I wasn’t sure how to approach this. Before I left for Israel, I made notes of restaurants I wanted to visit and that I would want to write about for you, here. On so many levels, my trip didn’t turn out as planned; I thrive on lists and schedules, and this trip was a lot blurrier and faster, less defined, yet in many ways almost heady and magical.
Time felt so limited, so precious, that the distraction of taking pictures of food, and writing things down, and remembering them in a way that I would be able to fully write about them felt out of place with how I was feeling on this trip, and my desire to just be in the moment with the person sitting opposite me.
And then I had a whole string of very bad restaurant experiences that left me thinking I wouldn’t want to write about them- it’s not what I want people to have in mind when they think about restaurants in Israel. So here I am, back in Brooklyn, and I don’t have pictures to properly accompany the various meals I have had, and I don’t have notes regarding décor and ambiance. But I still feel like sharing this with you, as stories more than reviews, and maybe some of the places will inspire you to go yourself, and come away with your own stories, and, if you wish, your own photos.
Let’s start with where you should go for breakfast, although this time around I had dinner there, which was a mistake, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. A few years ago, Yaki and I had a gourmet gift basket business, and we scoured the country for the best pastries to include in our baskets. With it’s all-butter doughs, and flaky, luxurious pastries, Ben-Ami Bakery won us over. Ben-Ami’s son was diagnosed with Celiac Disease, prompting him to create a wide selection of delicious gluten-free pastries and cakes. The cafe’s menu also boasts various gluten-free options, making it an attractive option for gluten-free diners.
The location on Jerusalem’s Emek Refaim street is reminiscent of a Parisian café, particularly if you’re sitting in the little passageway on the restaurant’s side, under a thick canopy of leaves. One morning, I met Y. for breakfast, and we shared the Breakfast for Two, which came with eggs prepared in the manner of our choice, salads, spreads, shot glasses of yogurt topped with muesli, and a small basket of warm mini croissants and pastries. Next to our table sat two elderly women sipping coffee and reading the morning’s newspaper. And as we talked about schedules, and todo lists, and kept track of time, we envied their calm, beginning the day with the newspapers spread out between them, in an intimate silence.
Should I tell you about my experience there for dinner? Because if that breakfast was calm, and luxurious and nostalgic, then this was quite the opposite. I met T. there for dinner after a rather harried day, and sitting down opposite her, I was in clear view of the bar. I ordered a glass of whiskey. I also ordered the antipasti platter, but when I was told that was unavailable, I settled on the Green Salad, which the waitress warmly recommended. T. ordered tea. A half hour later, our drinks had not appeared, and I mentioned this to the waitress. Another half hour and this time, we signaled to the manager, who told us that our waitress had not ordered the salad, and asks if we would prefer to just have a dessert, on the house. At this point, I’m even hungrier than when we started, so I say that I would still like that salad.
The manager brings us a complimentary dessert, which we requested gluten-free for T. Although I find it rather disturbing that she offered us cake before dinner (as opposed to say, offering us something savory now, and the complimentary dessert after), it really is so delicious, with it’s layers of coconut meringue, milk chocolate mousse, tiramisu and caramel mousse, englobed in chocolate ganache, that it merits a trip, if only to pay at the cashier and enjoy it in the comfort of your own home. They bring T.’s tea, and bring me a shot of whiskey. I had specified a glass at least three times. They exchange it. An hour and a half after I ordered it, my salad arrives. We are in the midst of conversation, and I start with the goat cheese toasts circling my plate. The bread, which is stale and unevenly cut, is topped goat cheese rounds each one sloppier than the next. The salad, which would have had to be phenomenal to make it worth the wait, was rather uninteresting: overly dressed greens, topped with halved cherry tomatoes, a few cucumber slices and a pile of granola. When I realize I don’t have cutlery, I almost want to scream.
So, dinner? To be avoided. The nostalgia and charm of the morning, with the delicious pastries and the Jerusalem sunlight playing off the glass walls, dissipate into a sense of frustration on the staff’s part that the café does double duty as a restaurant come evening.
