January 20, 2000
Picture Postcards from Galilee
Mark Twain would get the surprise of his life if he returned to the Holy Land on the eve of the new millennium.
He'd find a country light years away from the one he described in "Innocents Abroad," his classic account of a trip he took to Palestine and Europe in 1869.
Twain's Holy Land, overshadowed by desolation and disease, offered slim pickings to 19th-century pilgrims.
But 130 years later, there's all the comforts a tourist could wish for -- from cozy bed-and-breakfast inns and romantic spas, to sophisticated wine and ethnic cuisines representing Israel's varied immigrant mix.
If Twain came back, I'd offer to show him around to some of my favorite spots.
We'd start out in Jerusalem, at a restaurant called Darna, an Arab word meaning "our house," where owner Ilan Sibony introduces you to the mysteries of Moroccan tangines, incomparable recipes prepared in an earthenware pot and cooked slowly on a charcoal fire.
We'd taste a Mechoui tangine of roast lamb shoulder with almonds, or a tangine of boned cornish hen in a nest of steamed vermicelli sprinkled with powdered sugar and cinnamon.
Sibony, who immigrated to Israel from Morocco, has designed Darna as a sensuous Moroccan palace-in-miniature, with decor, and even the chef, imported from Morocco.
"It's not fast food," he said over cups of mint tea, "but feast food."
I'd also recommend a table at the intimate Kurdish Kitchen, a deceptively simple place near Zion Square in the heart of Jerusalem, for kubeh meat dumplings in lemony hamousta soup.
And at Eucalyptus, near city hall, I'd opt for an Iraqi casserole of saffron-spiced chicken, rice and vegetables which owner Moshe Basson dishes out with a lecture on Israel's native spices and herbs.
Best of all is Basson's theatrical routine -- turning the casserole upside down to reveal what he jokingly calls an "intifada."
In a more formal setting, we'd savor a duet of sea bream and pink St. Peter's fish served on sliced potatoes and green beans in a sauce of capers and basil oil at Primavera, which the prestigious Gault Millau guide named the best hotel restaurant in the country (located in the Sheraton Jerusalem Plaza Hotel).
Shalom Kadosh -- in my view Israel's top chef -- directs the magic at the dairy Primavera as well as at the hotel's Cow on the Roof meat restaurant, finding subtle, ingenious ways to cook kosher gourmet.
Of course, our tour wouldn't be complete without Fink's, a tiny, six-table bar and restaurant, which Newsweek Magazine named one of the best bars in the world.
I've spent many a wonderful evening at this Jerusalem landmark, where bon vivant Mouli Azrieli follows in the tradition of his late father-in-law, David Rothschild, welcoming artists, journalists, politicians -- and anyone else longing for friendly banter at the bar and Fink's trademark goulash soup, served in a big coffee mug with warm bread.