I'm not sure what I expected. Hummus, certainly, but what else? Stuffed derma? Latkes? Matzah ball soup? As a native New Yorker with Ashkenazi roots, the foods I associated with being Jewish were the foods I associated with my grandparents. By extension, I suppose, I also associated these same foods with Israel, though those connections were more subconscious than explicit.
Early last fall, I received a call. Israel’s Ministry of Tourism was organizing a small culinary trip, and it invited me to come along as a guest. I’d never been to Israel, and I suddenly had the opportunity, through my work as a food writer, to tour a country incredibly important to my religious and cultural heritage. I said yes. Six weeks later, I checked my preconceived notions of Israeli food along with my luggage and embarked on an unparalleled culinary journey.
With me were Hugh Acheson, Ottawa native and current owner of three Georgia-based restaurants (as well as an author and television personality); Ben Ford, proprietor of popular Culver City gastropub Ford’s Filling Station and two new soon-to-open restaurants; Viet Pham, one of Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Chefs of 2011 and co-owner of the Salt Lake City restaurant Forage; and Maury Rubin, pastry chef, author and owner of six New York City bakery-cafes, including the flagship City Bakery in Union Square. Because I was traveling with four chefs, our itinerary was designed specifically to introduce us to Israel’s rising culinary stars and evolving cuisine, a cuisine steeped in the traditions of the Middle East but with notable European influences.
It quickly became clear that today’s Israeli chefs take the region’s best-loved ingredients — the fresh fruits and vegetables, the tahini, the fish, the labne — and morph many of them into dishes with modern flair. In addition, the culinary phrases we Americans now bandy about so often are becoming a part of the Israeli food lexicon as well: “artisanal” oils, “farm-to-table” restaurants, “sustainable” aquaculture and viticulture practices, “foraged” herbs and plants. These efforts reflect both practices already in place (and, in some cases, in place for ages) as well as a concerted appeal to the sophisticated modern traveler.
Take foraging. We learned from Abbie Rosner, who has written widely about foodways in the Galilee (she has lived there since the 1980s), that Arabs have been foraging wild foods in that region since biblical times. This clearly touched a chord with chefs Ford and Pham, who forage regularly to procure produce, herbs and edible weeds for their respective restaurants. During our journey across Israel, they would constantly stop to pluck berries from branches or even gnaw on bits of the branches themselves, tasting as they went. Israel was a forager’s dreamland, and these old practices connected the country to two modern American chefs in a very special way.
Then there were the bakeries.
Croissants at the Port of Jaffa. Photo by Cheryl Sternman Rule
I personally loved our visits to Israeli bakeries, from tiny Ugata in Kibbutz Kinneret, to Dallal and Bakery 29 in Tel Aviv, to the most casual outdoor bakery cart in the Port of Jaffa, piled high with two-toned croissants. For Rubin, the baker in our group, these bakery visits were especially exciting. At Bakery 29, owner Netta Korin glowed visibly when Rubin introduced himself. A former investment banker at Lehman Brothers in New York, Korin (who was born in Israel but raised in the United States and Europe) was a devoted customer at Rubin’s City Bakery before she moved back to the country of her birth. In early 2011, she opened her small, quaint Tel Aviv bakeshop, specializing in cinnamon rolls and scones. Korin, remarkably, donates 100 percent of her profits to the IMPACT! scholarship program, which supports Israel Defense Forces soldiers who could not otherwise afford to pursue higher education.
As for the restaurants, they spanned a wide spectrum. We enjoyed our first dinner high in the hills above Jerusalem at Rama’s Kitchen in Nataf. Run by Rama Ben Zvi (an Israeli Jew and former dancer with a doctorate from the Sorbonne), the rustic outdoor eatery gave us our first taste of Israeli-style communal dining, with each of us sweeping bits of pita through plates of pureed baked potato, garlic confit and olive oil; creamy labne; and chicken liver pate with roasted beets. Dishes of white balsamic aubergine (eggplant), rare filet mignon with green tahini sauce, and Jerusalem artichoke and sweet potato followed.
We soon tasted the ebullient and colorful cuisine of Jerusalem chef Uri Navon at Machneyuda, his popular restaurant adjacent to the famous Mahane Yehuda Market; enjoyed a multicourse Lebanese- and Jordanian-inflected lunch at Ktze HaNachal restaurant in the Galilee; and experienced the handiwork of chef Moshe Segev, chef of El Al airlines, at his eponymous restaurant Segev in Herzliya. At one point, servers brought out a salad in a glass wine bottle that had been sawed in half and opened flat like a book; this was, by far, the strangest serving vessel I’ve ever seen.
Was every dish a home run, every meal worth raving about? Of course not. But many high-end chefs are pushing boundaries, taking risks and infusing old-fashioned dishes with modernist touches. Some succeed, and some fail — and to pretend otherwise, or to see the failures as disappointments — would be to miss the point entirely.
For me, the point is this: The cuisine of Israel is on the precipice of change, and much of it is not only fresh, but exciting. It’s like art, with hits and misses, highs and lows. Perhaps most telling was my favorite dish of the trip, at once both humble and almost absurdly transgressive in its simplicity. It was a whole head of charred cauliflower plopped, plateless, in the center of a paper-lined table at the cheeky Tel Aviv restaurant Abraxas North. Any country whose chefs have the chutzpah to serve diners a head of blackened cauliflower and expect them to pick off florets with their fingers is a country I’m glad I visited, and to which I hope soon to return.
Cheryl Sternman Rule is the author of “Ripe: A Fresh, Colorful Approach to Fruits and Vegetables” (Running Press: 2012) and the voice behind 5 Second Rule, named best food blog of 2012 by the International Association of Culinary Professionals. Learn more at cherylsternmanrule.com.