Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Northern Food on tour: a week in Israel

Unlike neighbouring Jordan, Israel is rarely out of the news. It's a controversial place, with controversial neighbours and a controversial relationship with them. Visiting this tiny but varied country was a fascinating and informative experience to say the least. I have my views on the various controversies, but I'm not going to go into them here. Instead I'm going to state one incontrovertible fact: The Israelis know how to eat.

We traversed the country from Eilat on the Red Sea coast, to the Dead Sea, Jerusalem, a short trip into the Palestinian territory of the West Bank, north to the coastal city of Haifa then back to Tel Aviv, the party city on the Med and it's neighbouring historic port town, Jaffa. Aside from one crappy pizza we didn't eat a single bad meal.

Israeli cuisine, if there is such a specific thing, is basically Middle Eastern in style. Everything you'd find in Jordan, you'd find here too. Much the same could be said of Palestinian cuisine (the borders of modern day nation states are unhelpful here. Using them to define cuisine is largely pointless. Most Jordanians are Palestinian, as much of Jordan was once the part of Palestine on the far side of the Jordan river, Transjordan as it once was).

There is also much more to Israeli food than that local to the region, thanks to the Jewish diaspora. If it's Jewish food from anywhere in the world, you can find it here. From the sturdy stews of Mitteleuropa to modern American classics such as the Reuben sandwich, they've got it covered. In the manner of the British they have also enthusiastically adopted the food of other nations. Tel Aviv, for example, is a city of sushi eaters.

I've included some reviews below, but we also ate a lot of food casually on the streets and in cafes. Here are some of the highlights.

At breakfast coffee and pastries are a popular choice. The pastries were always good if not quite French standard. The coffee was usually high quality too, and I developed a bit of an iced coffee habit towards the end of the holiday.

At lunch a falafel or shawarma sandwich was always a good option. Always generously proportioned, but always with plentiful fresh salad to lighten the load. It's difficult taking photos of felafel sandwiches, but you get the idea.

There are numerous local takeaway chains, most of which appear to be rather expensive but give them a try and you'll probably find the portions are huge and the quality is high. We had these enormous chicken schnitzel sub sandwiches in Jerusalem. Think Subway but with good bread, good meat and good salad. So not really like Subway at all then come to think of it.

There are fresh juice stands all over the place too, with pomegranate particularly prevalent in Jerusalem. I love the stuff but it's not the most refreshing. It must be packed full of tannins as drinking it gives a dry mouth feel similar to red wine.

The food markets were excellent, we strolled around the Machane Yehuda market in Jerusalem and the Yemenite quarter market in Tel Aviv, and the produce looked outstanding (as it usually does anywhere Mediterranean). Look at those aubergines!

The stalls selling deep fried meaty goodies are worth a look too. Little pasties (sambusas) and rice balls (kubbeh) stuffed with spiced mince made a delicious snack.

On the booze front we drank more than in Jordan, but still not a great deal. The most commonly found beer is Goldstar, a dark lager that's certainly better than your bog standard cooking lager, but still nothing special. It seems the craft beer revolution has reached the shores of Israel though. We found two brewery pubs, the Golan Brewhouse in Jerusalem and LiBira in Haifa. LiBira was the better of the two, we tried their full range and the double pilsner and the bitter were particularly worth checking out.

The local red wine we sampled on a couple of occasions was more than drinkable, and reminiscent of other dark, hot climate Southern Mediterranean reds (think Sicily).

And finally, before I move onto the reviews, I must give an honourable mention to the delights of hairy cheese. Our Israeli friends (of whom more later) assured us we couldn't miss out on this treat. Possibly the most unappetising sounding foodstuff ever, though I have a sneaking suspicion that's not its real name.

It's vermicelli soaked in sugar syrup or honey and wrapped around hard, salty goats cheese. Rather delicious as the savoury tang of the cheese really balances out the cloying sweetness. Try it!

In just one week we barely scratched the surface.

Fortuna, Jerusalem

The best meal of the holiday. A restaurant with a simple concept (we later learned this is common in Israel). For a fixed price you get the full mezze, bread, chips and a choice of grilled meat skewers.

The absolute star of the show were the salads in the mezze. Each one of them (there were ten in total) was superbly seasoned and spiced, and no two were remotely similar. I'm not nerdy enough to take notes when I'm on holiday so the specifics evade me, but I do recall a stand out being a carrot salad with preserved lemons. Sweet, sour, bitter, crunchy and wonderfully refreshing. The houmous was also a rival to Hashem's for best of the trip.

Hanger steak skewers for me. Cooked medium rare as requested it was remarkably tender for the cut, and deeply flavoured. Perhaps a little more charring on the surface would have been nice though. Entrecote across the table was equally good.

The chips were no afterthought. Rustling, salty and lovely. RP couldn't keep his hands out of them long enough for me to take a photo the fat git.


About 100 shekels per head for the meal with beer and service

2 HaArmonim Street
Machane Yehuda

Sima, Jerusalem

A rather extravagant meat fest at the end of a long, hot day. The premise here was the same as at Fortuna, only this time with a choice of sides, loads more meat, and a half bottle of perfectly quaffable local red.

