Our Trip to Jerusalem Before the Snow: Restaurants and Beyond
Posted on 17th of January, 2013 by Lévana
Trip to Jerusalem with our tour guide, Gidi Kelman, and his beautiful family
Enjoy the pictures! http://on.fb.me/1oxZg0B
We came back exhausted but delighted from our trip to Jerusalem, the last three days of sleet, hail, diluvial rains and fierce winds notwithstanding. What a shame we caught only a dusting of the much-anticipated snow on our way to Tel Aviv airport. It took us a dozen phone calls to car service companies in the afternoon of our departure to secure this ride, which very few were willing to risk. My husband Maurice and I marveled at the fact that Israelis, models of bravery, spiritedness and survival, shut down the roads and the schools, and huddled in anticipation of this cosmic event: seven inches of snow were predicted in the night of Wednesday January 9th to Thursday, and the whole bustling city came to a screeching halt. Then again, the Middle East is not the Midwest, you know. Last week in the NYT there was a surreally beautiful picture of a palm tree-lined Jerusalem Street covered in snow: My friend Sarah mentioned that her daughter and her whole family were all coming from Ramat Bat Shemesh where they live, and crashing her Jerusalem apartment “so they can see the snow”, which her Israeli-born grandchildren had never seen, and which they understandably considered a magical event. It was so sad seeing an empty car parked right next door to our rented apartment smashed by a tree. I didn’t know the car owner, but I wholeheartedly thanked Gd he/she and any other passengers were spared. We were happy we walked till we dropped the first week of our visit, so when the treacherous weather hit, we were more inclined to be philosophical about having to stay indoors or brave the elements to dash to a nearby restaurant or friend’s place. We walked everywhere, poring over our map like boyscouts in the wilderness, getting lost repeatedly, which we took in good stride, no pun intended (our sense of orientation is pitiful), and made the walks even longer and more adventurous. Hint: When you ask passersby for your way, don’t listen to them when they chuckle and tell you, 4 stops with bus number 21, 3 stops with bus number 7, or worse, cab station on next block. Just tell them you like to walk: Jerusalem is a small walking gem of a city, nothing is more than 45 minutes away, an hour at the most, OK a little longer if you get lost, all do-able in decent weather, not if you are in a rush to get to work, but certainly if you are taking it easy.
I’m so thrilled I don’t know where to start about our wonderful trip, but my instinct as a cook tells me I should start with the FOOD, right? Always a safe subject for me, sure to get your attention. The restaurant scene in Israel is so exciting, but since we stayed in and near Jerusalem, I will only mention the restaurants we liked there, which is just about all of them. There were only a couple we didn’t care for, and they will remain unnamed, and un-reviewed, for kindness’s sake. There were many more restaurants we wanted to try, but you know, thirteen days, just two stomachs total: you get the picture, right?
– The dining room at the Leonardo Plaza. It was wonderful overlapping with my son Maimon’s visit, come to attend our nephew Huddy’s wedding in Tel Aviv, and who made reservations for us and a couple friends in the dining room of that hotel, where he was staying, complete with a couple bottles sensational wines he picked up at Machane Yehuda. The buffet was beautiful and delicious, with no end of sizzling fresh salads and grain dishes, but the sampling of the meat and poultry dishes made us contentedly dairy and pareve for most of our stay. This may come as a surprise to you, but there’s nothing that comes close to American poultry and meat, so call me spoiled. And since the produce, fish and cheeses are so fabulous in Israel, this is what we love to eat there, almost ignoring all meat offerings, and never going to a meat restaurant (except once; more about this). Some of the desserts were delicious. I heard one of the guests express my exact feelings when he said “In Israel they don’t sweeten their desserts too much because they feel secure. Only the insecure cooks in the US use twice the amount of sugar to compensate for all the junkie ingredients, artificial flavorings, preservatives, mixes etc”. Well put, and from a guy who kept insisting he is not a cook, just a regular guy with an appreciation for real food. This is so true that you will do excellently buying even the plainest cookies from institutional bakeries like English Cake or Ne’eman, or a croissant at Berman Bakery.
