Dining: The Restaurant Revolution
by Daniel Rogov
Thirty years ago, no one would have predicted that one day Israel would produce a generation of talented, innovative, and remarkably creative chefs. In those days, dining in Israel was restricted largely to ethnic restaurants, Middle Eastern street food, a few overly expensive French restaurants, and several pretentious hotel-based dining rooms.
Nowadays, fine dining can be easily encountered from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to the hills of the Galilee. And some of the chefs are as skillful and ingenious as their colleagues in France.
In the Beginning
In the late 19th century, when Jewish settlers arrived in Palestine from Europe, they brought their culinary preferences—it’s to them we owe the integration of borscht and gefilte fish into the local cuisine.
Later, after the State of Israel was founded in 1948, immigrants from many different nations opened an abundance of ethnic eateries—mostly working-people’s restaurants offering Yemeni, North African, and Eastern European food along with dishes from the Balkans. Unfortunately, they tended to offer similar menus and were sadly deficient in service and cleanliness. Many of the fish restaurants that opened in those early years suffered from similar problems. With the exception of two French restaurants, Casbah and Alhambra, both of which were launched in the 1960s and were frequented primarily by the wealthy, few signs of culinary sophistication could be found. Even Casbah and Alhambra never moved past the most traditional and sometimes even moribund of French dishes; both closed in the 1990s.
Israel’s culinary revolution started in the mid-1980s. Over a period of two years, four young chefs—Tsachi Buchester, Itamar Davidov, Chaim Cohen, and Shimon Reisher—each of whom had worked both in Israel and Europe, opened restaurants in the metropolitan Tel Aviv area that forever changed the dining-out experience in Israel. Buchester’s “Pink Ladle” was the first French restaurant in the country to explore modern and sometimes experimental French-Mediterranean cuisine with such original dishes as halvah parfait. Davidov’s “Pitango” offered up a nouvelle cuisine menu with personal and, at times, outrageous touches, such as his fillet steak in a coffee and red wine sauce. Cohen’s “Keren” featured French dishes with a distinct Mediterranean touch, as in his seafood salad with oranges, mango, and mint leaves. And Reisher’s “Papillon” presented traditional Provencal cookery, his most famous dish a cassoulet with Mediterranean herbs.
The emergence of these new chef-restaurateurs was encouraged by a new breed of food writers, most prominently Israel Aharoni and Shaul Evron; the pair cooperated in writing books and were restaurateurs in their own right. During the 1990s Aharoni’s French restaurant, The Golden Apple, was a showcase of culinary excellence. His sous-chef, Jonathan Roshfeld, has gone on to become the most appreciated chef in the country.
Meanwhile, Israelis had been expanding their own culinary horizons during their travels abroad, and responded very positively to these new restaurants. After many years of dining out on fried steaks and chicken schnitzels tucked into a pita bread with French-fries and hummus, it became not only acceptable but fashionable to dine in well-designed restaurants spearheaded by daring, playful, and talented chefs. Whether at a prestigious French restaurant, a formal emporium of Japanese cuisine, an upscale Manhattan- or Napa Valley-style establishment, a simple but good Italian trattoria, or a Provencal bistro, Israelis were discovering that fine dining can be among life’s great pleasures.
That first generation has spawned a second and even a third generation of chefs, many of whom now regularly demonstrate their talents in their own restaurants, offering exciting and excellent fare by any standards. Today, most of the country’s chefs are native Israelis who come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and combine their personal culinary roots with traditional dishes. Many of them have trained and worked outside Israel, often with world-renowned chefs.
The New Israeli Cuisine
As local chefs have adapted other culinary influences, they have also invented what are now uniquely Israeli dishes, such as goose liver with tchina (sesame-seed paste or sauce), hummus and spinach soup, eggplant carpaccio, sea bass in a cream of Jerusalem artichokes, and halvah parfait. Some of these creations have been integrated into the repertoire of well-known chefs in fine restaurants throughout Europe and North America.
