Rick Eats the Holy Land
You know how football receivers sometimes have to make catches across the middle even though they know they’re going to get pummeled? That’s how I feel about this post.
I just got back from Israel. And if you know my readership, you know that (1) a lot of them go to Israel regularly (I was last there twelve years ago), and (2) many of them have such absolutist views about eating in Israel that Javert would tell them to lighten up. I’d get less blowback giving a presentation on why New Jersey has the best cheesesteaks to a roomful of Philly expats. Here’s the kind of trolling I expect:
How could you not go to Shlomo’s! It’s right down the street from that tourist trap you went to. Shlomo gets up at 4 am every day to individually press the garbanzo beans through a special sieve. For what you did, you could have stayed home and opened a tub of Sabra from Costco.
First of all, mom, you were with me. Second, I was only in Israel for six days and much of my time was taken up by family events. Third, I was only in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, so that little falafel stand in Afula that blows everything else away was never an option.
All in all, I think I did pretty well. A special shout-out to my brother-in-law Mark, who travels to Israel a lot and helped curate my food stops. Any comments on my itinerary should be sent directly to Mark1965@gmail.com.
Chapter 1 — Searching for Sabich
My street-food obsession in Israel was a sandwich called sabich, based on a traditional Iraqi dish. Sabich is a pita filled with slices of softly-fried eggplant, chopped egg, a schmear of hummus, Israeli salad, and then drizzled with tahini and a pickled mango sauce called amba. This is the entrance to the eponymous Sabich in Tel Aviv, which was featured on the Netflix series Somebody Feed Phil. If you’re in Jerusalem, head to Aricha Sabich (83 Agripas Street) near the Mehane Yehuda Market. I’d actually give Aricha a slight nod over Sabich for its higher ratio of eggplant to other fillings.
Sabich in Tel Aviv.
Aricha Sabich in Jerusalem.
Chapter 2 — Foraging for Falafel
HaKosem (Tel Aviv)
HaKosem near the Dizengoff Center in Tel Aviv is a great spot to get your fix of the Holy Trinity of falafel, shawarma and hummus (plus sabich!).
HaKosem’s falafel balls have everything you’d want: a crisp, nubby shell that gives way to an inside that’s moist and green with fresh herbs. But it’s the pita bread that really puts this sandwich in a different league. It’s soft and tender and yet has a pleasant elasticity that keeps it from falling apart.
I also love that HaKosem throws falafel balls at you even if you don’t order them. They pass them out for free while you’re waiting in line and they seem to throw them randomly onto whatever sandwich or dish you order.
I prefer the more traditional shawarma made with lamb, but the turkey version at HaKosem is very good: moist and nicely-spiced, plus that terrific bread and that extra falafel ball plopped on top.
HaKosem makes an excellent hummus, although to tell the truth I didn’t have any disappointing hummus the whole time I was in Israel. And we pretty much ordered it everywhere. I’m going out on a limb and saying you can’t get a bad plate of hummus in Israel. (Reminder to send all comments to MarkL1965@gmail.com)
Chapter 3 — To Market, To Market
Mehane Yehuda Market (Jerusalem)
We took a two-hour tour of Jerusalem’s Mehane Yehuda Market (IMHO more impressive than Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market) with a company called Delicious Israel (www.deliciousisrael.com). You can certainly cover the market on your own, but you won’t necessarily know which purveyors have the best food or get small tastes along the way.
Small world: our spirited guide Arella was raised in Kemp Mill and went to the University of Maryland. We bonded over the falafel at Max’s on University Blvd.
Uzi Eli’s juice stand. He’s also know as The Esrog Man because he often uses esrogs — a citrus fruit I’ve only seen during sukkot — in combinations with other fruits and herbs. Be forewarned: he’ll try to sell you on his home remedies by dripping potions on your neck and even swabbing them up your nose. I would have preferred sipping on a little fresh-squeezed pomagranate juice. On the other hand, my sinuses have never felt better.
Marzipan Bakery is rightly famous for its rugelach. This is nothing like the dry-as-dust versions I usually try to avoid in the States. These are made with a yeasted dough and then soaked in a sugar-syrup solution when they come out of the oven. The result is gooey, decadent and flat-out delicious, particularly right out of the oven.
The Jachnun Bar serves a mean malawach, a Yemeni flatbread that has become something of an Israeli comfort food. It’s a fantastic melange of dough fried in clarified butter and topped with caramelized onions, hard-boiled eggs, tomatoes, olives and spicy zhug.
Chapter 4 — Sitting Down to Eat
Azura is a family-run operation in the Iraqi Shuk area of the Mehane Yehuda Market that’s now in its third generation. It serves traditional Kurdish recipes with a Turkish influence. If you like slow food, this is your place. Stews and soups simmer on small oil-burning stoves all day, concentrating and intensifying flavors. Azura can get crowded during peak hours, but since the food is mostly already cooked, tables turn over relatively quickly.
