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Israeli haute cuisine hits its stride

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OCCIDENTAL, Calif., June 19 (JTA) — Few tourists head to the Holy Land with haute cuisine in mind, but those who still think that “Gourmet Israel” is an oxymoron will be pleasantly surprised.

“During my previous visit in 1993, the fancy food was stodgy — meaning French — and not very interesting,” says John Kessler, a food and restaurant critic for the Atlanta Journal & Constitution who visited Israel in January. As Daniel Rogov — the food critic for the Israeli daily Ha’aretz and the French paper Le Monde said — “the best anyone could say was that Israeli breakfasts were good.”

However, as the Israeli economy soared from 1986 to 1996, so, too, did the cuisine scene. Israelis who began traveling overseas in record numbers experienced the finer things in life — and upon returning home they expected more from restaurants.

Chefs attending cooking schools abroad began to appreciate the ancient indigenous culinary traditions and the unique Jewish dishes introduced by immigrants from more than 100 countries.

Dubbed “Med-Rim” or “Land of Israel,” this old-new cuisine employs esoteric spices such as the biblical hyssop, seafood of the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River, olive oil, superb local dairy products and the bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables.

“A new generation of chefs with excellent training are marrying good technique with local flavors into a gourmet context,” Kessler reports.

This cooking is exemplified at the renowned Eucalyptus Restaurant in Jerusalem.

Owner and chef Moshe Basson — who won the 1999 Couscous Championship in Sicily — often is called a food archeologist because he garners ideas from the Bible, the Mishna and local cultures. When not in the kitchen, he’s foraging the Judean Hills for plants for his nouvelle Israel dishes.

Instead of grape leaves, Basson uses leaves of wild cyclamens and khubezia, or mallow, to create dolmas. His figs stuffed with chicken and tamarind sauce are exquisite, as is his signature ma’aluba, a steaming chicken casserole flipped upside down on a platter. Baluza — the famous Turkish orchid bulb ice cream — or halvah cream adds a flavorful finale.

At the ever-popular Herb Garden near Afula, even the breathtaking view of the Jezerel Valley won’t distract from the tempting offerings. Operated by the Mass family in an unpretentious log chalet, a typical meal starts with homemade breads and herb spreads, labane — mint cheese balls served with dried fresh tomatoes, sumac and za’atar — and baked mushrooms filled with goose liver and pine nuts, topped with marsala cream sauce.

In addition to a range of beef and chicken selections, the restaurant offers trout baked with thyme and two ostrich dishes — one a fillet stuffed with smoked goose breast, basil and kachkaval, served with caper pesto. And where else could your taste buds delight to lavender ice cream drizzled with sage caramel sauce?

A rising star on the slopes of the Golan, above the Sea of Galilee, is the fledgling Nitsa & Moshe. Chef Nitsa Block personally oversees every dish that leaves her kosher kitchen.

The traditional mezza selection of salads includes exquisite hummus and tahini — and salads of carrots, potatoes and zucchinis, and three tasty eggplant offerings. A favorite vegetable is baked cauliflower in a reduced lemon sauce. Block is hounded by kosher chefs around the country trying to coax from her the secret ingredient of her creamy, nondairy orange mousse dessert, but she remains mum.

An ongoing challenge — especially in Israel’s kosher hotels — is creating quality dishes within a kashrut framework. Under the genius of head chef Rafi Cohen, La Regence at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem is Israel’s only hotel to appear in the Gault-Millau French dining guide.

This 25-year-old prodigy, who began his culinary tutelage under his Moroccan grandmother, tied on a kitchen apron at the King David at the age of 13.

“I think that kashrut and gastronomy are bad friends,” Cohen says. “If you go to a small ethnic restaurant, it will be kosher by heritage. But if you are trying to create a French or Continental menu, it’s unlikely to pass the test. But here, something new happened.”

At La Regence, the diminutive poached quail egg served on an herbed mousse was as sublime as it was delicate. The grouper ceviche with green bean salad was precisely spiced with lemon, coriander, pepper and thyme. The hearty ragout of lamb couldn’t be tastier, as was a fillet of red mullet served with a tapanade of anchovies.

Exemplifying the degree to which Cohen demands the freshest ingredients, live cows are shipped from Australia, the United States and Holland.

In Tel Aviv, where few restaurants are kosher, the competition is fiercer.

The casual, but pricey, Mul Yam Restaurant is appropriately located in Tel Aviv’s old port. Here, Israel’s elite can be found sipping the latest Golan Winery sauvignon blanc with an entrée from the restaurant’s minimalist catch-of-the-day menu: crab soup with herbe-de-provence, oysters, grilled St. Peter’s fish, calamari risotto or seafood fettuccini. The wine list is extensive and the service impeccable.

Perhaps Arcadia in Jerusalem and Keren near Jaffa come closest to haute cuisine in Israel. Keren’s elegant atmosphere — a beautifully restored wooden house shipped over from Maine in 1866 — enhances the delicacies of the French- and European-influenced dishes of chef Chaim Cohen: spinach, foie gras and egg in an adaptation of traditional shakshuka; crabmeat with feta cheese; and for those with more chutzpah, ragout of veal offal with white bean puree. The frozen blancmange in melon soup for dessert is a must.

“Israelis have made the transition from eating to dining,” says food critic Rogov, summing up the country’s culinary revolution. “In the early Zionist years, the emphasis was on survival, and indulging in the extravagance of fine food and wine was frowned upon. Now, with the growing affluence, Israelis feel less guilty.”

Bill Strubbe is a California-based freelance writer who has visited Israel 18 times.

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