and take home a box of babka, croissants and French caneles.
Rozina Bakehouse & Coffee is an immigrant success story that should make you feel good about the changing core of the city.
It’s the tale of Shay Lavi, an Israeli chef with a Turkish mother and a Libyan father who came to Atlanta in 2015, worked at Ecco in Midtown and Wrecking Bar in Little Five Points, and made a name for himself as a caterer who could set a party on fire with his souped-up grill and endless platters of healthy Mediterranean dips, salads and pita.
Lavi’s cafe, named after his Libyan grandmother, sits on Hurt Plaza in the heart of the city, a welcoming spot for Georgia State students and office workers looking for coffee and sweets or a fortifying breakfast or lunch. In that capacity, Rozina, open since January, is a delightful boost for a downtown dining scene that has lacked energy and fun for decades.
Rozina, which is open until 6 p.m. weekdays and closed on weekends, is not, however, a destination restaurant. The food is more mixed than memorable. Often it feels like this ambitious 35-year-old baker and chef with the something-for-everyone approach has too many irons in the fire. “We bake around 25 items every day,” Lavi told me — cookies, doughnuts, Danishes, bourekas, even biscuits, which he stuffs with fried chicken, Southern style.
For his shakshuka, Lavi poaches eggs in a delicate tomato broth. Some people love it, but if you’re expecting a traditional thick stew of chunky tomatoes, it won’t do much for you. On the other hand, his breakfast hash, made with crispy roasted and sweet potatoes and topped with a poached egg bathed in hollandaise, was delicious.
One thing that my Israeli-born breakfast companion and I puzzled over on this first visit was the bread. The shakshuka and hummus plates were perched on baskets filled with dainty slices of bland baguette. What? No pita? Still, we loved the tiny cups of bracing Turkish coffee, a potato-filled boureka dusted with sesame seeds, and a crumbly tahini shortbread cookie with a walnut on top.
A lunchtime visit brought more disappointment, though.
A tuna salad sandwich surprised us: It was warm off the panini grill, yet stuffed with cucumber and arugula. My lunch date was clearly expecting it cold. It might not be a bad idea to ask a customer’s druthers. The burger, on a soft challah bun with havarti cheese and sumac-pickled onions, was perfectly fine but hardly exceptional.
The Israeli couscous was tasty. But if you are looking for light and fluffy steamed couscous, keep in mind that Israeli “couscous” is actually a pearly pasta called ptitim, developed as a substitute for rice in the 1950s. Lavi cooks his in chicken stock with chunks of carrots, and it is rich.
As for the other sandwiches, I had much better luck with the falafel burger. Dressed with tahini and pickled, turmeric-hinted cabbage, it was drippy and crunchy and quite satisfying. The Mediterranean side salad — marinated cucumbers, tomato and onion — was a healthy choice, but next time, I’d probably get my falafel burger with fries.
It’s worth trying something sweet from the astonishing array of baked goods in the display cases. The problem is, they often look prettier than they taste. One day, that luscious chocolate babka may be as good as grandma’s; the next day, it may seem a little stale. (Ditto the lemon Danishes, raspberry muffins and so on.) I didn’t care for the chocolate croissant I tried, nor the chocolate chip cookie.
But I was crazy about the light and fluffy sufganiyot (Israel doughnuts), one filled with strawberry jam and the other drizzled with caramel. Irresistible.
In a telephone interview, Lavi told me he already has plans to expand Rozina, and he wants to open a shawarma restaurant, too. “There are things to come,” he told me. “I’m not stopping now.” His energy and ambition are impressive. In a little less than four years, he has endeared himself to a supportive swath of Atlantans, who are clearly hungry for the vibrant food of his homeland.
If Lavi wants customers for life, though, he will need to focus on details and keep a watchful eye on his kitchen. Only then will Rozina be a place worth going out of your way to visit.
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