Our itinerary in Israel was pretty intense, taking us from Netanya to Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, the Golan Heights, the Galilee, Rosh HaNikra, Akko, Caesarea, Tel Aviv and back to Netanya. The good news is that we saw a lot of a small-but-rich-in-history-and-landscape country, and I loved getting to know Jon’s Israeli relatives, who took a week off from work to show us their country. The bad news is that I didn’t stay in any one place long enough to get into the food scene.
That said, here are my general thoughts on eating out in Israel, followed by some quick, blurby reviews:
- If in doubt, eat falafel (aka chickpea in its most evolved form). I’m sure there are a lot of great restaurants in Israel (see last week’s NYT article about Tel Aviv or the July 2008 issue of Travel + Leisure, for example), but if you’re not able to plan your day around meals at pre-researched restos, and you want your food to be good and cheap, you won’t go wrong with falafel. Absent a local rec, I looked for a long line (ideally made up of cab drivers) and freshness (look for a guy who scoops the chickpea mix lightning fast into clear oil only after people place orders).
- Closely related to point number 1, I couldn’t get enough of hummus during our trip. Although all hummus recipes include chickpeas, tahini and olive oil, after that, the sky’s the limit in terms of variety. If you want to start an intense conversation among Israelis, ask them where to get the best hummus. Jon’s relatives (who live in Netanya) seemed to divide their loyalties between Hummus Said in Akko and Hummus Uzi in Netanya. I wish I could settle the debate, but I can’t – the hummus at both were delicious – creamy and nutty with a hint of sweet spice. Both places stop serving at 2 pm, so get there for lunch or takeaway before then.
- Restaurant portions in Israel are *huge*. I’m American. I know what a big portion looks like. If you’re planning to get appetizers and mains at a resto, then you should definitely share your main course with someone else unless you want a lot of leftovers (and if you’re me, you’ll feel endlessly guilty about throwing away said leftovers for lack of a home kitchen to re-heat them in).
- If you like Greek or Turkish food, you’ll love Israeli food. I don’t know how I missed this fact, but Israel is a Mediterranean country. That means that in a lot of restos, if you stick with grilled fish or meat or anything with cucumber-tomato-feta in it, you’ll do great. It also means that I would stay away from cuisines like, say, sushi (see blurb below on Japanika in Tel Aviv).
- Because I assume that Kosher restaurants are generally not as good as non-Kosher restaurants, I was happy to see that even in Jerusalem (which I expected to be Kosher Ground Zero), lots of non-Kosher restaurants could be found. For example, Barood restaurant (which was recommended by the Lonely Planet Israel guide, National Geographic *and* the (special?) issue of Time Out Jerusalem we picked up at our hotel, served sephardic food, yet it still couldn’t resist offering bacon-wrapped shrimp served with tagliatelle with cream sauce, just to really send a “we’re secular” message, I assume.
My favorite non-home-cooked meals in Israel, in no particular order:
- Falafel at the Falafel Musa (“Moses Falafel”) in Netanya. Jon’s relatives insisted we eat here, and I’m glad we did. The falafels have a good balance between the hot, crispy, aromatic falafels and the “wet” ingredients – tahini and chili sauce. Even better, Falafel Musa serves their version with boiled egg, something I didn’t see in any of the other six or seven falafels I had during my time in Israel. I have good memories of grabbing a plastic patio chair in the mild evening weather, opening an ice-cold fanta, and chowing down in the lively company of Jon’s cousins.
- Steak at the Argentinian steakhouse, Morgenfeld, located in Liman moshav, which is an agricultural cooperative in Rosh HaNikra (currently known as the place where the prisoner exchange took place). Sure, I had my doubts about a steakhouse in the middle of nowhere, but it turns out the place was opened by a Jewish immigrant from Argentina, and the meat was excellent: juicy and cooked exactly the way each of our party of eight requested. Although the menu is in Hebrew, the servers spoke English, and the gist is that for 129 NIS ($37), you can order any cut of meat plus a slew of all-you-can-eat appetizers, which includes spicy, smoky chorizo, and flaky empanadas. Tables are spaced wide apart; the dining room is rustic wood and floor-to-ceiling windows; service was friendly and helpful. I’d go back even if I weren’t staying at the B&B (zimmer) fifty yards up the road.
