Beyond milk and honey, cuisine melds Mideast, Continental fare

Years ago during my earliest visits, the words "Israeli cuisine" almost constituted an oxymoron. Sure, I tasted fine dining at the Dan Hotel Grill Rooms where guests could order the world's only kosher filet mignon, and at the Hotel Laromme Jerusalem, but that was about it.

Things have certainly been spiced up since then. The culinary level has risen sufficiently that Gault-Millaut has published a volume describing the country's hot spots and their unique Med-Rim cuisine. This event prompted me to recall past eating experiences, including my latest visit, which revealed outstanding dining pleasures ranging from deluxe Continental white glove service to finger-licking good food in a Druze village. Note: Not all restaurants are kosher.


On my first visit to Israel more than 25 years ago, my husband and I dined in a dramatic restaurant outside the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem. We sat on cushions beneath a tented ceiling of colorful appliquéd patterns. It was our first exposure to Israel's "Oriental" food — Mideastern with a Greek-Turkish-Arabic influence.

From a round brass table, we nibbled warm pita dipped in tahini, falafel, chopped cucumber and tomato salad, laban (like a thickened yogurt), a sultan's variety of olives, mini-pickled eggplants and grilled lamb kebabs. We sipped hot mint tea served in glasses and sampled crispy baklava adrip with rosewater and honey.

Alas, on several subsequent trips I tried to locate it, but the eatery apparently had disappeared. However, my fondness for these foods hasn't. Many of the dishes pop up in various Jewish and Arab restaurants.

One is the dramatically beautiful Mishkenot Sha'ananim. Although locals give it mixed ratings for food quality, there's no denying the stunning location in the charming neighborhood Moshe Yemin, named for Sir Moses Montefiore who developed this first area outside the Old City walls in 1860.

I've sampled Oriental starters including stuffed grape leaves, a poached pear stuffed with nuts and raisins and a Moroccan fried pastry filled with goose liver. My entree was a flambéed veal scallop crowned with a cognac-scented mock cream sauce studded with mushrooms. Dessert might be creme caramel or poire belle Helene.

Another eatery known for its traditional Middle Eastern food is the Philadelphia Restaurant, which I first visited during the beginning of the intifada. Formerly located in eastern Jerusalem, the restaurant is now in the western part of the city. Try the stuffed zucchini and chicken mussakhan for authentic treats.

A newer spot , the Eucalyptus Restaurant in the Russian Compound has emotional as well as culinary ties to Israel. The casual crowd gorges at large tables in an unassuming, second-floor whitewashed room decorated with 19th-century farm implements such as plows and rakes. Here the owner, Moshe Basson, uses Israeli foods mentioned in the Bible and Talmud.

Examples include tamarind, hummus, baba ganoush, stuffed grape leaves, zucchini and carrots, okra and onions in a red sauce, chicken with curried rice, chicken and eggplant, mulberries, and poached pears in red wine, redolent of cinnamon.

For elegance, the hottest Jerusalem restaurant may be the chic Ocean in the Nahlat Shiva neighborhood, but it may also be the most expensive. Nevertheless, diners crowd into its two minimalist dining rooms to feast on such meticulously prepared items as grouper sashimi, monk fish on three-summer vegetable ravioli and prickly pear tartlet.

Far less elegant but surprisingly good is the food served at the Jerusalem International YMCA; it's housed in a charming building across the street from the King David hotel.


For classic Continental cuisine served with flair, the Villa Rose French Restaurant can't be beat: A complimentary starter was miniature rolled smoked salmon on a round crouton, drizzled with oil, mustard seeds and chives and mated with a tomato coulis. This was followed by carpaccio served on curly red leaf lettuce. The entrees appeared in a choreographed removal of silver domes. I enjoyed a delightful large filet of salmon, served on a nest of pasta with julienned slices of mushroom and zucchini slices and vivid green broccoli florets.

A totally different experience awaited in the Druze village Ussifiya southeast of Haifa, 1,640 feet up a hill. Guests rimmed the large living room used for frequent huge family gatherings in the private home Haeyl Azzam.

A large pita, baked just beyond the door by Azzam's mother in an outdoor oven, formed a pizza-like dish, topped with onions, red peppers and olive oil. Zucchini were stuffed with rice and nutmeg. Other Oriental dishes consisted of tabbouli salad, laban and cauliflower cooked with a sesame sauce. Several foods were flavored with sussep, an oregano-like herb.

The Haifa Tourist Board can arrange such meals for groups.

Tel Aviv

Touted among the city's best is Capot Tmarim, in a restored Bauhaus mansion garnished with tile floor, dramatic lighting and archaeological artifacts. Dinner options include home-smoked sea fish carpaccio, fillet of beef in applesauce glaze and a dessert of tiered lace cake with watermelon.

Also highly regarded is the elegant, French-flavored Tapuach Zahav in an art nouveau mansion in the former American Colony. Locals say it's extremely romantic and on a par with top-rated New York restaurants. Another favorite with Tel Aviv aficionados is the upscale Mandelbaum and Birenbaum for steaks served in a restored Bauhaus building.

One of my fondest memories, though, is of an experience several years back, when I dined in a restaurant in Old Jaffa where the food was not only great, but the ownership revealed a remarkable experiment in Jewish-Arab relations. Babai at the Port was owned by an Arab and a Jew. Alas, today the partnership, like some other Jewish-Arab relationships, has foundered. But the food is still great.

Located at the city's artsy 5,000-year-old port, colorful with fishing and pleasure craft, it seats 150 indoors in a high-ceilinged former port warehouse and 250 outdoors. We chose the patio hung with baskets of geraniums, reminiscent of Greece's Piraeus. Among the appetizer delights was a red, green and white terrine of sliced eggplant layered with roasted tomatoes and goat cheese, capped with pesto sauce. And the fried-then-grilled trout with almond sauce was outstanding. Dessert favorites included a creamy tiramisu with mocha sauce and pear poached in red wine accompanied by toffee sauce.