Seduced by wine, food and a vibrant people

TEL AVIV — In the open-air markets of Tel Aviv, where homemakers flock to purchase spices, olives and fresh produce, an air of normalcy pervades — despite what Israelis refer to as "the situation" — a recognition that life goes on because it must.

"The situation" (the Israeli expression for the intifada), coupled with the recession, has resulted in myriad shops and restaurants that are euphemistically "closed for restoration."

Some Israelis say they look to their left and right as they walk along Jerusalem's Jaffa Road. Others say they avoid downtown areas altogether. But on a sunny spring-like day, downtown Tel Aviv is alive, with couples in wedding attire posing for videographers, shoppers congregating at the crafts market and patrons jockeying for tables at popular cafes.

On a gourmet food and wine trip sponsored by Israel's Ministry of Tourism and El Al Israel Airlines at the end of last month, I am seduced — despite my initial trepidation — by Israel's pleasurable side. I tour the markets and wineries and sample the offerings of Israel's top chefs. And I am seduced by a people who are committed to living well.

At the Tishbi Winery in the Galilee, Efrat Deniz, the public relations and events manager, says: "Every day, it's a new start, a new hope that things will be better. Otherwise, you cannot survive here."

On a walk through Tel Aviv's legendary Levinsky market, I stop in front of Pereg Gourmet, where two giant pyramids of sweet paprika flank the entrance. I purchase a jar of the store's soup blend — a mixture of cumin, turmeric and other spices — and sample the rice seasoned with Pereg's own special mix. It's tasty, but I already purchased a mix from a stall down the street, and it's time to move on to Albert's, a 60-year-old bakery that purportedly sells the best meringues in the country.

Albert's gets my vote — the meringues are moist, far smoother and tastier than those that garnished the dessert I had in an upscale restaurant the night before. Yes, these are probably the best meringues I've ever had, but I can't resist the hazelnut and date pastries. Will there be room for lunch? Yes, but by dinnertime, I am wasted.

On my visit, I experience an Israel that seems to belie the images on CNN. I imbibe wine in the Galilee and the Golan Heights, and at the country's first wine exposition in Jaffa. I pick herbs in the Judean hills with Moshe Basson, owner of Jerusalem's Eucalyptus restaurant, and nibble goat cheese at the dairy owned by Shai Zeltzer, who dresses like a Bedouin and sprinkles his conversation with Yiddish.

At the King David Hotel I eat breakfasts that don't seem to stop, followed by leisurely lunches or quickie falafels or hummus at street stalls.

I dine on beautifully grilled lamb, salmon and duck at Decks, on the shore of the Galilee in Tiberias. And I partake of the cuisine of Morocco and Libya as well as the "new Israeli cuisine," which, like that of California, is actually a mélange of nouvelle cuisine, enhanced by the produce, herbs and spices that abound in the Jewish state.

Today the Land of Milk and Honey, the land of the seven biblical species, has taken on the ta'am of world-class cuisine. Yes, if you have a yen for kibbutz-style turkey schnitzel, you can probably find it. But Israel's top-drawer cuisine has traveled light years from the fare of the early days — and even from the menus of Israeli-style restaurants in the United States.

Americans who have not been back in 20 years and have not dined at Israel's top restaurants are in for a surprise. You can certainly find Italian, Japanese, Chinese and other ethnic restaurants serving kosher fare. However, the real treat is fare that is uniquely Israeli — inspired by world cuisine and the cultures that make up the Holy Land — but with a personality of its own. And it's nothing like your grandmother's.

In fact, even the Shabbat dinner at the King David, one of the most traditionally Jewish meals I enjoy in Israel, is a far cry from Catskill fare. It opens with homemade gefilte fish, which I follow with consommé with meat tortellini (I could have had potato and leek soup garnished with almonds). For the main course, I choose an incredible chicken dish stuffed with mushrooms and pine nuts. Dessert is a choice of passion fruit sorbet in a sugar nest basket or a pyramid of chocolate with raisins in rum. Everything is first-rate.

The only unpleasant side of Israeli dining, I'm sorry to report, is that some establishments are not enforcing the country's non-smoking laws, and often those who are violating the ban are the owners and employees. At Shirat Hayam, a glatt kosher restaurant in Old Jaffa, a sumptuous spread is marred by smoke from an adjacent room.