– Sushi Rehavia. I remain forever biased about soups served in many restaurants, as I am constantly told (I hope I can be excused for mentioning this!) I make terrific soups. Their miso soup, corn soup, eeehhh, forgettable. So OK, no soup. But the Sushi was delicious. We let them combine those sushi boats any way they liked, there were enough of us to wipe them out; we went two times, and were very pleased each time. Sushi Rechavia seems to have a slight edge over Japanika. We didn’t go to Japanika but my son and his friends did, and deemed it close second. Bottom line: Both well worth trying.
– Kadosh Bistro type and so quaint. We went with my aunt Claire, and had the Nicoise salad, with the sliced house-smoked tuna; it was delicious. And this root lover enjoyed seeing beet latkas on the menu, served with a yogurt dill sauce (so good!). But their desserts were what stands out the most. We shared (what restraint!) a fabulous napoleon three ways, and admired the other desserts on display: a stunning apple tart, chocolate pecan pie, sabrina with fruit and whipped cream to name just a few, and a hot malabi half the restaurant diners seemed to be slurping contentedly from glass mugs. I must try to overcome my aversion for corn starch (apparently the starch that works best for this) and make it, as I didn’t end up tasting it, even though you could buy it in the shuk from a giant contraption that dispenses it, hot or cold. Better yet, I’ll tinker with arrowroot until I get somewhere.
-Village Green There I had lunch with my dear cyberfriend/blog/cookbook fan Rivkah Rose, on a visit to Israel from Manchester England, same time we were; she manufactures a wonderful line of natural bath products (I know because I was lucky enough to receive a couple generous gift boxes from her in the mail) called Faith in Nature. Usually we love Village Green, and go almost every day when we visit Jerusalem; this year however we found the food every bit as fresh, to be sure, but not quite as exciting, rather stark and not playful. The desserts were as good as ever, so no problem there. New hesitant chef, maybe? Spice it up, chef, will you? Spices and seasonings are good for you. And let me know when you do, so we can go back as often as before. And Rivkah, let’s plot a visit around the same time again, so we can see more of each other!
– Topolino In Machane Yehuda. Their assortment of grilled veggies on a flat bread looks like a stunning still life. We looked at it reverently for a good few minutes before we dug in. The picture included in the album above shows it clearly. And their risotto, with saffron fish broth (no tomatoes!), chunks of fish and fresh peas was fabulous. Never mind if you are too full, or feel too guilty, for dessert. The bill arrives on a tray bearing two tiny chocolate truffles, one for each guest: that truffle was one of the best I have ever tasted.
– Cafe Mizrachi. In Machane Yehuda, with our friend Pessy who mentioned she used to bake their desserts. Great breakfast. Can the lovely owner, Ely, be persuaded to switch from that somewhat nondescript Mascarpone dessert on his menu to my Ricotta Berry Parfait? I guarantee him great success with it! If he gets raves for it, let him just say that one of his fans and soul sisters, Levana, gave him the recipe!
We were told from a sure source that several restaurants in Machane Yehuda, Topolino and Mizrachi among them, recently got into tiffs with the Kosher Supervision powers that be, and decided to do away with supervision, preferring to appeal to their regular clientele and reiterate the fact that nothing has ever changed in the preparation of their food. Our source told us it was 100% OK to eat there, so we did. But let me ask you: Since we all live surrounded by plenty of politics wherever we are, and are forced to endure them, I confess I can’t be bothered with the internecine feuds taking place in Machane Yehuda. So please share your feelings about it: OK or not OK to eat there?
