A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread

A few years ago if I had reported about excellent culinary experiences in Israel, eyebrows would have raised and there’d be some uncontrollable laughter. But Israel is putting on a push for this new millennium. All services have been improved to reach top standards especially in cuisine.

Restaurateurs are aware that millions of tourists visit each year and food is now verging on excellent.

I start my eating extravaganza with a visit to Amirim. This totally vegetarian village, which three families established in 1958 with the financial help of Knesset members, now boasts of a population of 700. Located in the center of the Galilee Mountains, Amirim now features seven vegetarian restaurants.

I begin with lunch at Hamiel’s hosted by Sara Peleg, manager of Amirim’s more than guesthouses. The meal is extraordinary inasmuch as it is so creative and original. Several small dishes including tahini, sweet radish, lentils, eggplant and almond salad follow an extremely good leek soup. Then there are blintzes filled with carrots and sprouts covered with a light sage cream sauce, along with sunflower patties, a vegetarian moussaka and rice with spices.

It’s a moveable feat and dessert is at Dahlia’s Restaurant, the first eatery established in Amirim. On the balcony overlooking the valley, as we sip herbal tea and munch on several delicious desserts, it’s hard to imagine a more peaceful place on earth….such irony! If you’re looking for a tranquil atmosphere, a magnificent view in a nature reserve and the occasional outdoor concert, then book in advance. Tel 972 6 698957. Fax 972 6 6987824. Over a decade ago I ate at Vered Hagalil. I never forgot the memorable apple pie and ice cream. These days there is much more to recommend. It’s now enlarged with other eating areas and the restaurant, I’m told, is always filled. Since it is also a guest farm – actually an Israel dude ranch – the obvious smell of horses adds to the colorful, lush environment. Opened in 1960 and overlooking the Sea of Galilee and the hills of the Golan, this stone and wood diner still rates on Israel’s 100 top restaurants list. The guest farm has 17 cozy rooms for rent. The menu has a wide choice from beef to fish and features the ever-popular chicken in the basket and wings. But you must end with apple pie although there are several other choices. Vered Hagalil is located at Korazim Junction. Tel 06 6935785; fax 06 6934964

Sitting under an arbor of willow trees with colorful roosters (“Israeli peacocks”) flitting about my table, is beside the sparkling Dan River where it meets the Hatzbani Creek. At this moment, I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be. Opened since 1986, Dag Al Hadan Fish Restaurant, is no longer just a single-table eatery and now has seating for about 50. Since they have an on-site trout farm that’s what I choose to eat. The decision is whether it should be baked, fried, grilled or smoked. Small dishes of delicious salads and starters begin arriving accompanied by wonderful breads, all typically Middle East and Israeli. It’s hard to resist and difficult not to get filled up before the main course arrives. Tel. 800 223909

Decks, on the Sea of Galilee, is the newest addition to the Gross family’s always expanding eating empire. It has a unique menu. Even from the large car park I smell the grilled meat. An outdoor spit with ribs emits an aroma that sets the stage. They use two methods new to Israel – an Asado bonfire inspired by the famous South American grills and hickory wood grill with wood imported from Atlanta, Georgia – giving goose, chicken, fish and veal an interesting flavor. Decks is on the same property as the other family eateries – Pagoda featuring kosher Chinese and Thai cuisine and Lido, a large fish restaurant that was the original food emporium opened by Eitan Gross. Lido Beach. Tel. 06 6792564 or 6721538; fax 066 6790470.

Perhaps one of the really interesting meals is at Ein Kamonim near Karmiel, where Amiram Aovrutsky has 800 goats and makes 15 varieties of goat cheeses. We choose to sit inside because of the unusual spring heat; the picnic style tables fit the casual ambience. Baskets of whole vegetables arrive with paring knives along with bottles of wine and still-hot bread. A young waitress brings a large tray of the specialty – goat cheeses. Some are coated with pepper, others have caraway seeds, there’s Balkan and feta-style cheeses, to name just a few. For dessert, I opt to sit under the outdoor pergola where I nosh on the great homemade ice cream. Phone for directions and reservations. Tel. 06 6989894.

In the Sataf nature Reserve in the Judean Hills, Shai Zeltzer, a cheesemaker with a herd of 87 goats, is often asked by the Vatican to make a special cheese as a Christmas gift for the Pope. I sample several wondrous cheeses in the 1,000 year-old cave before Shai takes me into the cold room (another cave) to show the shelves of products. His cell phone seems incongruously out of place in these isolated hills. The premises are 7 km from Ein Kerem and the road signs feature a goat. Shai is happy not to have too many visitors. However, if the opportunity does arise, go for it. Meeting Shai and sampling the cheeses are truly an adventure you’ll remember.

“Food that King David might have eaten,” says Moshe Basson, owner of Jerusalem’s Eucalyptus Restaurant. “It’s the food of the land of Israel, the Druze and the Bedouin.” Ingredients and spices are as close to Biblical times as possible. Basson seems to be on a mission as he shows a large plate of herbs, explaining each one and allowing me to touch and smell. Suddenly, there’’ a procession of food. One of my favorites is stuffed figs in tamarind sauce. The ma’luba, a casserole with chicken, vegetables and rice is also worthy of the calories as is sabanach – Arab spinach. There are vegetarian and fish courses like saiadeia, a fish casserole, plus grilled chicken and beef, all kosher. The baluza (orchid bulbs ice) and dibs (halva cream) leaves me wanting even more. Eucalyptus is now located on 4 Safra Square (City Hall), Jerusalem. Tel. 02 6244331; fax 02 6222922.

Perhaps the biggest surprise on my agenda are the superb wines of the Golan Heights Winery. Founded in 1983, they produce three wine labels –Yarden being the best, followed by Gamla and Golan. The wines have come a long way since the sweet kosher-style which oenophiles think of when they hear the words Israeli wine. State-of-the-art technology combined with traditional vinification techniques produce award-winning wines. I particularly like the Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon and the Chardonnay. The Sparkling wine wasn’t a crowd pleaser but the dessert wine, Yarden Muscat, was. Located in Katzrin in the Golan Heights. Tel 972 6 6968420; fax 972 6 696 2220