Simmering pots at Azura
Don’t feel like something long-cooked? This tomato-cucumber salad and Azura’s excellent hummus should fill the bill.
Azura’s kubbeh soup includes kreplach-like dumplings stuffed with ground beef and pine nuts. Get the sweet-and-sour broth, which tastes like a good cabbage borscht.
The famous chef Yotam Ottolenghi said this eggplant stuffed with lamb and pine nuts was his favorite dish at Azura. He even included an adaptation of it in his Jerusalem cookbook. Far be it for me to disagree with the likes of Ottolenghi, but I don’t think it warrants the top slot. Still, it’s very good in a deconstructed-moussaka sort of way.
If you’re hungry, this oxtail with peppers was delicious. Tender, fall-off-the-bone meat in a piquant sauce that all benefits from the long cooking time.
Mashya (Tel Aviv)
While my heart belongs to street food, I didn’t ignore modern Israeli cuisine, starting with Chef Yossi Shitrit’s Moroccan-influenced cooking at Mashya.
Mashya’s clean look surrounded by rugged organic material would fit right in in DC (looking at you, Bresca). In fact, much of the experience seems familiar, from the locavore approach to the cooking techniques to the custom serving pieces. The real difference is the local ingredients — red drum and other Mediterranean seafood, lamb, eggplant, yogurt, okra, figs, pumpkin, olives, etc.
Ricotta dumplings and parmesan, mushrooms, pumpkin and sour cream (appetizer portion)
Turkish spinach “ravioli” with shrimp, fish stock, calamari and olives
Seabass filet on a skillet, cracked corn “Hamin,” chili pepper and paprika
Abraxas North (Tel Aviv)
My favorite meal had to be my dinner at Abraxas North. It’s a small, informal restaurant in the hip Florentine section of Tel Aviv with tables that spill onto the sidewalk. The dishes are straightforward, hyper-ingredient-focused and meant for sharing. You eat directly off brown butcher paper paper strewn across the tables. The cooking itself is elemental yet precise. The finished dishes — and particularly the vegetables — are a testament to the theory that a restaurant’s job is to find the best products and then do as little as possible to screw them up.
On top of that, the menu, written by the chef, is charming and quirky. It includes “A potato full of himself” and “Very precise cuts of lamb.” You can either put yourself in the chef’s hands (not a bad strategy) or engage with your server, who are more than willing to explain. All of the descriptions below are taken directly from the menu.
A pizza paved with desert-born tomatoes and mozzarella
Ultra-thin and crispy with good char, the kind of pizza that even though you know lots of food is still coming, you seriously think about ordering another one.
Jericho green beans perfumed with garlic, lemon and olive oil
Hands-down the best green beans I’ve ever had. Uber-fresh and slicked with garlic, lemon and olive oil, these tender beans made me want to move to Jericho.
Batata: golden sweet potato oozing with its juices
Like sweet potatoes cooked in a campfire — charred on the outside, smoky and luscious on the inside. All it needs is a swab in the accompanying Israeli yogurt.
The original creation of all roasted baby cauliflowers
See campfire vibe, above.
Hraime: Red Drum in a stormy sauce of 5 desert-born tomatoes
Hraime is a spicy North African fish dish popular in Israel. You can use different types of white fish but here the meaty red drum holds up well. After the fish is gone, the hunk of bread makes for some delicious dipping.
Entrecote Steak and Salad
Juicy and pleasantly fatty like a good ribeye — which maybe it was — this steak topped off a great meal. But we did feel like we needed to walk some of it off, so rather than have dessert at Abraxas North, we strolled ten minutes to Anita for gelato (see below).
Chapter 5 — A Sweet Finish
Anita Gelato (Tel Aviv)
Anita is a terrific gelato shop in Tel Aviv. They have three locations so wherever you are there may be one nearby.
In the end, the Israeli food scene, like much of Israel, is complicated. There’s the obvious tension between those who ascribe deep cultural and religious significance to food and those who do not. There’s the related tension between those who believe in adhering to food traditions even at the expense of taste — I don’t recommend the non-dairy “cheesecake” served in kosher-meat restaurants — and those who want modern Israeli cuisine to borrow liberally from whatever cultural traditions will make the food more delicious. We have some of those tensions in the US, but it all feels heightened and more consequential in Israel. Certainly everyone in Israel has an opinion about food (and everything else) and no one is shy about expressing it.
So to honor the spirit of Israeli food, I guess I should welcome dissenting opinions. Please let me know what I missed and what I got wrong. And in case it wasn’t obvious, MLehmann1965@gmail.com isn’t my brother-in-law’s actual email address. I made it up. Don’t try it, in case it turns out to be real. In which case, my apologies to the poor schlub dealing with incoming from readers who didn’t read to the end.