– Hatchatzer This is the only meat restaurant we went to. Maurice, who was on a meatless roll, didn’t order any meat dishes, but since this was described as exceptional, I thought I should try. I love the small Sephardi Salad assortment that turns up in so many Israeli Restaurants, and theirs was delicious (the Mezze order), as well as the mixed fish grill. The broiled sweetbreads were fabulous. A meat risotto was a great disappointment though, with tough rice and uninspiring seasonings. When I mentioned this to the waiter and showed him my practically untouched plate, he replied that the chef said rice should be Al Dente. Huh? Can we please send this chef the memo? Here’s the mandate, chef: Pasta al dente, rice tender, risotto soft and creamy, end of story! The great news is, the dish they brought in to replace the risotto was marvelous. A tuna sashimi composed as a real gem: Paper-thin slices of tuna whimsically mounted, like little flags, on piles of thinly sliced grapefruit and jalapeno, seasoned with wasabi, olive oil, pink salt and cilantro. The dessert we shared was a real triumph. I am sorry we attacked it before we got a chance to take a picture of it, because it was too cute for words: a pot-bellied glass jar filled to the hilt with a bittersweet chocolate mousse studded with espresso beans and sherry-soaked cherries, with a teeny bubblegum-colored macaron on the side. Rest assured I’ll be hard at work tinkering in my kitchen on replicating this treat, and when I hit bingo I’ll let the chef – and you – know!
– Cafe Mamila. Just one luxurious night won’t break the bank. Go for the whole magical experience: The setting, the design, the fabulous food, a drink at the terrace with a breathtaking view of the Holy City, the artisanal feel that pervades everything. The whole place is a class act. Don’t miss the cheese cake, the most ethereal you’ve ever had. Just do what we do: When you get to the dessert, don’t rain on your own parade: Don’t mope about your excesses, don’t say the D word, and share so you can get in good trouble together! Believe me we discussed at great length ordering a second dessert, but stopped ourselves in the nick of time, while we were still ahead. It’s all in the math, see? Having a big dinner later? Eat very light that day and make room!
– Cafe Gavna. In Gush Etsyon. Oh sugar, I was not able to link online to this gorgeous place. If you happen to go at lunch time, I must tell you their business lunch menu is fabulous and very well priced. Even our friend Matt, who had a bug that day, didn’t order anything but feasted on their bread, sans butter or anything, and perked up just long enough to rave about it. While in Gush Etsyon visit the winery, they’ll give you the grand tour of the whole pristine place, and their breakfast is amazing.
– Cafe Rimon. Just a chain, you might say, but their breads, their salads, their soups, their desserts, are all unbelievable. And if you go Friday morning to the one in Mamila Mall, you’ll get a fabulous buffet breakfast. This is exactly what we need in New York! Cafe Rimon, please open a few spots in NYC, I’ll bring all my buddies!
– Cafe Roladin. With our dear friends Emunah and Reuven. Almost as terrific as Rimon. Great croissants, paints au chocolat, muffins, a wicked molten chocolate cake etc…
-Caffit. In Emek Refaim. We went with our lovely friend Ilana Dreyer. Gigantic sizzling fresh main course salads, studded with grains, seeds and other treats, and the fish entrees, pizza and pasta dishes we saw coming out looked amazing. Hint: when you go to Caffit, do NOT settle for that claustrophobic space in the back; rather, wait a few minutes to be seated in the delightful main space. From there we went to Aldo for dessert: Out of this world flavors! I believe Screme in New York is none other that Aldo, same for Zislicks in Boro Park. I spotted Aldo on Ben Yehuda, Yaffo Street, Emek Refaim and several more.
– Ahavat Hayam. For fish lovers only. They serve a good dozen little Sephardi Salads with any main course (always fish), which they replenish throughout the meal. Judging by how many Ashkenazi diners were present and clamoring for refills, love of Sephardi salads is catching. Fresh, uncomplicated and delicious. They might bring you the nondescript one-size-fits-all dessert as part of the lunch package. Skip it, and enjoy all the rest.
– Bet Zayit A short drive from Jerusalem, with our dear friend and wonderful guide Yael Berenholz. Incredible setting, incredible food. The best of everything: goat cheeses, breads, olives, tomatoes, salad greens. Don’t miss it.
