A hungry heart’s journey to the land of milk and honey
Israel's food scene has evolved with the times.
The temperature in Israel is heating up, and it’s not just because of the political unrest. Israel is overflowing with great food, including critically acclaimed restaurants worthy of a 12-hour flight with a layover in Newark.
I recently had the pleasure of traveling to the land of milk and honey this winter with 18 other couples from Pittsburgh on a trip supported by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh called “Honeymoon Israel,” exploring the country, its culture and, of course, the food.
Once you land at Ben Gurion International Airport, you immediately see the modern skyline of Tel Aviv and the traffic — oy, the traffic! Don’t be fooled by the ancient history of Israel: This is as modern a country as any, with software, biotech and communications companies traded in the global markets. With all these publicly-traded companies and the people who run them looking to live in the modern world, the food scene’s evolution had to grow with the times.
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Critically acclaimed, gastro powerhouse Machneyuda is a modern Israeli restaurant in Jerusalem by chef Assaf Granit. If you know anything about Machneyuda or the other restaurants within the group, such as Yudale, Agripas or Tzemah, it’s a party! These restaurants have a vibe that resonates with the New Age culture seen in Tel Aviv, but also in Jerusalem, which has always been a more conservative city. Maybe the old gatekeepers see this as a “Balagan,” coincidentally the name of Granit’s new restaurant in Paris.
We grabbed the last reservation after a long day of traveling from the Sea of Galilei and partying until the wee hours of the morning with Honeymoon Israel groups from Miami and Chicago. We ate and danced at Elias Hospitality, a farm resort owned and operated by Pittsburgh native and larger-than-life personality Jed “Gadi” Elias, who made aliyah in the 1970s as a child with his family. I tried his famous “Arayas,” a dish starting to gain popularity in the States at hipster chic restaurants like 12 Chairs and Laser Wolf. His recipe consists of a spiced mixture of fatty ground beef and lamb spread into a pita and grilled over fire, allowing all the juices to saturate the bread and crisp the exterior shell.
Eyal Shani has brought the concept restaurant Miznon to locations around the world, a modern take on shawarma stands known for its pita sandwiches and whole cauliflower roasted over live whispering embers, with chefs yelling orders back into the small kitchen and beer flowing on tap. Because this shop is less like a traditional Western restaurant with booths and low seating, the party takes to the sidewalk, where there are a few tables you can use if you’re hawkeyed enough to find elbow room.
We happened to be at the flagship location on the night of the first big protest against the new government coalition and had front-row seats to the demonstration that grabbed the attention of all of Israel. About 20,000 protesters took to the streets, chanting and marching toward Habima Square, demanding change to the conservative policies set before the citizens of Israel — a surreal reminder that vacation doesn’t transcend real-world issues.
The Levinsky Market in the Florentine neighborhood is a food lover’s paradise — a hidden gem making one feel like a native. You won’t find too many tourists rubbernecking around this local side street wonderland. The aromatic spices and steaming hot borekas being fought over are enough to make even the most anxious shlemiel stop to appreciate the moment.
Worthy highlights were the pickled rosella hibiscus flowers stuffed with triple crème cheese at the Greek delicatessen and the tropical gazoz, a sparkling concoction having a major renaissance at Café Levinsky 41. The gazoz was expertly crafted by a longhaired tincture shaman who delicately produces unique non-alcoholic spritzers for cooling off in the mid-day sunbeams.
By day, the Machne Yehuda market is one of the greatest food experiences you can have in Israel, serving multigenerational Old City residents their produce, baked goods and life essentials. Night owls flock to the market at dusk where the shuk turns into a raging sababa. At Jachnun Bar, the specialty is malawach sandwiches, a Jewish Yemeni bread reminiscent of a scallion pancake sans scallion, rolled up like a burrito with tahini, grated tomato, roasted egg, fried onions and zhug hot sauce. A unique bite worth every shekel.
All these modern restaurant concepts have one thing in common: They aren’t your Safta’s falafel shop. Abu Hassan, HaKosem, Falafel Uzi, Azura, Abu Kamel and Haj Kahil are some of the legendary shops and restaurants that anyone seeking unadulterated old-school options needs to check out.
My absolute favorite meal of the trip was across the street from the Carmel Market at Sabich Tchernichovsky. Sabich, an Iraqi-Jewish food that sent me down a rabbit hole of research many years ago and reframed my cooking brain as to what Jewish food could be, is a must-try. This highly addictive pita sandwich of fried eggplant, slow-roasted egg, and crispy onions looks like something out of a cartoon. Eighteen layers of fresh, marinated, fried and pickled vegetables as well as herbs, sauces and condiments create a true masterpiece of flavor.
Since most iconic Israeli food has roots in other parts of the Middle East, and it is controversial to claim anything as yours in a highly contested country, it’s exciting to see what modern Israeli chefs are creating. What you see on the plate is a direct reflection of who’s making the food, and it’s obvious Israeli food has the fingerprints of many other cultures. The fact that so many recipes overlap is evidence that we are more alike than different, and the reasons to eat together have never been more important. PJC
Brandon Blumenfeld is a private chef and hospitality consultant who lives in the East End of Pittsburgh. His website is brandonblumenfeld.com.