My first introduction to Israeli cuisine was during my day-school years, when the teachers would bring in falafel and hummus for Israel Independence Day. My knowledge of Israeli food deepened during trips to Israel, and my knowledge of fine cuisine in general expanded as I grew up watching the Food Channel. At my bar mitzvah, the guests bought me cookbooks and lessons at private culinary schools, where I was the youngest chef in the kitchen. By the age of 15, I was spending my summers working at some of the top kitchens in town. I learned from industry leaders during my studies at the Cornell University hotel school, and when I got an opportunity to prepare a dinner for 200 hoteliers during my senior year, my friend Mike, a Lebanese American, and I naturally put our spin on Middle Eastern Cuisine. When I graduated, I took my culinary training further, working for Wolfgang Puck, Joël Robuchon and Tom Colicchio.
Now that I am in the process of opening my own as-yet-unnamed L.A. restaurant, my father, who frequently travels to Israel, suggested I accompany him on one of his trips to see what Israeli chefs were doing.
He posted a message to his Israeli friends on Facebook: “My son, the chef, is coming with me to Israel. He wants to meet all the best chefs and go to the best restaurants. Who can help?”
Within days, I was hooked up with Gil Hovav, a man who graciously took me to restaurants and markets around the country. Of course, he also happens to be Israel’s leading food critic and TV host.
As a chef, one of the ways I can best understand the culture of another country is through food and dining rituals. Sharing a meal is one of the most basic things we do as human beings, and every culture has a different approach.
I was looking for two types of restaurants. The first were the ones preparing traditional Middle Eastern food — no frills or modern twists, just straightforward classics. I wasn’t looking for falafel and shawarma (although both are delicious). Instead, I was looking for the wealth of mezze and salads, the roasted meats and fish from wood-burning ovens and grills, the slow-cooked stews and braises. The second type of cuisine was the one I had heard so much about from family and friends — the new Israeli cuisine that embraces the local cultures, flavors and traditions and blends them with a modern focus on freshness and technique. Of course, the second group cannot exist without an appreciation and mastery of the first.
The new wave of modern Israeli cooking being explored by top-notch Israeli chefs tantalizes the palate while warming the soul. It is a search to define this country’s own culinary identity.
In Jerusalem, a city rich with culinary tradition and excitement, I visited Rachmo, just off the Machane Yehudah shuk, a place I have been to several times before that never ceases to satisfy my palette with its soulful Kurdish cuisine. The staple of Rachmo is kube soup, a hearty meal of spiced meat dumplings served with a broth soured with melach limon (citric acid or lemon salt). There are, however, three variations on the broth. The first is selek, a deep scarlet, cooked with a copious amount of beets and onions and inherently sweet. The second, adom (red), is made with a mix of mostly root vegetables that, in addition to turmeric and tomato paste, stain the soup a rich orange/red color. The third is chamusta, a slow-simmered mix of Swiss chard, spinach, beet leaves and turnips. Picking a winner from among the three is difficult because each is so unique. Kube soup is one of those home-style dishes where you can taste the love of the person who prepared it, and Rachmo has the best rendition outside of your Kurdish mother’s home.
Rachmo, 5 Haeshkol St., Jerusalem.(02) 623-4595.
The essence of modern Israeli cuisine is captured in one of Jerusalem’s newest upscale restaurants, Machaneyuda, an amalgamation of the nearby Machane Yehuda shuk’s name. During my time in Jerusalem, veteran chef Yossi Elad took me on a culinary tour of various open markets. The eclectic menu changes daily since it is inspired by the local bounty of meat and produce located a stone’s throw from the restaurant’s doorstep. When a chef is this close to his ingredients, wonderful things usually happen. It is in this restaurant where Elad and his fellow chefs, Asaf Granit and Uri Navon, have managed to effortlessly bring to the plate a distinctly modern Middle Eastern cuisine grounded in traditional flavors yet fresh, vibrant and totally new. It has a sense of place that sees no borders. Machaneyuda is at the center of the new Israeli culinary universe. It is a pristine example of exactly what modern Israeli food should be.
10 Beit Yaakov St., Jerusalem.(02) 533-3442.
There is a tendency when thinking about Israeli cuisine to consider only the Sephardic and Middle Eastern traditions. But Shmuel “Shmil” Holland’s menu at Shmil Bama’abada (Shmil at The Lab, referring to Jerusalem’s Performing Arts Lab) has a striking Eastern European influence, guided by the cooking of his Polish mother. But Shmil is keen to point out that having grown up in Jerusalem eating Polish food qualifies his style of cuisine as Israeli. One of the best items on Shmil’s menu is a bright, fresh version of tabouli, spiked with lemon zest and pomegranate seeds. But the dish that perfectly captures his cuisine is the freekeh (roasted young green wheat) with mushrooms, pickled onions and sour cream. The dish is both nutty and rich and seamlessly combines the flavors of eastern Europe and the
Shmil Bama’abada, 28 Hebron Road,Jerusalem. (02) 673-1629.shmilbamaabada.rest-e.co.il.
Yonatan Roshfeld is Israel’s culinary superstar known for his numerous books, TV shows and awards. His Tel Aviv restaurant, Herbert Samuel, is likely the most proper restaurant in the country. The kitchen gleams with expensive French Molteni ovens, the dining room is sleek and modern. You would expect to see a polished restaurant like this in New York or Paris, and, much like the rest of Tel Aviv, it comes with a high level of sophistication. Roshfeld is a well-trained chef at the top of his game. As such, the food has multiple influences. Some dishes are infused with a distinct Asian touch, such as a salad of various shaved market vegetables with spicy mint vinaigrette and Indian papadum. Other offerings, like the rabbit “cannelloni,” are nuanced with the spices of the Middle East. For the finest of dining experiences, Herbert Samuel sets the standard.
6 Koifman St., Bet Gibor Tel Aviv.(03) 516-6516. herbertsamuel.co.il.
For the authentic Middle Eastern food experience, chef after chef told me not to miss Al Babour. Itsits unassumingly at the entrance to the Arab village Umm Al-Fahm, east of Caesarea in Northern Israel.
From the moment you walk into the restaurant, you are greeted with incredible warmth and hospitality. Patrons are lavished with jugs of fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice and warm bread from the wood-burning oven. Within minutes, a parade of mezze begins arriving, until the table is filled with about 15 of the small starter plates. One of the most unusual is akoub, a thistle similar to artichoke that is a seasonal specialty only available for a few weeks at the beginning of spring. As you begin to tear into the mezze, a server arrives with a plate of lamb chops just charred over wood. When the main course arrives, it is a lamb shank, slow roasted for six hours, that has been boned and stuffed with freekeh. The food at Al Babour is succulent and soulful. It is a a top contender for that famed question everyone loves to ask chefs: “If you only had one meal left …”
Wadi Ara Road at Ein Ibrahim Junction, Umm Al-Fahm. (04) 611-0691.