Silvana Cafe Silvana Cafe Silvana restaurant in Harlem, N.Y. (Photo: FTGV)

Israeli cuisine finds an unexpected home in Harlem

Powerhouse couple Abdel and Sivan Baron Ouedraogo open Israeli cafe and music lounge to bring people together.

Coming to New York City from very different worlds, Sivan Baron, from Israel, and Abdel Ouedraoga, from Burkina Faso, in West Africa, crossed paths in this melting pot of a city where both came to pursue their passions. Sivan was a student finishing her degree in architecture and Abdel, a musician and band manager, looking for more opportunity. The unlikely pair met at a French bistro where they both found part-time jobs and were unknowingly developing the skills for their shared future in the restaurant world.

They were soon married and moved to Harlem, where they sought out ways to bring their cultures and talents to the neighborhood most known for the historic Apollo Theater and the Lenox Lounge Jazz Club. In 2006 they opened Shrine, a world music venue and in 2009, they opened Yatenga French Bistro. In 2010, on the bustling corner of Frederick Douglas Boulevard and 116th street, the couple opened their third Harlem venture, Silvana.

“Before we opened Shrine there was only jazz music and we wanted to bring more diverse music to Harlem,” Sivan told From the Grapevine. Silvana fast became known for its downstairs music lounge that comes alive at night with an eclectic array of musicians, as well as a menu that serves classic Israeli cuisine.

As a tight-knit neighborhood, the local voices are important to the success of the restaurant. “It was a good surprise that local people were very excited about it right away," she said. Additionally, familiar with the Israeli community in Harlem, she was surprised that, “the day we opened, there was an entire table of young Israeli singles that I had never seen before.”

But what brought Sivan the most satisfaction was, “to open it and see the people come in and bring it to life. Everyone comes in and brings their own energy.”

She said the restaurant opened because of the same can-do attitude and optimism that she and her husband employ for every challenge: “If you can say yes, say yes, if we can do it, let’s do it," Sivan said. This mantra is what drives their decisions to take risks and as she puts it, “to take the step to jump in the water.”

With no cover charge, the music is made accessible for everyone. “The goal is to bring people together and expose them to different cultures," Sivan said. "On any given night you can see a diverse population and everyone is enjoying the same music."

It's also "more intimate" than their other venue, Shine, as "the stage is right in front of you,“ she said,

Silvana NYCFood from a recent party at the restaurant. (Photo: Silvana)

Sitting in the low-lit dining room, each table is topped with photos and postcards of Israel's cultural sites and food, a wide mix of patrons enjoy the food and listen to the music.The bands range from Israeli jazz to Afro-Cuban, from reggae to rock and much more. Israeli bands frequently comes through Silvana on their tour stops in New York, including Rosetta's Tone, a blend of R&B, jazz and folk and Vanunu Ethno-Jazz Ensemble, a fusion of Hebrew folk music and classic jazz.

In contrast to the dark, intimate feel of the festive music lounge, the cafe upstairs is flooded with sunlight through the tall glass window and tends to have a mellow vibe – with people working on laptops or having a quiet lunch with a friend. Sivan likes to see her restaurant vibrant - “sometimes it feels like a library so when I come in I jump up and down, make noise and turn on music,” she said.

Although quieter, the upstairs cafe is interesting in a different way, with the many handcrafted items that line the walls and shelves. “People come in and feel like they are somewhere else. Even if you cant travel you can see what kind of talent is out there,” Sivan said. Taking great pride in her artfully designed shop Sivan shares her secret: “Wherever I go I buy stuff, so we have items from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, Morocco, Japan, Senegal, Israel and local artists as well."

Silvana NYCA satisfied customer at the cafe. (Photo: Silvana)

With an international feel in the cafe's design, Silvana’s menu is very focused, offering Israeli shwarma, falafel and salads, but consciously made healthier, fresher and with great flair. Among the popular foods are shakshuka - an Israeli staple of eggs in a spicy tomato sauce with feta cheese - and a crispy cauliflower dish served over tahini sauce, toasted almonds and parsley, along with lamb and chicken shwarma and a variety of hummus plates.

Silvana was clearly filling a need in the neighborhood as, “it picked up very fast," she said. "When we opened Shrine it took time to get people inside and to build up a following. But right away Silvana was packed.”

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