– Al Dente: We went with lovely Ayelet, our goodbye date just before heading for the airport: did we have a great time in her house! I rarely do pasta beside the occasional whole grain variety, but I was told they make their own fresh from scratch. Their linguini in seafood, tomato and olive sauce was delicious, all served in earth-toned artisanal clay dishes. Then we shared a great dessert, a two-tiered chocolate mousse torte that looked and tasted enormously like the one we served nonstop at Levana Restaurant. Intrigued, I asked the manager what chocolate he uses: You can’t fool this food-sniffing labrador about food, and chocolate is no exception, au contraire. And sure enough, they use the same chocolate we always did, the one I still use to this day: Callebaut, the manager said. I could have kissed him. Go Callebaut, everyone! Sensibly priced, delicious, no nonsense and no hype, Kosher, lots of it pareve, it will never let you down. My great favorite!
– Ticho House: Even if you went just for the setting, you’ll get your money’s worth. We figured we should order stuff that is hard (read: impossible) to get in the US, so we ordered the cheese tray. A fabulous assortment of Israeli cheeses, including an off-the-chart Roquefort log, an assortment of small Israeli salads, and a bottle of Israeli Merlot. That was heavenly. We ordered this exact same dinner on two different evenings. We ignored the buffet because we were terrified of pigging out (as if! Had we known there would be a buffet, we would have gone very light on lunch. Quel dommage!) Every Tuesday night Ticho House offers a magnificent buffet for 92 shekels all included: fabulous cheeses, breads, salads, soup, 3-4 hot dishes, white wine and red wine. I’m almost positive it also included coffee and dessert but I forgot to look. Buffet starts at 8Pm, with live jazz. Best deal in town, and in an idyllic setting. The owner, lovely red-haired Nava, hovering discreetly in a little enclosure she uses as a control tower of sorts, an unflappable smile on her face, should be proud of herself.
Common strengths to all restaurants: Great bread, great wine, fun lighthearted service.
Common weaknesses to many of the restaurants: Charge for refills of tea (Gosh, the cup is here, the tea bag is here, just add water, we’ll give you a good tip, OK? I didn’t say wine refill, just water refill! Sheesh!). In an upscale restaurant, extra bread rolls had to be ordered, which we found somewhat tacky. And the coffee, what’s up with that, it is severely anemic, and needs a major overhaul. Hint to all coffee waiters: please start by using double the coffee, and half the water, so we can end up with a nice strong cup of… coffee. I always take my coffee with me when I visit Israel, so I’m covered against disappointment: Coffee and boiling water, steep it for 2 minutes, strain it, end of story. Our friend Reuven made Maurice a fabulous cup each time he visited him in the Old City.
Some wonderful highlights:
– Our nephew Huddy’s and Debra’s wedding. We were told “the kids” chose their own venue, menu and entertainment for their own wedding. The place was totally enchanted, the price right, and the wedding, one uninterrupted blast. Kids, you did good! So if you are looking for a venue, you might want to consider Moshav Beit Hanan, right near Tel Aviv.
– Tekoa Farm. a.k.a. Wild Mushroom Heaven. We met the owner, Oren Kessler, during one of his recent trips to NYC, when our common friends, Marcy and Henry, brought him to a shabbos meal at our house. At our table, Oren mentioned his activities so modestly that nothing prepared me or Maurice for the magnificent farm he and his wife Myra gave us the grand tour of when we where there. In addition to the dozen varieties of luscious wild mushrooms they grow on the farm (the description Oren gave us of how he and his biologist wife worked on replicating the most ideal growing environment for each different mushroom is nothing short of fascinating), they are major growers of ginger (Oren is considering making my ginger liqueur: boy I would be honored!), turmeric and berries, and manufacture delicious healthy snacks. What an experience! I was tickled to find in his brochure my recipe for risotto, which he took straight from the cookbook I gave him. And his faithful execution of my Hot Pepper Jelly was, as they say, Chaval Al Hazman. We were even privileged to visit his beautiful house, right in Tekoa, which, he again mentioned modestly but meant quite literally, he built himself. Tekoa went from a handful of families about thirty years ago when Oren and Myra arrived, to a vibrant 700-family community. I can see them very easily turning to gold everything they touch, Gd bless. Wow, more power and success to you!