Such transgressions would not likely bother Daniel Rogov, the chain-smoking food and wine critic for the daily Ha'aretz, who sums up the Israeli wine and culinary scene during an interview in the courtyard of Jaffa's Scotch House.

"Until 1983, Israel had a 5,000-year history of making wine, and the 11th commandment was at the holidays you should drink kosher wine and that wine should be terrible," he says, speaking to several journalists at Israel's first wine expo.

Food, he adds, was in a similar sorry state until several Israeli chefs, inspired by modern French cuisine, opened restaurants that nobody thought would survive — but they thrived.

"Twenty years ago, even though olives abounded, finding a good olive oil in Israel was like finding diamonds on the beach of Tel Aviv," Rogov says. In those days, the best thing tourists could say was "the falafel is great and the breakfasts are magnificent — and that was being charitable."

What's changed is the increased sophistication of both diners and chefs, although Rogov has little tolerance for kosher restaurants that use non-dairy substitutes, comparing pareve "cream" to one of the abominations listed in Leviticus.

And while Rogov doesn't think Israel currently has any kosher restaurants he would classify as "for the upwardly mobile," he sees "no contradiction between kashrut and good food," adding that the country abounds in ethnic restaurants that happen to be kosher.

Despite "the situation," Rogov says there are enough new restaurants in the country to keep him busy as a full-time critic, "the only person in Israel who earns his living by writing entirely about food and wine."

Janna Gur, editor of Al HaShulchan: The Israeli Gastronomic Monthly, and organizer of the wine expo, offers a different perspective. Since the magazine published its first issue in 1991, during the Gulf War, it has moved from being a trade journal to a publication for gourmets.

"Food is very much in fashion," she says over dinner at Lilith, an upscale dairy restaurant in central Tel Aviv. "We are a society of immigrants, like America or California, but we have a different mix. Every Israeli housewife is a fusion cook."

Maybe, she wonders, food is a form of escape. "Strange as it may seem today, Israelis have a lust for life. We're sensual and curious, and food is very much a part of it."

Tour guide Judy Stacey Goldman, co-author of the 1975 book "The Flavor of Jerusalem" with Joan Nathan, agrees. "Fifteen years ago, getting a good cup of coffee was impossible," she says. Since then, dozens of espresso bars have opened, including her favorite, Arcaffe in Tel Aviv. In addition, she says the array of lettuces and produce available in markets didn't exist when she first came to Israel in the 1970s.

"What is Israeli cuisine?" I ask, eyeing the ravioli filled with artichoke in lemon and saffron on my plate and the portobello mushroom sandwich with hallumi cheese that a colleague from Los Angeles is enjoying.

We had begun the meal with an antipasto array including roasted red peppers and other vegetables, grilled mushrooms on spinach, bread and olives.

Gur, who was born in the former Soviet Union and lived in New York, sees the new Israeli cuisine as a fusion of local Palestinian fare with the influences of the Mediterranean, Yemenite and Iraqi cooking, "but the core is what we have here. It's not mashed potatoes and meatballs. " Instead it's a modern cuisine based on fresh seasonal produce and herbs.

At lunch the next day in Carmella Bistro, a new restaurant in a renovated 1916 building adjacent to Tel Aviv's crafts market, co-owner Uri Jeremias explains his philosophy. The meal is a tasting menu of seafood garnished with fresh herbs, carpaccio, a salad of mint and cilantro, gnocchi with herbs and seaweed, and wonderfully aromatic bread. A large man with a distinctive long beard, he's best known as Uri Buri, the name of his fish restaurant in Akko.

These days, he says, restaurateurs need to appeal to Israelis, as the tourist business has all but vanished.

"What we try to do here is make a menu with no big surprises like beef in halvah, but common things with specific flavors. Not goose livers from Périgord or caviar from Russia, but good things from here, with sane prices and a simple atmosphere."

His new restaurant, which is not kosher, is on the main floor of an old building with a wide veranda that's also home to a new boutique, offices and apartments — all part of a renovation project in Tel Aviv's market district.

"The specialty of the house," he says, "is the system of sharing many things. I believe people do not come here because they're hungry. They come for entertainment and entertainment is food — an act of chevrutah, companionship…The point is the simplicity. With a touch of individual love and taste, it changes the whole thing."

Yes, simplicity certainly characterizes the best of Israeli cuisine. It's not just a matter of fusion. It's a recognition that the land of Israel yields treasures — and cooking and dining well are mitzvot.

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of the forthcoming book “Love atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].