Since we’re on a roll with the bad experiences, let’s talk about Adom, or the place where I spent the last twenty minutes of our meal scribbling down notes on the little postcard they included with our check, under the header “Comments?” At least they asked. During the years that Yaki and I lived in Jerusalem, we enjoyed ricotta gnocchi that were so mindblowing as to be in their own category; there was gnocchi, and then there was ricotta gnocchi at Adom. So when Debbie drove up to Jerusalem to meet me for dinner, I knew right away where I wanted to go. The stale, dry bread should have been ample warning, but we powered away anyway, blinded by the romantic décor, the dim lighting, the tables studded with candles. Adom is located on a little alley that cuts its way through two bustling, noisy streets in Jerusalem’s city center, and the first time I tried to find it, I spent a good fifteen minutes walking in circles. When you do make it into the alley, it feels as if you’ve walked straight into a cobblestoned road in a little European town. The alley is lined with restaurants with outdoor seating and white table cloths, and people are laughing and drinking, and you feel as if you’ve stepped into a little parallel universe. Adom is tucked away there, and with its terrace wall of empty bottles, and it’s gorgeous tourists, you just want to love it.
We started with the Iceberg Salad, a mix of lettuce, sweet potato cubes, feta and cashews, drizzled with a honey mustard vinaigrette- which was interesting without being exciting. At the first bite of the ricotta gnocchi though, I knew there was no way this could be the same chef. The waitress confirmed that the chef had moved on, leaving his place to the sous-chef. The gnocchi which was once dreamy and transcendent, was now bland and pedestrian. We had seen the table opposite us receive a gorgeous looking dessert, which, from afar, looked like a towering cloud. The waitress told us it was a strawberry pavlova, and we ordered it. When it arrived, I couldn’t bring myself to take a picture of it, and not because it was so pretty that it stopped me in my tracks.
Biting into it revealed a mixed berry icecream, sweet and artificial. The plate was flooded with a thin berry cream sauce, studded with dollops of heavier whipped cream, and jarred berries. The meringue was hard and dry, like that package that has spent too long gathering dust on the shelf of your neighborhood corner store; the same store where you could pick up a big, family-sized box of similar quality ice-cream for a quarter of the price of this dessert (although this analogy works for Israel only; here in New York, my corner store carries Haagen Dazs). In the height of summer, with fruits so plentiful and at their peak of flavor, I found the use of sub-par jarred berries rather inexcusable. With our meal coming to a close, I wondered whether this could have just been an “off” night (albeit one gone pretty awry), but when the waitress didn’t even inquire why we pushed away our dessert after taking two bites, I decided I wouldn’t be returning to find out.*
Shall we now move on to the most gorgeous sushi platter I have ever set my eyes upon? Because I feel like I could use some relief. I met my angel of a brother for lunch at his apartment in Tel Aviv, and since I was running late, he ordered sushi prior to my arrival. When I went downstairs to pick it up, I was expecting a regular take out bag, and was greeted with this huge, sumptuous platter. Not that I should have expected less from this brother of mine; the man knows how to make each meal a festive occasion. When I told him about my horrid eating experiences (it took an hour and a half to get my salad! they didn’t even pour my drink and I was sitting right opposite the bar! The gnocchi I dreamt about all year was beyond disappointing!), he said: “Well, you should just eat with me”. And it’s so true. The best meals of my trip (outside my mother’s home, which deserves a post of it’s own) were with Bruno. Back to the sushi platter. The Goma Sushi Mori, sushi balls wrapped with the thinnest layer of fish on a bed of creamy tehina, were possibly one of the best bites of this trip. My eyes popped as the tastes of the fresh, perfect, sea-flavored balls and the earthy, creamy, ultra-local tehina melded into each other in my mouth. And as I reached for another bite, the daring and creativity behind this unlikely combination made me smile. The prices are rather extravagant,** but then again, so is the presentation and the meticulous attention to detail.
*Don’t feel too bad for me. Before the trip’s end I was to have my mind blown with the most exquisite gnocchi. Coming soon.
**I’ll be telling you all about a sushi chain that has fresh, decent sushi for fair prices, too.
38 Emek Refaim St.
Ambiance: Casual Cafe
Price Range: Moderate
Recommended: Breakfast/ Pastries and Cakes/ Gluten-free Options
31 Yaffo Street
Price Range: Moderate to Expensive
Locations in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Eilat.
Price Range: Expensive
***The locations (other than one in Tel Aviv which I haven’t personally been to) are all in hotels. And while the dining experience admittedly lacks a certain ambiance, the refinement of the space is in a way a perfect backdrop for the refinement of this sushi. And while it isn’t exactly romantic, or family-friendly, it does make an ideal place for a business meeting.