Benny the Fisherman

Walking to Jaffa

To Israel to hear a concert by our Toronto friends, the Artists of the Royal Conservatory. For days, a bizarre storm has been circling clockwise over Anatolia, bringing snow to Beirut (which doesn’t often happen) and driving mighty waves crashing onto the beach that links modern Tel Aviv to ancient Jaffa. This is the abrupt eastern end of the Mediterranean, that complicated sea that comes to a sudden stop at the Levant. The wind gusts straight from the west today and the grey breakers catch up with themselves as they hit the stone breakwaters, plunging and rearing like rodeo broncos while rain pours intermittently from pewter-coloured clouds.

Last night we had dinner in the old port of Tel Aviv, restored as a sort of marina with a number of restaurants, including the excellent, very expensive and fully booked Mul Yam. We went to another place called Benny Hadayag (Benny the Fisherman) and had a grand time. It’s delightfully unpretentious, half built out onto the dock with a glass façade (against which last night’s rain beat a violent tattoo) with an old wooden floor, black tables and comfortable black chairs and a merry posse of servers with a friendly take-charge attitude. They quickly explained that despite a menu laden with frozen seafood and even a few meat dishes, the best thing to order was the whole, fresh sea bar (without my Alan Davidson, I’m not sure of the bar’s more familiar identity – it looked like a cross between a sea bass, a grey mullet and a saddled bream), caught nearby and cooked in salt.

But first, and almost instantly, appeared a meze of fresh bread rolls and 14 or 15 separate dishes designed to break one’s appetite. It was a dazzling selection that included local versions of tzatziki; hummus (another triumph, the super smooth, super-rich, not garlicky hummus dressed with a different, unmashed chickpea compote for a brilliant textural contrast; a big salad of julienned tomato, cucumber and lettuce with a lemony dressing; tangy red cabbage shredded and dressed with yoghurt; a very runny tomato concassé like the topping for bruschetta; awesome fried green chilies and zucchini strips; a mild-mannered, perfectly balanced tabbouleh; a cabbage salad that occupied the broad middle ground somewhere between kimchee and coleslaw; a warm dish of “tinned fish” which was clearly just that – some kind of bone-in slice of white fish in a tasty but commercial tomato sauce; and on and on… Best of all was an awesome roast aubergine, nine-tenths of which had been peeled and squashed with a fork into a bowl of tahini which was then sprinkled with sage and drizzled with olive oil. The stalk and first purple inch of the eggplant was left like a marker buoy in the middle of the dish. The flavour was amazing – smoky and sweet, rich with sesame, creamily textured with that golden oil lubricating everything… We drank Israel’s own Gamla Chardonnay which was dry and good and we were full and happy by the time the baked fish dish arrived.

I had expected it to be encased in a salt sarcophagus, the way it would be in Italy. Instead the whole fish had merely been sprinkled in salt which crusted in the oven – but the final effect was the same. Once the inedible skin had been broken away, the plump white flesh beneath was fabulously moist and delectable. There were grilled lemon halves to squeeze while all the preliminary dishes that hadn’t been finished now did double duty as condiments – in particular a hank of fresh dill chopped up and seasoned with chili, salt and vinegar and a lively red pepper and tomato salsa with its own fiery heat.

Tel Aviv is a city of restaurants these days – many of them offering the imaginative, avant-garde cooking of the next generation of Israeli chefs. We didn’t really want to work that hard last night so Benny the Fisherman was just what the doctor ordered (03-5440518).

Napoleon Patisserie in old Jaffa - much more charming than its namesake

This morning, the wind had dropped a little though the rain was still torrential. Guys in wet suits were out surfing and we walked south down the empty beach for half an hour towards Jaffa. The hotels come almost to the sand in Tel Aviv – it reminded me of the deepest level of fantasy in Inception, especially since some of the buildings seem to be crumbling away.

Jaffa sticks out on a low promontory, the city where Jonah set sail prior to his encounter with the whale and where Napoleon, trying to walk home to France from Egypt with his army, massacred the Turkish prisoners he had captured – an ugly moment, even for Bonaparte. These days, the old stone lanes, alleys and gardens of Jaffa have been restored as an artists’ colony and in their midst is a super little bakery called, with who knows what irony, Napoleon. There we made a tasty breakfast of mushroom and onion quiche with a mixed salad, cappuccino coffee and the best freshly squeezed orange juice I have ever had. Stands to reason, I suppose, in Jaffa. I asked the young man who owned the business if he made jaffa cakes – or if he had ever met the Mad Jaffa-cake Eater. He didn’t seem to know what I was talking about. But you know, dear reader, don’t you? Meanwhile, onwards to Jerusalem.

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