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Posts Tagged ‘Restaurants’

Goodness gracious is it difficult to find a decent greasy breakfast in Israel.  As delicious and healthy as the standard Israeli breakfast fare is (eggs cooked any way, but usually as omelet or scrambled – accompanied by a large fresh salad, dips/sides – tahini, feta, cream cheese, tuna, fish roe in cream sauce, homemade jams – and fresh bread), I have been craving something more typically American or even British.  Something with animal fat, a mixture of creamy yolk, bloody juice, and spicy carbohydrates.  Oh, the agony!  My kingdom for a proper fry up!  And I’ve been coming up empty.

Not that Israelis don’t try.  But the couple times I have ordered the “Steak & Eggs,” slowly cropping up on trendier menus, I have been so sorely disappointed to the point where these eating establishments should be ashamed of themselves.   I won’t name names.  Just be wary.  I’m going to keep ordering it until I can create a more comprehensive picture.  Honestly, last week I was presented with three pitiful strips of “steak” that was as thin, tough, and stringy as boot leather (I refer to the classic Charlie Chaplin sketch below), topped with 2 overcooked “sunny side up” eggs (the yolks were almost solid), all over “hash browns” that embarrassingly consisted of what I can only describe as a giant lukewarm mound of ordinary fries cut up into smaller segments before being fried – with absolutely no seasoning.  Sadly, the best part of this dish was its name – “The Texas Hold’em.”  As you might imagine, I politely complained, and still insisted I pay for the entire meal.  I don’t believe in something for nothing.  It wasn’t the delightful waiter’s fault, after all.

Send me your recommendations for restaurants to try!

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Eating in America – Casual Budget Vegetarian Dining

It has never been this difficult to be a vegetarian in the United States.  Perhaps I take it for granted, living in Israel – everything is so salad-based, so kosher-themed (if not kosher itself) with meat and milk being eaten separately, that more than half the choices at any given time seem to be vegetarian.  Not so in the US.  Have times changed since I was last a vegetarian (1992-2000)?  Granted, I was a child (13-21) when I last abstained from eating animals and was less aware and ate out less as a rule.

For my own sake I decided to document where I ate over the course of my trip.  Usually I made choices according to budget, convenience, and menu, in that order, unfortunately or fortunately.  I think I gained a kilo or two while away.  Oh well.

I’ll go city by city, as there’s a lot of text.  Chicago is the least interesting because I got to eat and cook at home, which is far cheaper and far far more interesting fare than at most eateries I can think of.

Chicago

  • Panera Bread – Walking into an establishment that appears so healthy, fresh, and modern like Panera Bread – and be presented with only 1 meat-free sandwich – is quite frankly appalling.  Two vegetarian soups and three simple (dull – green, Greek, etc) vegetarian salads (out of 8) were also on the menu.  I ended up taking half a Mediterranean sandwich (very dry and exceptionally uninteresting, seeing as I live on the Mediterranean coast myself) and a tomato-based vegetable soup.  First time I saw that American eateries are wild about chicken.  Ugh.
  • IHOP – The comfort factor is quite high at a place like this.  In Israel we (I) miss the fast polite service, familiar (butter soaked) foods, and endless cups of crap coffee and half & half.  There is nothing even remotely similar.  IHOP is breakfast, slightly upscale fast food (you get to sit in comfy booths and get served), cheap, and oh so traditional.  Yes, it’s crap.  But it’s good crap.  Crap you miss.  Instead of a stack of chocolate packed pancakes, my parents and I all inadvertently ordered from the “healthy choices” menu, where we could see how many calories we were actually consuming, and this with the egg-substitute, grease-free, veggie-ful type omelets.  So much for overlapping crispy meat byproduct mingling with eggs and sausage swimming in pools of maple syrup.  At least the coffee is still…coffee.  And endlessly we drank.
  • Eduardo’s – Chicago is known worldwide for its unique deep dish pizzas.  They are oh so good, lovely rustic shells of crusts, bursting with thick layers of cheese and rich tomato sauce, one slice being more than a meal in and of itself.  Anywhere but at Eduardo’s so it seems.  The service was so bad, it’s simply not worth mentioning our level of suffering.  And the pizza was crap.  I was embarrassed to be eating it with out of towners.  Enough said.  Go to Pizzeria Uno or Due or Lou Malnatti’s or Giordano’s or whatever.  Eduardo’s was never my favorite.  And I will never be going back after this.
  • The Corner Bakery – this “Lettuce Entertain You” restaurant sure has changed.  It’s fast, slightly interesting Italian, order at the counter style.  But there used to be more choices.  They used to cook most everything in front of you while you waited anxiously.  There were rosemary encrusted loaves and pine nut spinach tarts and the best ceasar salads you can imagine.  Now, eh.  You order everything, and you don’t get to see it.  It does come to your table, though. But the assembly line has taken over.  I had a three-salad combo.  Not much to choose from, I got macaroni caprese, a bean salad, and a Greek salad (I think).  They were pretty unremarkable.  Healthy-ish, though.  Filling.  Decent portion for “fast food.”  A good choice at the mall, I guess.
  • The Celtic Knot – Evanston – Awesome. Irish pub, Irish-British cuisine. Comfort food with an upscale twist. 90% meat menu, but the veg options were brilliant.  My mother had a portabella sandwich with freshly fried potato chips (not fries, for those non-American readers).  I got a warm spinach salad with goat cheese, cranberries, and candied walnuts.  That was heaven.  Best meal in Chicago, by far, and on my last night in town.  We ate the meal accompanied by Cider (mother) and a Snake Eyes for me (half cider, half lager – a drink that’s illegal in many parts of the British Isles because it’s said to raise a person’s temper and make them mean and prone to fighting.  Don’t ask me why.  Someone once ordered one when I was bartending in London, and not knowing what it was, went to the asst. manager.  He told me what it was, said I was never to make one, and then he proceeded to pour one for the gentleman because “he knew him.”)

