Plate after plate arrived at my table from a stylish kitchen called Tishreen: beautiful salads of tabbouleh, fresh greens tossed with honeyed walnuts, a pizza of grilled onions and tender chicken pulled from a mosaic-tiled wood oven. I couldn’t help but think that I could be in San Francisco. Or New York City. Instead, I was in Nazareth — Jesus’ hometown.
Most visitors to Israel come to revel in biblical lands, to trod paths followed by Jesus or Abraham, to witness the glorious heart of so much history. Few give much thought to the food. But while I was there last winter to experience all the country had to offer, I was surprised to find gourmet meals and wine tasting rooms that were, well, divine.
Travel advisories were less than glowing when I arrived in the politically upheaved country (see the sidebar for information on the State Department’s most recent travel warning), but it hardly felt conflicted during the sunshine-filled morning I visited Ein Karem. In biblical days, this place was a small country village “in the hill country of Judah.” Today, it’s more like an upscale Jerusalem suburb, filled with artists’ galleries, sidewalk cafes and a music center.
John the Baptist was born here, and besides its churches named after him, the area is famous for Mary’s Spring, the one where Mary was said to have drawn water while visiting her cousin Elisabeth. These days, I thought, the two women probably would have met at the town’s chocolate shop. Or they may have chosen the beautiful brasserie a few steps down the street from the well, where my latte was served with a decorative swirl in the foam and a croissant arrived warm and fresh from the oven.
In Jerusalem, I discovered a well-made cappuccino or a good “Cup’o’Joe” (a real Israeli chain) is actually incredibly easy to find. Israel has a big coffee culture these days, nothing like the 1970s when Nescafé was the norm.
Still, not even a big dose of caffeine prepared me for the barrage of senses I encountered upon passing through one of the 16th-century gates into Jerusalem’s Old City, with its kaleidoscopic warren of winding streets, tiny shops and cafes. Exotic smells, strange languages, chaotic color — while astonishing to me, it is just a part of life there.
During lunchtime, residents and tourists settled into plastic chairs at bare plywood tables. Longtime family-run places like Abu Kamel Restaurant (the word “restaurant” is used loosely) served up delicious hot falafel balls, freshly made pita, hummus and accompaniments on mismatched china.
That day I also followed the Way of the Cross to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, visited the Western Wall, and the Temple Mount and eventually ended up back in the throbbing present of traffic and technology, outside the gates again.
The restaurant where I ate dinner that night couldn’t have been more different from my noontime experience.
Arcadia was subdued and elegant with white table linens, matching china and candlelight. I sipped wine, slipped a spoon into creamy risotto flecked with vegetables from the chef’s garden, ate calzones with soft cheese scented with sage, then sunk my fork into flaky grilled fish.
The restaurant is near the city’s popular Mahane Yehuda market, which has undergone some major renovations in the past few years. Efforts to attract more boutique and upscale shops — and shoppers — have also made it something of a “culinary” tourist draw. “Bakery walks” and chocolate, wine and cheese tours are all now part of its attractions.
Still, it’s not yet so gentrified that it has lost its authentic appeal. Especially if you go on a Thursday or Friday before Shabbat. That’s when you’ll be among crowds of Jews, Christians, Muslims and tourists perusing piles of pastries and produce, drinking glasses of fresh pressed pomegranate juice, selecting from wooden crates of spices and sampling the halvah always being handed out near the giant Halvah Kingdom stall.
Walking the narrow aisles with the conglomeration of aromas and colors then, I found vignettes of scenes appearing like in a movie — with a soundtrack to match. Two men with yarmulkes on their heads and arms wrapped around each other laughed over some private joke, a street performer strummed a guitar, vendors called out prices and a trio of young boys debated the best after-school sweet. The place is a visual melting pot.
My trip also took me out of Jerusalem — to the mysterious Masada, to the ancient mosaics of Tzipori, to the Dead Sea, to the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv — and to the shores of Galilee, where I found even the touristy St. Peter’s fish lunch well prepared, delicious and fresh.
The freshness of the country’s food everywhere is what perhaps surprised me the most.
The breakfast buffets at the Dan Hotels in both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv were nothing short of amazing. An abundance of beautifully displayed food stations were set up in the dining rooms. They offered dozens of fresh salad toppings, separate boards for “white” cheeses, bowls of yogurt-cheese balls with hyssop (an herb from the mint family) and olive oil, platters of fish, breads, plus an entire collection of housemade confitures: apricot, fig, fennel, beet and “young carrot.”
The day before I headed back to Tel Aviv, I followed curving roads with vineyards on either side and toured several boutique wineries. At the small but beautiful Odem Mountain Winery, they also sold jars of local jam and honey produced nearby. The place would fit right in — if you were in the Napa Valley of California.
While a decade ago people laughed if you mentioned Israeli wine, today’s technology has vastly improved the quality. At the nearby Golan Heights Winery, the wines’ awards from international competitions can attest to this statement — and a tasting there can confirm it. An expansive visitor center, which is landscaped with scented lavender, rosemary and thyme, showcases all its labels.
On my last night, I stayed at the Hotel Mizpe Hayamim. Bordering Lebanon, the place is part hotel, part spa, and part organic farm. The region around it has had its share of controversy and conflict. But within the farm grounds, it both looks and feels like an oasis. Gardens, lemon trees, chickens and a barn where goats are raised, surround the hotel. Its shops sell kosher jams, breads, cheeses and wine made on the premises; its Muscat Restaurant serves up meals prepared with the farm’s seasonal bounty.
After dinner there, I sat out on my room’s balcony overlooking the valley below. I listened to the quiet, gazed at the stars strung out in the sky and sipped a glass of wine which seemed as complex as the country that produced it.