In many of Israel’s best restaurants, one cannot fail to notice the prominent reliance on select ingredients. Mediterranean herbs such as rosemary, thyme, basil, and za’atar (the biblical hyssop) along with olive oil and black and green olives—all reflecting the soil and climate of the region—are prevelant in this new Israeli cuisine. For example, “super-star” Chef Jonathan Roshfeld gives a new face to traditional French lamb stews by cooking the meat slowly for seven hours together with root vegetables and Mediterranean herbs such as tarragon, rosemary, and basil. Other ingredients—such as lamb, quail, eggplant, couscous, pomegranates, Jerusalem artichokes, goat cheeses, and philo dough—are accurate reflections of the tastes and historical background of the country, largely because they have been both available and prized for a thousand or more years. For example, Chef Ezra Kedem’s leg of lamb with a puree of Jerusalem artichokes and Chef Victor Gluger’s charlotte of grouper with mushrooms and walnuts both add true French elegance to traditional Middle Eastern fare. Still other ingredients—such as pasta, shallots, truffles, and edible seaweed—demonstrate how influences from other countries are now accepted and integrated into the local cuisine.
With several notable exceptions, most of Israel’s best restaurants are not kosher, largely because high-end dining has been far more readily accepted among the non-Orthodox and because this cuisine cannot easily be reconciled with the rules of kashrut. Many of the better menus abound with shellfish or game meats, and/or combine meat and dairy in the same course. Those who are comfortable in non-kosher restaurants can, however, choose from a large variety of dishes that do not contain seafood, pork, or other foods they might find objectionable for religious reasons.
While stating that as a whole Israeli chefs have attained a world pinnacle would be an exaggeration, they do offer their customers—both locals and travelers—exciting and very rewarding culinary experiences, and Israel’s best chefs do compete comfortably with their colleagues in Europe and North America. Although this mini-guide touches only on the twenty very best restaurants in the country, literally dozens of fine dining experiences are available. Equally important, visitors will find little in the way of a language barrier, as many of the top restaurants provide English as well as Hebrew menus and nearly all have waitstaff who speak English.
In the future, an increasing number of Israeli restaurants and chefs will likely be written up in prestigious international magazines. And, as more observant Israelis are now taking a greater interest in dining out, we can also expect a blossoming of kosher restaurants that will meet many of the standards of their non-kosher cousins.
Daniel Rogov is Israel’s preeminent restaurant and wine critic and author of the bestselling annual Rogov’s Guide to Israeli Wines. Visit his culinary website.
Dining: Heavenly Hummus
Without hummus, the culinary life of the entire Middle East would be sadly lacking. Known to have been enjoyed in the region for at least 5,000 years, this seemingly super-simple dish at its most basic contains nothing more than chickpeas, garlic, onion, and olive oil, all ground together. Depending on where it’s served in Israel, it may be offered up with tchina (ground sesame-seed paste), parsley, cayenne pepper, and sometimes ful (Egyptian brown beans), and almost always with pita bread and hot sauce.
The best hummus restaurants in the country are simple places, often recognizable by the long line of people waiting for tables. The very best tend to serve their delicacies from eight or nine in the morning until the freshly made supply runs out, generally somewhere between one and three in the afternoon. I consider these three the finest in the country:
- Humous Lina: Akbat el Hanaqua 42, in the Christian Quarter, near Via Delarosa, Jerusalem.
- Abu Hassan: 1 Hadolphin St. and 18 Shivtai Israel St., both in Jaffa.
- Humous Sa’id: just inside the market of the old city of Acre. This small restaurant has no address; if you cannot find it, phone 04-991-3945 and someone will direct you to the premises.
Dining: 10 Best Bets Under $20
- Avazi: 54 Haetzel St., Hatikva Quarter, Tel Aviv, (03) 687-9918, daily 11:00 AM–3:00 AM. A simple, long-established, well-beloved eatery at which meals open with a mixed meze (appetizers) and go on to meat grilled on skewers. Best bets: goose liver, mutton, sweetbreads, lamb kebabs, lamb chops.
- Barbounia: 163 Ben Yehuda St., Tel Aviv, (03) 524-0961, Sat–Thurs noon to midnight, Fri noon–6:00 PM. A popular fixed-price fish restaurant with not at all fancy but rewarding fare. Best bets: opening meze of six different salads and then grilled or fried sea bass, sea bream, or other fresh fish.
