Music to set the mood…
Hello! Bonjour! Hola! Shalom! I must start by saying Happy New Year! And also by apologizing for the serious delay in new content. I was away on an amazing trip to Israel. Two weeks in the land of Milk and Honey just wasn’t enough. But the good news is, I get to be with you now. So, in this new year, expect lots of new recipes and restaurant reviews, obviously starting with the first reviews of the season…restaurants in Israel. Hey, you never know when you’ll be there next and preparation is everything. Well food is everything, but without a little research, you could be eating mediocre shwarma, and that’s good for no one.
So, food in Israel. I know what you are thinking. Hummus, hummus and more hummus. Well you are not entirely wrong, because you’re exactly right. When in Rome Israel, right? Local cuisine is prevalent for a reason. It’s usually the best of the freshest ingredients combined with local spices and flavors. And one of the best native foods in Israel is the falafel. This crispy creation is born from, you guessed it, chickpeas aka hummus. I had great falafel in Tzfat, a small city located in the north. Fun fact for you, or Madonna, Tzfat is actually known as the center of Kabbalah. But, now you know one more thing about Tzfat; they serve excellent falafel at a quaint restaurant called The Bagdad Café. This tiny, and I really do mean tiny, restaurant can seat about twelve people at once. Although the waitress (singular as there was really only one) can’t handle that many people. This is probably a great time to tell you the service in Israel is less than stellar. But what The Bagdad Café lacks in service, they make up for in taste. The falafel was served warm and crispy, with a refreshing salad, creamy hummus and warm bread. It was slightly greasy but light, which made it the perfect meal after a night of drinking Israeli tequila. Well a perfect Middle Eastern meal after a night of drinking Israel tequila.
Now, I know you probably don’t associate the words Chinese food and kosher. And truthfully, neither do I. But, if you find yourself in Tiberias, craving sesame chicken, then there is only one place to go: Pagoda. According to my dinner dates, it was the best kosher chinese food they ever ate. Since it was the only kosher chinese food I’ve ever eaten, I’ll have to take their word for it.
I wasn’t expecting much from the food in Jerusalem. Quite honestly, I thought it was going to be bad, real bad. But, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the best things happen when you least expect it. And the food in Jerusalem blew me away.
The first restaurant we went to was Machane Yehuda. Named for the neighborhood, this trendy restaurant was everything I needed and more, i.e. not kosher. It was also lively and fun. The open kitchen is visible to almost every table in the restaurant, and you know how I feel about an open kitchen. We shared a lot of the menu, including a creamy polenta with mushrooms and truffle oil. This melt in your mouth polenta was some of the best I’ve had. The lamb chops were cooked to a perfect medium. The tender meat was packed with flavor. We also shared the sea bass, which was a light, but flavorful addition to the dishes we ordered. The sirloin with truffle butter was a dish we couldn’t pass up, partly because a meat and milk combo in Jerusalem is not easy to come by, and also because it came highly recommended. The flavors were great, but the steak was overcooked. After a few bottles of wine, and great conversation with new friends, this mistake quickly became forgivable.
The second restaurant we went to in Jerusalem was Chakra. I know I’ve already told you about how the service in Israel is, well to be honest, terrible. But the service at Chakra was great. Our waiter took excellent care of us; at one point in the night, he gave us an entire bottle of Stoli. Key word: gave. Besides the generosity of the waiter, the restaurant was excellent. We ordered spicy tuna on toast points as an appetizer, which rivaled many of the tuna tartar appetizers I’ve had in New York. We also shared the root salad, asparagus, and sea bream to name a few. This restaurant also has an open kitchen. I could totally get used to dining in Israel. If you are in Jerusalem, this is a must!
The Jewish Shuk in Jerusalem is a site to see. Filled with shops and stands of all kinds, this market has everything to offer. Fruits, veggies, nuts, spices, and best of all, pastries. Come hungry – leave happy. Yup, I said it. Sorry IHOP.
Moving on to the next stop on my cultural and culinary tour of Israel. Tel Aviv is an amazing city with great food, which obviously means great hummus. Abu Hassan is one of the most famous hummus restaurants in Tel Aviv. It’s a local place, filled with locals, which can be intimidating in Israel. My advice? Be aggressive. B – E – aggressive. Sit down at a table, whatever table is available and order. Ask for hummus and whatever else they recommend. I wish I knew what I ate, because it was awesome. But I have no idea. The most important thing to know, is that the pita is warm, the hummus is creamy and you have all of 20 minutes to sit down, order, eat and leave. So make every second count. This place is worthy of the madness.
Another excellent dinner was had at Social Club. We ordered one of every appetizer, including eggplant, artichokes and carpaccio. But the star of the meal was an incredible papardelle pasta with duck, and oh yea, pork chops. Insert angel face emoticon here.
Breakfast in Israel is usually hummus, cucumbers and tomatoes, and if you are lucky, shakshouka, which is a hearty tomato stew with eggs. But, there’s one great place in Tel Aviv that takes breakfast to a whole new level, Benedict. I heard about breakfast at Benedict’s for months before my trip to Israel. I thought all the good things were probably exaggerated. I mean how good can pancakes in Israel really be, right? WRONG. The pancakes at Benedict’s are literally the best pancakes I have ever had in my entire life. Each pancake is one inch thick. They are soft and sweet, like cake, but light and airy the way pancakes should be. I had mine covered in white chocolate with a shot of espresso. Yes, that actually happened. I resolve to figure out how to make these pancakes before the end of 2012, even if that means returning to Tel Aviv for breakfast soon. Great resolution, right? Although the pancakes at Benedict’s are a must, you should also know they make a banging shakshouka, so order both.
Also noteworthy in Tel Aviv, is Nanutchka. This Georgian restaurant offers tasty food with an eclectic atmosphere. The live music makes this restaurant a fun and exciting place to enjoy delicious food, especially the lamb shank.
Important to note, all Shuks are not created equal. The Carmel shuk in Tel Aviv is awesome, but in a different way than the shuk in Jerusalem. Sure, you can find many of the same things, spices, fruit, and restaurants. But this shuk is also filled with more chachkies. The best day to go is Tuesday, when the artist fair is right next door. You can pick up jewelry and Judaica. But don’t forget to sample some of the amazing spices and grab a bite to eat. My recommendation: La Cafe. Located in the middle of the Shuk, this small coffee shop and restaurant offers a strong shot of espresso and a great pita.
All this great food was amazing. But my best food experience in Israel was at a soup kitchen, Ichlu Reim. This amazing charitable organization helps all Israelis in need, regardless of race or religion. I spent one morning helping prepare food for upcoming meals. The experience was humbling; I feel truly privileged to have been a part of such a great act of kindness. Of course, there are other ways to help the people in need by helping the food bank. Donations are always needed. If you would like to donate to the food bank, click here.
It pains me to end this post because it officially means the end of my trip. But, here’s to more Israel posts in the future and to next year in Jerusalem.