– Our tour guide, Gidi Kelman. firstname.lastname@example.org 052 381 21 87. My son Maimon, who had been touring with him for two days, with his cousins and a friend, waxed lyrical about him, and urged us to spend a day with him, and repeat a fabulous tour in Gush Etsyon he did with him the day before, assuring us he didn’t mind doing it all over again. Gidi is the quintessential renaissance man, and one of the most ardent zionists I have ever been privileged to meet. We had been in Gush Etsyon several times before, but with the 20/20 spiritual vision of it Gidi shared with such warmth, humor and passion, the experience went to a whole transcendent level. Forgive me if I had tears in my eyes when he described an episode in boot camp when he fell asleep, exhausted, during a 12-mile long walk with a 40-pound supply sack on his left shoulder he was supposed to switch to his right shoulder and vice versa every 15 minutes, but still followed robotically along his row of soldiers, and nearly collapsed with pain when he woke up in a huff and realized he hadn’t switched shoulders in nearly an hour. In addition to his encyclopedic knowledge of all things and places Israeli, Gidy is an accomplished carpenter (he built his house too, and the gorgeous Aron Kodesh in his schul); while we planted a tree right near his house, in Sdei Boaz in Gush Etsyon, we saw four tiny houses getting built right before our eyes, for four families who were scheduled to come in later that day and occupy them as their homes, for keeps. We met his beautiful family at his house, and tasted his fabulous cherry liqueur. It was like, no kidding, move over Peter Heering. He casually rattled off his recipe, I got such a kick out of it: 100 kilos of sour cherries (he insisted on sour) and 15 kilos sugar, let the mixture ferment, then add 9 liters vodka. See? nothing to it! Anyone whipping it up, hello, I’m here, send me a bottle! His fellow carpenter in his workshop is a former CPA from NYC. Talk about recycled! We chuckled as a joyous band of little boys came to get sawdust for their rabbits’ litters. It was a wonderful day.
– Our friend Rachel Shalmon. A casual date we made at Machane Yehuda looked seriously compromised when Rachel, a dear friend I met when she lived in New York and took the same weekly Chumash classes I did at the Jewish Renaissance Center, now resettled in her native Jerusalem, called to tell me the severe weather didn’t allow her to take a bus from her neighborhood in Emek Refaim, and begged us to jump in a cab and come to her house. She made us a sumptuous all-natural breakfast, and explained to us her line of work. She is a licensed Feldenkrais instructor, and is all equipped for her clients in the comfort and serenity of her home in Emek Refaim. You will also enjoy her gentle and soothing manner. Email her for appointments at email@example.com
– The Shekel Institute We stayed in Nachlaot, a few steps away from Machane Yehuda, in Ayalet Fishbane’s beautiful apartment (we much prefer to stay in conveniently located and well appointed rented apartments than in hotels). Ayelet works in Shekel as a social worker, and one day she and her supervisor Clara gave Maurice and I the grand tour of the premises. We were speechless. Shekel provides vocational work, lodging and the whole spectrum of human resources for thousands of young adults (even older adults) with disabilities and special needs, from all walks of life, observant, secular, Palestinian, you name it. Seeing the place buzzing, the good cheer that reigned, the industriousness that pervaded the whole place, the professionalism all crafts were executed with (candlemaking, quilting, aprons, towels, graphics, small pieces assembly etc), the full-scale factory everyone worked in, was an inspiring experience we will not soon forget. I pretty much went to pieces when I spotted a young Down Syndrome teenage girl, daughter of friends of ours in New York, who she explained just made Alyiah so they could be closer to the program. I ask you: How eloquently does this speak for Shekel if families are making Alyiah because their children get a better program in Israel? Attention all of you looking to do some meaningful volunteer work, in Israel and beyond: Shekel may be for you, and could use your skills and kindnesses! Their gift store, selling all their beautiful crafts, is on par with the best regular gift stores. They are hard at work on a restaurant they are opening right on their premises. We were told they will very soon have representation in New York, right in my backyard: Looking forward! You may know I have a grandson with Down Syndrome, our precious and beautiful Levi Yitzchok. Nothing warmed my heart more than the hope that one day, he too will lead a useful and creative life in a cheerful and caring setting.