- Orna and Ella: 33 Shenkin St., Tel Aviv, (03) 620-4753, Sun–Thurs 10:00 AM–1:00 AM, Fri 10:00 AM–5:00 PM, Sat from 6:00 PM. A beloved café-restaurant. Best bets: carrot soup, sweet potato pancakes, pear and carrot cakes.
- Mifgash Habalkan: 43 Jerusalem Boulevard, Jaffa, (03) 683-0719, Mon–Thurs 11:00 AM–9:00 PM, Sun until 4:30 PM, Fri until about 6:00 PM. A genuine Balkan cookery in an unpretentious, workingman’s bistro-style setting. Best bets: moussaka, Bulgarian kebabs, baked stuffed dates for dessert.
- Dr. Shakshouka: 3 Beit Eshel Street, Jaffa, (03) 682-2842, Sun–Thurs 9:30 AM–midnight, Fri until 5:00 AM, Sat night until 1:00 AM. Simple, bustling, and noisy, but good food. Best bets: shakshouka (spiced egg and tomato casserole) and kubbeh (fried burghul filled with meat and pine nuts). Kosher.
- Dolphin Yam: 9 Ben Shetach St., Jerusalem, (02) 623-2272, daily noon to midnight. Good fish specialties in a remodeled old stone building with an attractive patio. Best bets: opening meze of nine salads, grouper carpaccio, sea bream fillets in garlic and butter sauce, drumfish with white wine sauce.
- Sima: 82 Agrippas St., Jerusalem, (02) 623-3002, Sun–Thurs 10:00 AM–1:00 AM, Sat from 8:00 PM. Most come to this Jerusalem landmark to feast on “Jerusalem mixed grill”—chicken hearts and livers with bits of lamb seasoned marvelously and fried with onion, garlic, and spices. Kosher.
- Ma’ayan Habira: 4 Natanson St., Haifa, (04) 862-3193, daily 10:00 AM–5:00 PM. A simple eatery with divine traditional Balkan dishes. Best bets: eggplant dishes, ikra (a creamy mixture of fish eggs, much like Greek taramasalata), mutton stew with shallots, flank steak with root vegetables.
- Jacko: 12 Hadekalim St., Haifa, (04) 866-8813, Sun–Fri noon–11:00 PM, Sat noon–6:00 PM. This simple fish and seafood restaurant is a long-established favorite among Haifaites. Best bets: deep-fried red mullets; fried, baked, or grilled sea bream, grouper, or sea bass.
- Mis’edet Hakeves: on the main street of Daliat-al-Carmel, Mount Carmel, (04) 839-3510, daily 10:00 AM–10:00 PM. There is no street number, but you can’t miss it because of the line of people waiting for a table. An informal, comfortable eatery situated in a picturesque Druze village not far from Haifa. Best bets: stuffed vine leaves, tabbouleh, lamb and bean tagine, lamb or mutton chops with fresh mint sauce.
Dining: Feasting on Falafel
Although many think of falafel as the national food of Israel, these wonderful, small, deep-fried balls of ground chickpeas and spices, usually served in a pita along with condiments and salads, most likely originated in Egypt. After the Palestinians imported falafel to Eretz Israel in the 1920s, the Jews adopted it into the Israeli street food par excellence.
Today, you will find Israeli connoisseurs arguing for hours over just where the best falafel is to be found. The very best is served not in restaurants but at food stands, some most charitably described as joints, and if there is a place at which to sit, it is more often at a counter set with rickety stools. You can taste good falafel in dozens of cities, towns, and villages throughout the country, but for my money the two best falafel joints are across the street from one another in Haifa.
In the neighborhood known as Wadi Nisnas, you’ll find Falafel Michel (7 Hawadi Street) and Falafel Hazkeneem (8 Hawadi Street). In both places the falafel is crisp, perfectly spiced and herbed, and just as dense as it should be. Hazkeneem’s falafel balls are a bit more dense, and Michel’s contain a bit more cumin, but judging them is a matter of personal taste. My advice—whether you take your falafel with nothing more than a bit of the ground sesame-seed sauce known as tchina in your pita bread or whether you go the full route with tchina, hot sauce, finely chopped vegetables, and fried eggplant slices—is to order half a portion at each place. The prices are comparable: falafel and a soft drink will cost about NIS 20 ($5.00).