Just back from a fascinating trip to Israel. My husband and I ate very, very well throughout the country. We knew to expect legendary Israeli breakfasts -- we've eated the equal of Israeli tomatoes in Italy, but Israeli cucumbers are simply the best we've ever tasted. However, the sophistication and excellece of dinner options throughout the country -- with some exceptions -- blew us away.
We began in Jerusalem, traveled north to include stays in Tiberias and Haifa, used Eilat as a staging area for a two-day trip into Jordan, and finished up in Tel Aviv. I'll be posting my restaurant reports by city, beginning with this report on Tiberias and Haifa.
In Tiberias, we ate at Decks and The Emperor. (Both were kosher)
Decks: This is considered to be one of the best meat restaurants in Israel; it features many cuts of beef, lamb, duck, and chicken that have been grilled over a wood-burning fire. Diners can mix and match their order. For example, I ordered one lamb chop and one chicken steak. The quality of the basic ingredients is high, the cooking is skillfully done, and the portions are ludicrously large.
I think the appetizer choices are limited to four: Israeli salad (diced tomatoes and cucumbers alternately called "Fresh Salad" at many places), mixed field greens, a combination of those two salads, and a tower of fried onion rings. The accompaniments are limited to two: potatoes described as "fried potatoes with parsley and sea salt" and a combination of baked sweet potatoe slices and portabello mushrooms slices. In fact the "fried potatoes" are actually thick slices of baked potatoes liberally dressed with parsley and salt.
Filet mignon was one of the choices. We did not order filet mignon, so I don't know if "filet mignon" was the real cut with the restaurant paying the typically astronomical price for butchering a kosher animal to remove the sciatic nerve or whether they were substituting a different kosher cut and calling it filet mignon. All I can say is that the clientele included many obviously observant Jews, so I assume they've satisfied themselves about the level of kashrut at the restaurant.
This can be an expensive restaurant, with some of the cuts being sold by gram weight. However, the portions are so ridiculously large that there are real opportunities for keeping costs in the moderate range. For example, if you're part of a twosome, consider ordering the cominbination appetizer and eating one of the two salads before the main course and the other with the main course. (Not knowing this info, we ordered both an appetizer and the fried potato side dish. Too much food!) Our waitress explained that each portion was approximately 100 grams (approximately 3 ounces) and the restaurant recommends ordering three items. As mentioned previously, I ordered one lamb chop and one chicken steak. My order arrived with two humongous portions of chicken breast which made me believe I had been served two chicken steaks. When the bill arrived, the charge was for one chicken steak only.
The restaurant is in a structure that is more suitable for warm-weather dining than for December temps in Tiberias. The walls are simply heavy-grade vinylized canvas with windows. I suspect these walls are removed during warm weather for improved views of the Sea of Galilee. On our visit, the place was cold enough that some patrons kept their coats on during their meal.
Before you decide to eat at Decks, you'll have to calibrate your tolerance for the kitschy and the eccentric. This restaurant is favored by obervant Israelis who are celebrating a life-cycle event. This means that the ceremony I'm about to describe happens with some frequency.
Around 9:00 p.m., the lights go out in the restaurant and a wall closest to the lake rises. From the darkenss, a boat illuminated by flaming displays sails up to the deck surrounding the restaurant. Next, a woman begins singing in a cigarette-deep voice that is off-key and painful to listen to. She then launches into a many-minute monologue. Next, four waiters holding devices I can only describe as sparklers on steriods walk over to the table of celebrating diners. More singing. More monologue. At this point, a recipients of the sparkler treatment got up on the dance floor and began dancing. Speakers of Hebrew are welcome to supply a description of the contents of the woman's long performance. I can only say that at the end of her performance, she explained in English that what we had witnessed was a "typical Israeli engagement."
The Emperor is a kosher Chinese restaurant. The food isn't very authentic, but it is pleasant enough with versions of authentic dishes. There is a very heavy Thai emphasis. Dishes like Thai hot and sour soup and pad Thai are obvious examples. The soups are generous enough for serve two people with refills. None of the dishes marked "spicy" on the menu make it to the American-spicy level much less Thai- or Szechuan-spicy level. Nevertheless, the food was considerably better than we expected with the best dish being the chicken-filled gyoza.
I believe Tiberias offers more open restaurants in the warm weather months.
Haifa: We ate a fixed-price fish restaurant called Jocko's in the upper city. I'm a huge fan of fixed-price fish restaurants, and this was one of many -- and one of the best -- where we ate throughout our trip. There wasn't a weak offering among the large assortment of mezze that began our meal. Since we didn't take notes, I can't recall which mezze were our favorites, but my husband and I are in agreement on the fact that Jocko's had the best over-all mezze. (FYI, each restaurant in this category offered seconds of the mezzes.)
My husband had a shrimp and mussel dish in Sauce Jocko that he's still raving about. He could identify the white wine and lemon juice in the sauce, but he says that there was something extra that elevated this sauce to the amazing level.
I ate drumfish that was half-fried and half-baked, a preparation I hadn't encountered before, but one I highly recommend. I don't know the details of this cooking process, but the results were sublime. A thin crisp crust sealed in the moisture of the fish and drumfish is a wonderfully sweet fish. The fish was served whole, a fact that doesn't bother me. I know how to debone a whole fish and the sight of a whole fish doesn't freak me out. The drumfish was sprinkled with sumac for a lemony taste and served with an additional wedge of lemon.
The waitstaff consisted of young people who were sweet and helpful with reasonably-good-to very-good command of English. On the other hand, you need a bit of tolerance for somewhat unprofessional behavior. If there was anyone over 30 associated with running the restaurant, we never saw him/her. At one point, the entire wait staff emptied out of the restaurant to take a cigarette break near the front door. This break included an agitated exchange between two of the female servers with the resolution being that one of the females left the premises with a male server. My husband and I just called this development "the evening's entertainment."
Incidentally, the restaurant has no signage in English. We walked past the restaurant by a considerable distance because no one had warned up about this detail. Ask someone at your hotel to write out the name of the restaurant in Hebrew. Here's a couple of visual clues: The restaurant includes a glassed-in front porch. If you pass a restaurant with this feature, look inside at the tables. If you spot a large assortment of small dishes is on the table, you've certainly arrived at a fixed-price fish restaurant. Head inside and ask if you've arrived at Jocko's.
Future installments as time permits.
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