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Morrocan chicken stew

My Morrocan chicken stew - so tender - served over couscous

Cumin, chick peas, chicken & lamb. Eggplant, coriander, courgettes & couscous.

"Casserole" in HebrewThe second of the Anglo Food Blogger’s dinner I’ve attended was held last night at Casserole (3 Lillenblum, Neve Tsedek), a trendy yet down-to-earth kosher restaurant specializing in real Middle Eastern cuisine, specifically stews and kubbehs (meat-filled semolina dumplings either boiled or fried) from Iraq, Tunisia, and Morocco. The restaurant also seems quite proud of its Arak collection.  An alcoholic anise beverage (similar to Ouzo and Pernod) served on ice, often with sprigs of mint,  it is a regional specialty and favorite.  It’s an acquired taste, and many Westerners (like us) don’t take too kindly too it.  Besides a selection of some 12 different kinds, the restaurant sports a wide variety of homemade flavored Arak.  Rare, indeed.

Dinner was organized by Miriam and Michelle, and we were joined by Sarah, Liz, and Yael, all wonderful, knowledgeable cooks and food bloggers.  I encourage you to visit their blogs – altogether they’re great way to get a real taste of Israel.

Iraqi beef stew

Iraqi beef stew

Our dinner was lovely. Rather home-cooked, yes, but very satisfying, and very very affordable.  The chicken in my Moroccan stew was as tender as you could possibly want, falling off the bone at the mere suggestion of cutlery.  I tasted the others’ kubbeh and various other stews, each as delicious as the next.  I was particularly taken by a couple of the mezes – a stewed zucchini with a generous amount of garlic cooked in it and a spicy cold eggplant dish I ate until I wiped up the bottom of the dish. Half loaves of thick white bread were served with a small bowl of pickled cabbage and carrots, as well as a small bowl of savory curried pumpkin.

Curried pumpkin spread, (juice of) beet salad, spicy eggplant & pickled veg

The conversation’s wide range spanned from translation of the names of the unique ingredients in some of the lesser-known dishes we were eating, to the particularly embarrassing state of Israeli politics and international relations at the moment, to Studio 54 (one of us had been!), Andy Warhol’s diaries, and back to Israeli wineries and the tour we’ll potentially be taking together to one when the Passover season is over. And of course, much more.

Huge kubbeh! - stuffed with lamb & cooked in broth

With only three (or four – I almost never look at salads) categories, all mains are 30 shekels, all first courses around and mezes (smaller “tastes”) between 10-20 shekels or so.  With the six of us sharing a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc for 90, we each paid 50 shekels apiece.  I’m saying wow. A real deal for dinner or any meal. Especially for Neve Tsedek – yuppie-ville if ever there was one.  I’m going to have to come to Casserole again.

A super-fun evening.  I really enjoy the company of this diverse, smart group of ladies.  Seriously, folks, check out their beautiful blogs.

Casserole's interior, image from their website

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Sauerkraut with loads of sausage and pork at Gilad & Daniel. A rare, rare find in Tel Aviv. Reminded me and my sister (ever so slightly pictured here) of the sauerkraut our dad used to buy us in the weekly market near our home in Paris. Hot, spiced, right out of a barrel and dished into a bag to take home. I don't think it ever lasted long.