- Breakfasts at the two zimmers (the Israeli version of agriturismo) we stayed at: one in the Golan Heights near the border with Syria, and the other in the Liman moshav, just up the road from Morgenfeld steakhouse. You had your eggs and (somewhat-random) canned tuna, but you also had highlights like homemade goat cheese in multiple forms, fresh figs, nectarines, plums, granolas, breads, and tomato-and-cucumber salads. I’d call these breakfasts a health food lover’s heaven, except that it was impossible to control yourself and eat reasonable portions.
- Boya and Agadir Burger Bar in Tel Aviv Port. Yuppies all over the world will recognize the neutral tones and sleek chrome fixtures of both these restos. Boya is a bistro that serves crowd-pleasing salads, grilled seafood and foccacias. Agadir Burger Bar serves – guess – burgers. The food at both places was generally good; the service OK; and the prices average (main courses $15-$20). Even though I thought both restos were ready to be franchised on a minute’s notice, I *loved* sitting outside on the wide, sleek boardwalk with a view of the beach. That location, you cannot franchise. So eat at Tel Aviv port for the atmosphere, yuppie watching and well-prepared food. At night, the baby stroller traffic is insane but amusing.
As for the rest, here’s what I’ve got:
- Barood in Jerusalem is on Jaffa Road, not far from Ben Yehuda street. As I mentioned above, the resto was highly recommended from multiple sources, and I liked that we sat outdoors in a pretty alleyway. Barood is described as “sephardic,” which means it serves anything that’s Mediterranean or North African, so dishes ranged from haloumi (perfectly fried and salted) to moussaka and fried calamari. It wasn’t a gourmet experience, but it was pleasant. Although the menu seemed like a mishmash of crowd-pleasers and the portions were enormous, we ordered mostly appetizers to share and our tab (including lots of delicious pints of Tuborg) came to 100 NIS ($30) a person.
- Ima restaurant in Jerusalem, not far from the Mahane Yehuda market, serves Kurdish food, which seemed a lot like Persian food with lots of grilled meats, stuffed peppers, and fragrant rice dishes. I tried fried kubeh, a cumin-scented meatball covered in a dough, which weren’t bad, but not something I’d crave again. The grilled meats and fruit-and-lentil-studded rice dishes were the resto’s strong points, I thought. Portions were again enormous. Most main courses were around 60 NIS ($17) and the appetizers were about 15 NIS ($4.30). Our waitress spoke English and was helpful. Ima, 55 Shmuel Baruch Street (Agripas Street), Jerusalem; 02-624 6860.
- Hummus Said in Akko is located in the Arab market. You can’t miss the long line of people waiting to get in. The place is your classic dive, with bare-bones folding tables and a highly-specialized menu offering three types of hummous (plain, garlic, or with broad beans) for about 15 NIS ($4.30) per bowl and unlimited amounts of pita and sides like tomatoes and cucumbers. It’s cheap and fast, and the servers are amazingly friendly and attentive considering the crowds. I ate my weight in humus here.
- Suzana’s Bistro and Bar, in the Golan Heights, in an artists’ village settlement called Anaim. Think ersatz log cabin at the end of a small street lined with artists’ workshops and stores. The hummous and fresh-baked bread were delicious, and the char-grilled eggplant was also a highlight with the right amount of smokiness and sweetness. If I went back, I’d stick with just the appetizers and snag an outdoor table. The fish we ordered, including hard-to-destroy salmon, were atrociously overcooked to a dry, tasteless crisp. I should have known ordering fish in the Golan Heights would be dumb. Lots of dips, breads, a bottle of wine and eight main courses brought our total to 600 shekels ($172) for eight of us, which is about 75 shekels ($21.60) per person.
- Japanika Sushi Bar seems to be all the rage with Tel Aviv’s yuppie set, which is a demographic that includes one of Jon’s cousins. Its appeal was that it offered a break from hummus, falafel and grilled fish. But the fact that there aren’t a lot of Japanese people living in Tel Aviv (either as sushi chefs or as potential customers) should have made me think twice. Other than the avocado roll (which gets a shout out because avocados in Israel were superbly creamy and rich), the sushi there wasn’t very good. The fish in our various nigiri was flavorless; the eel was rubbery; and the tamago that came in one combo platter we ordered was disturbingly gelatinous. On the plus side, the prices were OK (25 NIS/$7 – per maki).