The Epic Moving Feast
With most of the wine production concentrated in the north, internationally known and boutique wineries are transforming people's perceptions of Israeli wine. The soils that produced table wine in biblical times are now yielding vintages that are winning awards and competing on equal footing with the wines of the U.S., Europe and Australia. Restaurants like the family-owned Roburg (known for its table-side cooking demos) and farmhouse inns like Pausa follow suit with exquisitely prepared spreads that blur the line between Israeli and international cuisine.
Haifa, northern Israel's largest city, enjoys a reputation as the Middle East's most integrated metropolis. Though the Baha'i Temple punctuates the city's embrace of coexisting cultures, restaurants and bars provide delicious added commentary on the city's intermingled cultures. The Colony Hotel, in the German Colony quarter, offers central location and an expansive, fresh breakfast buffet. The Christian quarter is home to Allenby Restaurant's spread of delectable dips as well as their velvety version of eggplant parmesan. Carmel Center's streets are lined with ambitious theme restaurants, such as the aptly named Meat In & Out. This young, trendy spot serves gorgeously plated steaks from the Golan Heights, along with an Israel focussed wine list.
Shuk Talpiot, Haifa's largest outdoor market, and Tel Aviv's Carmel and Levinsky markets are essential destinations for serious cooks and people watchers. Every shop and take-out restaurant (such as Haifa's Falafel Hazkenim) puts its own photogenic spin on olives, spices, produce, dried fruit, sweets and baked goods. There are also varieties of familiar vegetables such as eggplant and tomatoes that have shapes, colours and flavours not found anywhere else in the world.
In the historic Jaffa area adjoining Tel Aviv, Dr Shakshuka operates with the same kind of gusto as those farmers' markets, preparing an inspired prescription for building an appetite. Smoldering sweet-and-hot harissa sauce jazzes up hearty salads, meats and shakshuka, best described as the love child of an omelet and a casserole. Adding to warm aromas and flavours is the unusual décor - an antique shop where people just happen to be cooking with the merchandise.
Tel Aviv locals, as well as Food & Wine magazine, have anointed Yonatan Roshfeld a 'celebrity chef,' thanks in part to his Herbert Samuel, opened in 2007. Though the underpinnings of the menu are Israeli and seasonal, Roshfeld flawlessly integrates Asian, South American and European influences. Just outside the gates of Old Jerusalem, meanwhile, restaurateur Moshe Basson made his mark at Eucalyptus by putting old (as in Biblical) Middle Eastern cooking and seasoning traditions into a modern context. Those who splurge on his 'King David's Feast' will also receive discourse on his career (which began inauspiciously during his 1973 conscription in the Israeli army) and his cofounding Chefs for Peace, a group of chefs from Jewish, Muslim and Christian backgrounds. If the intimate Eucalyptus is full, it is good to know nearby Olive & Fish Restaurant offers similar regional dishes, including various preparations of St Peter's fish, and roasted eggplant.
Though the Negev's rugged terrain appeals to extreme outdoor sports aficionados, there are also unexpected treasures for adventurous culinary travellers. One of its biggest draws is Beresheet Resort in Mitzpe Ramon, which not only puts an Israeli spin on luxury eco-tourism, but benefits the region by sourcing food and amenities from local villages and farms. The enormous breakfast spread is the resort's highlight, exemplifying their commitment to surrounding communities, from upscale variations on shakshuka, hummus and farmed smoked fish to a prolific selection of artisanal cheese.
An hour from Beresheet, Kornmehl Cheese Farm, which supplies the resort with some of its dairy delicacies, is worth a visit. Like Ein Camonim, one of the most popular cheese farms in the Galilee up north, guests have plenty of opportunities to bond with playful goats while they wait for a table at the pocket sized shop and tidy café dominated by beautiful cheese platters and gooey, velvety cheese creations.
However, what makes Kornmehl's establishment truly special is that they have worked closely with experts from Ben Gurion University (such as Wisconsinite Mike Travis, whose involvement with the Kornmehl's future success is an integral part of his doctoral work) to make their cheese business blossom against the odds and the elements presented by the Negev's rugged and sometimes unforgiving desert terrain. This involves the creation of an 18 square foot artificial wetland plot devised by Travis. Waste water is filtered through plants, a coarse sand layer and gravel, all about two feet high. The emerging water is then used to water shrubbery on the grounds.
"I think of them as colleagues, not rivals," reflects Anat Kornmehl when asked about her feelings about competing artisanal cheesemakers across Israel. This collaborative spirit not only transcends cheese production but reflects the fact that Israeli food culture is helping to connect Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa to the Golan Heights in the north and the Negev in the South while moving hearts and minds around the globe.