Weekend's photographer for today couldn't be happier when she hears where she's going to be taking pictures. "I love that place," she says. "The cinnamon buns are amazing. They're the reason I go running."
We're at Izz Café on Cork's George's Quay to meet husband-and-wife team Izzeddeen and Eman Alkarajeh, whose restaurant this is.
The café serves Middle Eastern food, and alongside its mezze - hummus, proper tabbouleh (in which parsley, rather than bulgar, is the main ingredient), vine leaves and babaganoush - the specialty of the house is manaeesh, traditional Palestinian flatbreads topped with ingredients such as labneh and za'atar, minced lamb, halloumi, and spinach. There's even a Nutella version for those with a sweet tooth. Manaeesh are eaten across the Middle East with different versions served in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, but the musakhan, topped with slow-cooked chicken and sumac, is specific to Palestine and is the café's best-seller.
It's past lunchtime, but there's still a steady stream of customers and the Deliveroo bikes are lined up outside. Customers are given complimentary Arabian coffee - green, unroasted, fragrant with ginger, cardamom and saffron - while they wait for their food.
These days it's tough for anyone without either a track record in the restaurant business or deep-pocketed backers to open a place of their own, so the couple's achievement is even more impressive when you know that the couple and their four children arrived in Ireland as asylum seekers less than four years ago. They did, however, have some help, in the form of Cork chef Darina Allen, who gave the couple some useful insights into how their Palestinian dishes might appeal to Irish diners.
"I left Palestine in 1999 after I graduated from the university," explains Izz. "I had studied software development but in Palestine there are no IT companies, so there was no opportunity to work in that industry.
He then moved to Saudi Arabia for a job, Izz explains, while his wife Eman, who comes from Jordan, works preparing the manaeesh in the kitchen.
"I was introduced to Eman in Jordan - her grandparents came from Beit Jibrin, the same village in Palestine that my grandparents came from.
"We decided to get married but we had a technical issue in that Jordan didn't offer me a status based on our marriage - nor did Palestine allow me to bring a spouse back to Palestine. So she came to live with me in Saudi Arabia, where she was not allowed to work, although she did have a small business making and decorating cakes."
In 2005, the couple applied for a family reunification so that they could return to Palestine. "We waited for the Israelis to process our application for years."
Fast-forward 11 years and, with Saudi Arabia facing into a reccession, Izz's employer told him that they would have to terminate his contract within five or six months.
"At that time, I had been living in Saudi Arabia for 17 years - 15 of them with Eman - and we had had four children there. I panicked, because we had still found no solution to our status and my visa for Saudi Arabia depended on my being employed.
"My priority was for us to stay unified as a family. I made an application for skilled immigration to Canada, but the application took longer to process than we could wait."
Next, the family considered an asylum application and, with their children being educated through English at the time, it came down to the UK or Ireland.
"I became convinced we were qualified for protection in Ireland so we applied for a tourist visa, which we were granted because we had enough funds to cover our stay."
The family came to Ireland for a visit in September 2016. Initially, Izz, Eman and their four children - Jana (then 12, now 15), Lama (then 9, now 13), Jouri (then 6, now 10) and Omar (then 4, now 7) - stayed in an Airbnb in Dublin for a week while they decided whether Ireland was somewhere they felt that they could live. Then they applied for asylum.
"The authorities explained that there was a system called Direct Provision that asylum seekers must join," Izz recalls.
At first, the family was housed in the Balseskin temporary reception centre in North Dublin, where new asylum seekers are accommodated before being dispatched to Direct Provision centres around the country.
"At first, the rooms we were given were very dirty," says Izz. "We were shocked. We considered returning to Saudi Arabia but when we thought of the options that we had there, with only a few months remaining on our visa and knowing that when that came to an end I would have had to take my kids with me to Palestine and Eman would have had to go to live in Jordan on her own, we decided to make the hard choice and stay in Ireland."
As Balseskin is a temporary reception centre there was no schooling for the children, and at the time there were no cooking facilities there or in any Direct Provision centre.
"That was really a big problem for us," says Izz. "My kids did not accept the food that they were being served there, although it was good quality. It was just not their food, the food that they were used to. We were afraid it would be the same situation in Cork but, fortunately, one week after our arrival at the Kinsale Road centre, they introduced the first kitchens for families."
At the time, asylum seekers were not able to work while in Direct Provision, so Izz divided his time between minding the children with Eman and researching options for when their status was approved.
"I was looking for jobs as a software developer but I also researched starting a food business. I knew it was a passion of Eman's and that she had good skills in that area and if we combined my skills and her skills, we would be able to do something good for the family."
It was at this time same time that Izz and Eman started to make connections with people in the food world.
"Our friend Sean O'Flynn [of the RTAI, the Retired Teachers Association of Ireland], who we met because he used to visit the centre, happened to be friends with Darina Allen and he arranged for us to meet her. She was so generous and helpful.
"We decided to focus on manaeesh on the basis of the advice we got from Darina. Palestinian food has a lot of different dishes and we were considering most of them, but she thought that manaeesh would be very successful in Cork because it's so close to pizza and not so different to what people know already. In Palestine, manaeesh is a street food, and many restaurants would offer it as a second option to stews and barbecued meat."
Darina then introduced Izz and Eman to Rupert Hugh-Jones, her son-in-law, who runs three farmers' markets in Cork City.
"He gave us a free trial in the market in Douglas. We bought a small pizza oven that we could put in the car for about €600 and started selling manaeesh at the market. We were still in Direct Provision and prepared the food in the kitchen there. It turned out to be golden advice from Darina - that first day we sold out in a few hours. Soon we started doing the market in Douglas too."
After a year in Direct Provision, Izz, Eman and their children were granted settled refugee status. They spent six months looking for a house and moved out of Kinsale Road in May 2018. With the farmers' markets going well, the search for premises for a café was the next challenge.