Crepe Breakfast

Crepe Breakfast at Gilad & Daniel. Perfect crepe. Almost as good as their Croque Madame. Did I mention that I'll be dining here frequently?

Hot Apple Cider with Rum, a Cinnamon Stick, and Fresh Apples, reading Three Men in a Boat. I often wonder if people think me insane because I laugh out loud and not infrequently while reading at cafes. Good thing that I don't care because laughing out loud while reading is one of the best sensations I know.

Guacamole

5-minute Guacamole with Sesame Cracker (eaten watching China Beach last night). Another attempt at finishing off the weekly organic veg box. Another box just arrived an hour ago. Egad!

Chicken Udon & Caprese Salad at a trendy Ben Yehuda bistro - name alludes me

Breakfast today - melon eaten with spoon looking at the view on my balcony/work space on the dining room table

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The best croque monsieur on this side of the Mediterranean. Best croque madame, if we’re being technical.

I discovered a bistro less than a ten minute walk from my house.  It’s a tragedy it’s taken me this long to find it.  Gilad and Daniel located at 300 Dizengoff (corner of Yehezkiel just north of Nordau) is the closest thing to a real French brasserie I have ever seen in Israel.

Here’s the story of my first meal.

I decided on a long walk this Friday morning.  Tough week.  Sunshiny day.  Why not? I packed 3 books (you always need a selection) and headed north on Dizengoff (I usually head south).  Desperately in need of some breakfast, I knew there were some trendy places north of Nordau.  I didn’t expect what I found.  Jeremiah is a cafe that everyone knows.  It’s always full of hip people.  A place to be seen.  Not a place I’m comfortable with, but as I’d never been, I thought I might try it.  Before I got there, I passed Gilad and Daniel.  It wasn’t as crowded, and the people seated seemed a little more on the interesting side.  A waitress smiled at me as I walked by.  Then, out of the corner of my eye I saw that the far end of the exterior wall was covered in a Renoir print —  famous colorful cafe scene.  Immediate u-turn.

The menu features a breakfast crepe and the croque, of course, with main dishes including an incredible saur kraut and mixed meat dish, coq au vin, boeuf bourgignon, and an incredible looking couscous tagine.  Many “Israeli” dishes on the menu, as well (heck, it is Israel, after all), but these French dishes are perfect.  Down to earth, simple, well done.  No fancy dry brioche (a la Benedicts).

I had such a lovely time eating this croque madame, I cannot emphasize this more.  The cheese was perfectly melted and creamy and rich.  Mingling with the ham and the runny yolk I adore so much, I dreaded the end of the simple sandwich.  So much so that I photographed the very last bite.

It was a lovely day, a perfect meal, and I sat for an hour or more with a good cup of coffee and a hilarious book, Three Men in a Boat.  I highly recommend this bistro.  It’s the finest eatery in my neighborhood, and despite the fact that it’s very much a small neighborhoodsy cafe, the meal I ate was more authentic and satisfying than any I have eaten along the fashionable Rothschild Blvd corridor.  Yes, better.  I’d put money on it.

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Mazarine:

  1. Of or pertaining to Cardinal Mazarin, prime minister of France, 1643-1661;
  2. a deep rich blue;
  3. a deep rich blue butterfly;
  4. a silver strainer fitting over a meat dish and used for draining the water from boiled fish;
  5. the first Bible, and perhaps the first complete book, printed with movable metal types; – printed by Gutenberg at Mentz, 1450-55; – so called because a copy was found in the Mazarine Library, at Paris, about 1760.
  6. A forcemeat entrée.

Mazzarine – patisserie & chocolaterie artisanale

Israel’s English-language food bloggers, a cheery private dining room, a couple bottles of fume blanc, good conversation, and Tel Aviv’s finest desserts – last Thursday was a deliciously wonderful evening.  I’ve been overly-exhausted with work, and thus have gotten behind in all the things I want to write about. The other ladies have indeed beat me to the punch, and rightly so.  In any case —

It was delightful to meet Michelle Kemp (Baroness Tapuzina), Miriam Kresh (Israeli Kitchen), Sarah Melamed (Foodbridge), Liz Steinberg (CafeLiz), and Yael (Apples & Honey – an Israeli food blog in Finnish).  We spoke about so many different things, it’s difficult for me to recall them all now.  Arab markets, local ingredients, local winemaking, local dairies and cheeses, blogging, travel, cook books, genealogy, freelance food writing – you name it – just what semi-pro expat foodies in Israel would talk about.