-Zadok Yehudah. Beautiful jewelry. His studio is in artsy Ein Kerem, right near Jerusalem. Call him first. Our friend Yael bought a gorgeous necklace.
– Aharon Bezalel in Ein Kerem. Magnificent art work and sculptures. A visit is a must. And when admiring the quaint village in Ein Kerem, do try their homemade chocolates, yogurts, jams, and their restaurants.
– The Milky Way. Delicious desserts. Run by Esther Ginzberg, an avid fan of my cookbooks and my blog, and mother of an adorable toddler fan, whose chocolate-smeared sweet face she occasionally emails me as wordless toothless tributes to my cooking. I am only sorry we didn’t end up meeting, but I received one of her fabulous cheesecakes via her driver. Oh boy did we devour that cheesecake! I felt honored when she mentioned she makes my muffins and cookies for her customers, who “just can’t believe they are healthy”. what Nachas! We must meet on my next trip Gd willing, toddler and all!
– Machane Yehuda. Survival of the loudest. Merchants hawking their wares at the top of their lungs. Frantic cries of Why Why Why mean Oyoyoy Fantastic. The shuk is a national treasure. It was even more thrilling, slithering in and out of the labyrinthine streets with our dear friend Pessy, the perfect food-loving escort. When in Jerusalem, I must live right there, I just can’t get enough of it. It’s not only their sizzling foods I want. It’s the smells, the clamor, the miraculously organized chaos, the spirit, the colors, the spices, the motley crew, the mountainous piles of breads, the torrential flow of life. I am always amazed at how every night, after all the frenzy of the day, everything is left quiet, spotless and scrubbed. I bought me some dry Flayo, the fabulous wild mint I use for tea and for my Lahshou Soup, a luscious wheel of roquefort, and a kilo of dreamy fresh dates (OMG), which I safely put away in my freezer, to make a spectacular lamb dish one of these days soon. Yes, that’s all I bought, you know food doesn’t travel very well, or I would have brought my daughter Bella a wheel of chalva from the fabulous store “Mamlechet Hachalva” (the chalva Kingdom), which carries about thirty flavors, one more outrageous than the next, with a cute lanky guy (how on earth does he stay lanky?) dispensing free samples all day long. We only tasted the one with espresso beans and chocolate. Need I say more? I think Bella might faint when she sees this. The spectacular foods you see on the stalls bring to mind the blessing we make when seeing wondrous creations “Ma Rabou Maasekha H'” (how numerous are Your Creations oh Gd)
– Yad Ezra The founder of the organization, the late David Freund, a very old and dear friend, called it a Tsedaka Emporium. The concept is brilliant: Charity in the form of food, clothing, medical care, schooling and much more. No money whatsoever changes hands between the organization and its beneficiaries. David’s widow Tovah, who we visited at her assisted residence, Beit Tovei Ha’ir, told us Yad Ezra is going stronger than ever. Over thirty years ago, I put a growing family on their list. And on this last visit, that friend told me she and her family still receive Yad Ezra’s care packages every single week, after all these years.
Our trip to Jerusalem was a triumph. On the way back home in the cab my husband asked me jokingly if I still remembered how to cook. I was briefly tempted to answer, watch out buster, or I will make dinner reservations every day of my life, and never find my way to the kitchen, like a prima dona. But really, having me around sans cooking is a somewhat surreal sight even to myself. I mentioned how refreshing it had been not to hear a word about fiscal cliff (my nemesis), carbs, gluten, diet, cupcakes and other American fetishes. But I didn’t sooner say it that the cab driver turned on the radio full blast, and the first words wafting right by us were, what else, fiscal cliff. We were back home.