The mixed grill platter comprised a sirloin steak, grilled chicken fillet, beef kofta and grilled chicken innards. The steak was spot on, nice and bloody with a good char, and the chicken innards were a revelation. I use the term innards, because I'm not exactly sure what some of it was. There were definitely kidneys, and liver, and hearts, but also some other unidentified stuff. I'd strongly recommend the hearts, packed with chickeny flavour they were. I have an idea they'd be good deep fried, or perhaps grilled then dropped in a noodle soup. The chicken fillets were boring though, could have given those a miss.

The mezze were all perfectly good, though not up to the standard of Fortuna. The same goes for the sides.


About 100 shekels per head for a huge meal, wine and service

82 Agrippas Street
Machane Yehuda

Julius Meinl Coffee House, Jerusalem

I think Julius Meinl is a chain, but it rates a mention because we had good shakshuka here. A classic breakfast dish in these parts, shakshuka is basically eggs fried up in a tomato sauce then brought to the table sizzling in the pan.

This was a good version with a rich tomatoey sauce, it arrived sizzling like an inferno with an entire loaf of bread apiece to scoop up the goodness. The only downside to that level of heat is that the yolks were cooked through.

Coffee and orange juice included in the set price were good too.


About 35 shekels per head for shakshouka, bread, coffee and orange juice.

Julius Meinl Coffee House
Jaffa Road
New City

Fattoush, Haifa

One thing we didn't eat as much of on this trip as anticipated is shawarma. Kebab stands weren't quite as ubiquitous as expected in either Jordan or Israel, and where we did find them they often only had chicken. Ever since an unpleasant experience in Turkey a few years back I have a deep mistrust of chicken that sits there all day on the spit, intermittently being fired up and sitting there sweating at ambient temperature the rest of the time. It's a recipe for intestinal disaster.

As such I think this was the first shawarma of the holiday. Posh shawarma rather than street shawarma, but it was pretty damn good. Shards of salty meat and onions, a big pile of parsley to freshen things, a pool of nutty tahini and soft bread.

We also had a big bowl of houmous and a whole load more bread that we didn't really need.

And then some beer and wine. I tried a dark beer from the Taybeh brewery, noteworthy as being the only brewery in the West Bank. It was a bit bland and boring though.


Around 50 shekels per head for the meal with soft drinks or a beer or glass of wine

Ben-Gurion Avenue
German Colony

Kanibar, Haifa

It's not clear whether this place is called Kaniburger or Kanibar. The internet thinks Kanibar, but I'm sure it was Kaniburger when we were there. What is clear to me is that the burgers there are bloody brilliant. The best burger I've had this year.

A fat, succulent, well seasoned beef patty (the 220g option, about 8oz), cooked exactly as requested. Medium in case you were wondering. Nice and pink. A good sturdy bun, yielding but strong enough to stay intact for the duration. Lettuce, tomato, gherkin, melty swiss cheese. Ketchup, mustard and mayo at the table to add your own. The chips were average, so I'd just order a huge burger and not bother with them.

Splendid. And all thanks to my Israeli friend Lee, who I met while travelling in Australia years ago, and who I contacted out of the blue on Facebook to say I was coming to Israel and would she like to meet up, and who said yes of course, and who took us out for drinks, and then on a grand day out round the North of the country, introduced us to her friends, and took us to this great burger bar. Thanks Lee, you were a great host!


About 75 shekels for a classy burger, chips, soft drinks and service

Sderot Moriya
Mount Carmel

Said Abu Elafia and Sons, Jaffa

For various reasons we never really got round to eating a restaurant evening meal in Tel Aviv or Jaffa, but we did manage to get sandwiches from Said Abu Elafia and Sons three times in three days. It's a bakery, open 24/7, constantly busy, and with a deli counter making toasted sandwiches.

Apart from tuna, everything is vegetarian, so a sandwich will usually be stuffed with sliced cheese, cream cheese, olives, tomatoes, sweetcorn and whatever else you can persuade them to shove in there. One will serve two people for breakfast, light lunch or a late night snack.


17 shekels for a mucky fat but strangely wholesome toasted sandwich

Said Abu Elafia and Sons
7 Yefet Street


Anonymous said...

The hairy cheese is not made with vermicelli but with shredded phyllo pastry that resembles vermicelli noodles, it is known as kataifi in Greek or katefeh in Arabic and you can find it in the freezer section in Turkish and Middle Easter stores.

Anonymous said...

Food looks great, but prices seem almost Scandinavian.

The burger made me want to make hamburgers; the kataifi/katefeh made me want to fly out now :).

Dave said...

Anon 1 - I knew it wasn't vermicelli as in pasta, I just wasn't quite sure what it was. Thanks for the explanation!

Anon 2 - it is expensive, but probably not quite Scandinavian. Most of the meals I would have expected to pay at least as much for in the UK, given the quality. Fly out now - do it!

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