"Every landlord would ask us for references or proof that we had previous businesses," says Izz. "It's like applying for a job, you can't get one without experience but how do you get experience if you can't get a job? They want proof that you will be a successful business before they give you the premises."
Eventually, the space on George's Quay became available and Izz Café opened last May.
"There's a lot of competition in Cork for the pizza market and there had been four different pizza businesses in the same premises. The fact that we were doing something different was good. We had gained in popularity in the farmers' markets, and we got a real boost when Darina cut the ribbon, and then again when Rachel Allen and her friends came in and posted about us on social media. Within a month we were really busy."
Nine months on, and the novelty of running a restaurant that's open six days a week has yet to wear off.
"We enjoy it so much, although it is much more frustrating than software development," says Izz, who's forgotten to pick up lemons for the kitchen.
While Izz looks after the business side of things, Eman is in charge of the food, although she demurs when Izz calls her the head chef. The café has a staff of seven, but Eman is the only cook and baker; her kitchen assistants help with chopping and prep.
"I love to cook and spent lots of time cooking with my mum growing up," says Eman. "We'd make traditional dishes such as masaf, lamb with dried yoghurt, rice and vine leaves, and maqlooba, an upside-down dish with chicken and vegetables. At first, I found the transition from home cook to chef hard work, but then people started eating my food and loving it, and it made me very happy. I spent a lot of time at home with my kids when they were small, and I am pleased to be working now, although I still love cooking at home when I have time."
The dough for the manaeesh at Izz Café is much lighter than pizza dough, made with flour, water and olive oil that gives it a delicious crispness.
"It's a secret recipe," says Eman.
"She won't even tell me what's in it," says Izz.
Most of the ingredients for the manaeesh are sourced locally, but one of the most important spices - tart, lemony sumac - is imported fresh each month directly from Izz's home town of Halhul, north of Hebron.
Even though Izz Café doesn't have a wine licence or allow BYOB ("it keeps the insurance premiums down", says Izz), there are queues down the street at weekends, and the couple have recently started taking reservations.
"The next thing is to find bigger premises with seating for more customers," says Izz. "We will focus on Cork for the time being, but we might expand to Dublin and elsewhere in the future."
The couple are positive about their experience of Ireland and of Direct Provision and have recently applied for citizenship.
"I believe there is potential in every person and that every asylum seeker can do what we have done," says Izz. "If you seek the help you need, you will find it, and there are a lot of people who are offering language courses, retraining and business support for asylum seekers who are willing to work and integrate in the community.
"I feel that there is some exaggeration about how bad the Direct Provision system is, but perhaps we have been lucky in our experience and it is different in other centres. In Kinsale Road the management and staff are really great people. The difficulties that lie with the system itself are not their fault, they are just employees, doing the work they are asked to do.
"I tell my Irish friends that the problem is not in the quality of the Direct Provision centres, but the system that is not working. If you make someone wait in Direct Provision for five years and then decide to deport them, that is really hard and unfair.
"Why leave someone in the Direct Provision system for five years, when they could have established their life in that time? Even if you put them in a five-star hotel for five years it's still unfair. They are in limbo, and don't know what's going to happen."
Photography by Clare Keogh
AL MEZZA, 6 Bastion Street, Athlone, Co Westmeath
Milad Serhan's Lebanese restaurant in Athlone's Left Bank serves a Middle Eastern menu with grilled meats, salads and dips all featuring. Service is friendly and there are well-priced set menus. Also in Athlone, Bacchus (bacchusrestaurant.ie) serves a good mezze platter alongside dishes from the Eastern Mediterranean, this time with a Turkish influence.
MEZZE, Main Street, Tramore, Co Waterford
You may already know the (delicious) lavosh crackers sold under the Mezze range developed by Nicola and Dvir, the couple behind this popular deli/café in Tramore. Stop in for breakfast or a lunch of falafel, dips and salads, or put together a picnic to take to the beach.
ORSO, Pembroke St, Cork City orso.ie
Part of the Market Lane Group, Orso serves a Middle-Eastern-ish menu with enough in the way of hummus, flatbreads, dukkah and pomegranate molasses to keep the most ardent of Ottolenghi fans happy.
THE CHARCOAL GRILL, Prospect Hill, Galway charcoalgrilltakeaway.com
The Charcoal Grill is not just any old kebab shop, it's the one that kebab aficionados think of with a faraway look in their eye. From shish to donner, kofta to sucuk, these guys are maestros of the real-deal Turkish kebab.
MEJANA, Bridgewater Court, Harvey's Quay, Limerick mejana.ie
Locals love the Lebanese food at Mejana, where customers are encouraged to order lots of small plates to share. Amongst the favourites are kebbeh krass - parcels of deep-fried lamb and pine nuts served with a yoghurt dip - and, in summer, the fattoush salad made with ripe tomatoes.
THE CEDAR TREE, St Andrew's St, Dublin 2
Delicious food, a great selection of Lebanese wines - if you haven't ever tried the famous Chateau Musar from the Bekaa Valley, this is the place to do so. The Cedar Tree is the longest-established of all the Middle Eastern restaurants in Dublin and has a coterie of loyal clients.
SHOUK, Drumcondra, Dublin
Is there a person in Dublin who doesn't love Shouk? The menu has evolved from the simple Israeli offering that was in place when it first opened to a more sophisticated menu that takes in a wider geographical area, but it's still firmly rooted in the Middle East.
FAYROUZ, Cork Street, Dublin
All the usual dishes - baba ganoush, tabbouleh, lamb shawarma and koftas - are on the menu at Fayrouz, a new-ish opening on Cork Street, but the quality of the food and the friendly service sets this place a cut above.