I have long since discovered that food blogging (all blogging really, but here more significant that most) depends upon drop dead gorgeous photography.  My colleagues’ photos are far superior to mine (I encourage you to visit their blogs), as I decided to break in my new uber-bells-and-whistles cell phone.  These are great photos for a cell phone.  But I’ve learned auto-focus is more than somewhat lacking…and these ladies are exceptional with a Nikon, one even coming with a fancy long lens.

Seared tuna, chive pancakes, jasmine rice, soy reduction sauce

The dinner was OK.  Creative options, certainly.  Their pastas superior to the fish special I ordered.  Some homemade gnocchi, one with artichoke, another (a special) filled with plum (prune) in a portabello and shitake sauce.  The soup was a clear veg broth with mushrooms (I believe), salmon pieces, and large homemade pasta squares blanketing the top.  My seared tuna with some sort of chive pancakes and jasmine rice with a reduced soy sauce was a bit of a downer.  Others enjoyed it but found the sauce too salty, something I agree with.  But the fish was cut into strips with the “pancakes” interspersed between each slice.  The pancakes were hard as pita crackers, and the fish was nearly cold when served to me (and was well stone cold long before I got into the middle of it).

By far the best part of the culinary experience of the evening was the dessert. Mazzarine is an incredible patisserie.  I had the above cake, the “Ebony,” a 70% cocoa chocolate covering a dark chocolate mouse with some sort of meringue inside, a truffle on top, and a meringue glued to the side.  The others had similarly decadent chocolaty, layered, glossy, rich concoctions.

To tell you the truth, the best part of the entire evening was communing with some extremely lovely friendly women.  We had common interests, we all had seen each others’ work online, and it was almost therapeutic to meet in person.  In years past before blogging, before the web, meeting in person was commonplace.  Besides talking on the phone or writing a letter on a piece of paper, we met.  Not anymore.  It’s strange to be cooking such interesting foods, drinking such great wine, and feeling as though I don’t have too many people with whom to share it with.  Not that I don’t have friends.  But we don’t pop on by unannounced.  We’re all busy.  And weeks go by sometimes when I don’t have meals sitting down at an actual table sitting in front of a real person instead of my computer.  The meeting was delightful.

A great thanks to Miriam and Michelle who organized it.

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I have never had a dining experience like this — and I’m afraid this quirky gem of a restaurant could become an addiction.

BlackOut in the Jaffa Port of Tel Aviv-Yafo is the ultimate theme restaurant.  Catch is – the gimmick inspires more fun and more meaning than any other eating experience you may ever have.

Why?

You eat in a pitch-black room, you can’t see your food (not to mention your cutlery, glasses, napkin, the water pitcher…), and you’re served by blind waiters and waitresses.

The Na Laga’at Center is the home of Black Out restaurant.  It’s exceptionally unique in that it’s perhaps the only center in the world that caters to the deaf, the blind, and the deaf-blind communities and enables them to give of themselves, be creative, and earn a decent salary while doing it.

Na Laga’at means “please touch,” a welcoming phrase that counters the typical “please don’t touch” signs we encounter all too often.  It’s a not-for-profit organization that opened its doors in 2007 and is comprised the Deaf-blind Acting Ensemble; Café Kapish, with its deaf waiters; and as mentioned, BlackOut, the pitch-black restaurant with its staff of blind waiters.  More than 70 people are employed here, most of whom are blind, deaf, or deaf-blind.

I haven’t yet seen their internationally acclaimed performance (“Not By Bread Alone” – where they bake bread on stage), and I’ve only ever grabbed a quick drink at their cafe during a huge arts fest (I’ve heard the barristas encourage you to order in sign language that they teach you), but this restaurant…this restaurant!  All I have to say is I left the building in total ecstasy.

Here’s the scoop.

You enter the big bright building (used to be an industrial hangar), take a left, and head for the reception area of the restaurant.  It’s crucial to make a reservation in advance because there is very limited seating, and the configuration is such that they need to arrange guests just right on communal tables.  The meal begins precisely at 9 pm (there’s a seating at 6 pm and a seating at 10 pm, but both are for abbreviated versions of the menu).  While you wait for everyone to arrive, a deaf bartender hands you a glass of pink champagne.  Once 9 pm rolls around (or thereabouts…it is Israel, after all), the hostess explains that you are to order in advance (prix fixe – 140 shekels for 3 courses & 90 shekels for 2 – fantastic kosher-dairy dishes…lots of fish, too), place all of your belongings -phones included – in lockers (if you lose anything in the restaurant, it’s near impossible to find), and wait for your table to be called.  All guests are escorted train-style, with hands on the person in front of them, and led to their tables slowly and carefully.

Because it really is pitch-black.  The walls are absorbent velvet.  There are a few buffer rooms that lead out, the final one with black lights…so there is no possibility of seeing a thing.  They warn that some people find it very disconcerting, unpleasant, or claustrophobic for the first few minutes.

I enjoyed it from the first second.  In fact, I left feeling euphoric, and I really did not want to leave. I swear, it was better than Disneyworld.

Highlights included –

  • Ordering the “mystery” for all three courses – the chef puts together something that isn’t on the menu – leaving you to figure it out in the dark. There is a veg or fish option, though.
  • Eating with your hands – So much fun! Try eating quinoa, ceviche, and ratatouille with your fingers! It felt really liberating.  I was so glad I there was a sink with soap upon entering and exiting.  When we left, my dad smugly declared that he had eaten everything with his silverware. Ah well, he missed half the fun!  At least he left with one thing to be proud of – he was the only one of all of us who felt sick and disoriented (and it seemed to us – bordering on a panic attack).
  • Figuring out the mystery food – I am a big foodie (although I hate the word), I am the ultimate kitchen improvisationist, I went to culinary school, and I work in wine.  I took this on as a personal challenge.  Piece of cake, right? For most, no.  But…I came out on top! Not only did I figure every dish out, I identified most if not all the spices and technical nuances of the dishes.  I’m a snooty snob, I know.  Then again, I was the only one adventurous enough to order the mystery dishes.  How many people do you know who’d go to a restaurant and say, give me whatever you got…I don’t want to know what it is…
  • Pouring water! It’s not just the finding and grasping the jug – it’s connecting the top of the jug to the glass, not spilling, knowing when there’s enough – my goodness! I think the best technique is to pour over a finger that is already dipped into the cup.
  • Talking without seeing.  You wouldn’t think this to be all that odd – most likely you’re going out to eat with people you already know.  But there was a freshness and an ease I haven’t felt in years with my family.  We’re a tense bunch.  Nerves.  Easy to rattle.  But at BlackOut, I spoke when I wanted, and said what I wanted.  I didn’t roll my eyes at my mother.  It flowed.  It was the healthiest moment my family has had all week.  I think it has something to do with not seeing facial expressions, not fiddling with clothing, not being to analyze the mood of the people by what you see.
  • Our dear waiter Eliran – your waiter is your ambassador. He leads you in, orients you, jokes with you, brings food, drinks, the works.  And we had conversations! Great conversations! We asked questions about being blind, about the dead waiters at the cafe, no holds barred.  It was so genuinely friendly and interesting. I dare say it even felt intimate. If I had to give an importance weight to the different elements of the restaurant, I would break it down as such: food 20%; darkness 40%; waiter 40%.  You cannot survive there without him.  He makes the darkness quite light, in every sense.
  • Leaving the restaurant filled with a sense of joy, mirth, peace, silliness, and energy.  I haven’t felt this “myself” in a long time.

Inside Na Laga'at - tables at the Capish Cafe circle around the BlackOut restaurant that sits inside that "big ship" looking construction - and the industrial hangar that the space was before

Here is what I remember of the menu.

My mysteries:

starter – smoked salmon topped with asparagus spears;

main – panko-breaded salmon (I know, they really should NOT have served salmon for both courses) on a bed of awesome authentic ratatouille;

dessert – malabi (a middle eastern type of pudding or custard – can be quite gelatinous – this wasn’t – very white – flavored with rosewater, nuts (peanuts in this case, but I prefer pistachio or almond), and shredded coconut, topped with a very sweet syrup).

Other memorable dishes my family had: ceviche of dennis fish on endive; some sort of pistachio gnocchi; seared drum fish with lovely herb infused quinoa salad; a creme anglaise filled pastry with halva (lovely sugared sesame paste); and a homemade chocolate-hazelnut ice cream (think nutella) with caramelized coriander seeds!

In between courses we were offered tiny little drinks – first a very spicy hot cider made with a bit of wine, orange juice, cinnamon, cloves, and rum – and before dessert, a teeny tiny passionfruit margarita.

I should stop writing.  I should’ve a while ago.  But if you’ve read this far, you can see how moved I was at this experience.  I felt I participated in some sort of process.  A performance.  It woke something inside of me.  My senses were heightened.  I felt a lot of love here among these people and this environment.

So, folks…if you live in Israel, you have no excuse not to go! It’s kosher, there’s tons for vegetarians, it’s for a good cause, it’s friendly people, great food, and it may just be the most therapeutic experience you’ll have over a table…or in the dark, for that matter…

I giggled for an hour after after we left.  I couldn’t stop smiling. I’m still smiling at the memory.

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