Before we left for Israel, I asked a few friends where we should eat. Bonnie Stern very sweetly emailed me back a bunch of excellent recommendations. Passionate about Israel’s amazing produce and fascinating new gastronomic scene, Bonnie just got back from co-leading her fourth culinary trip to the country, sharing the captaincy with rabbi Elyse Goldstein who covers all aspects cultural and spiritual. It sounds like a great way to see – and taste – the country, for there is much to be said for having a guide in these parts, especially in the old walled city of Jerusalem where so many cultures, faiths and philosophies are superimposed. Bonnie’s advice has also been invaluable when we made a rendezvous with our friends and needed somewhere to eat where we could be sure the food was excellent and the prices reasonable. Left to our own devices, Wendy and I have encountered a mixed bag in terms of quality, though one or two places have been exceptional.
Last night we followed Bonnie’s guidance and ate at La Rôtisserie. This is part of the Notre Dame de France Roman Catholic complex built by the Assumptionist Fathers in 1887 and restored to pristine splendour in the 1970s. No one would guess there was a restaurant in there (our friends’ taxi drivers were totally foxed) or that it would be so elegant, a modern space of white stone walls and vaulted ceilings with a very chic bar. Tables are dressed in snowy linen and embroidered grey cloths: it looks like a million dollars so we were all pleasantly surprised that the bill came to only about $40 per person, before wine (all right it was quite a lot more than that, cum vinis).
La Rôtisserie is the domain of Spanish chef Rodrigo Gonzalez-Elias who brings some pretty sophisticated and contemporary notions into play while not forgetting such classics as pata negra ham, foie gras or steak tartare. I started with three soft, superbly tender baked red onions stuffed with soft apricots and crushed pistachios set in a shallow pool of chive-scented cream. It was one of those dishes where you have to be careful loading the fork to achieve the ideal effect, a correct balance not overburdened with fruit or onion. My main course, paupiettes of sole wrapped in bacon, were expertly done, crusted in breadcrumbs then fried and served over a lemon and saffron sauce. Sole has the ideal texture for the dish but there’s always the danger that the bacon will take over in the flavour department.
Chef really lets rip with his desserts, borowing some techniques from the molecular gastronomes and showing a flair for whimsy. Witness “Moon over the Red Sea,” a food-painting on a black plate with tahina sorbet, honey sorbet and date ice cream as the principal mediums and a beach of granola. I ordered “fried eggs,” the lacy-edged whites made of creamed lebanese cheese thickened with xantian, the yolks two runny-centred, wobbly balls of peach purée that burst at the touch of the fork – very egg-like and clever and yummy over sliced butter cake “toasts.”
(La Rôtisserie restaurant & bar is inside the Pontifical Institute Notre Dame of Jerusalem Centre, 3 Paratrooper’s Road (just outside the New Gate of the Old City), 02 627 9111.)
The night before, we had a very different but equally memorable experience. We’re staying at the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem, a gorgeous hotel that was once an Ottaman pasha’s palace before being taken over by a family of American philanthropists, the Spaffords, in the 1880s. They turned part of it into a hotel circa 1902 and it was a particular favourite of Lawrence of Arabia. These days, it is one of a couple of places that are seen as “neutral territory” by both Arabs and Jews and the charming Cellar Bar with its discreetly dim lighting and low, vaulted ceilings is often full of murmurous diplomats and journalists.
In this neighbourhood, restaurants outside the hotel are Palestinian and we found a fine spot a ten-minute walk away. From the outside, Pasha’s looks like any number of places in Greece or Turkey – a bungalow with a private garden where fans of the hubbly-bubbly hookah can hang out unmolested. We left it up to the owner to feed us as he thought fit which turned out to be a preliminary spread of 15 different salads. You can see from the picture how lovely they looked to our hungry eyes. Aside from one dish of insipid canned mushrooms, everything had a personality of its own, the commonality being a lightness of touch in terms of spicing and also, more importantly, texture. I’ve never had kubbeh or falafel so light, the shells crisp, the insides fluffy and moist and gone in a trice. Experience has taught us discretion where these meze are concerned so we found room for the main course of grilled lamb chops, cut thin, and kebabs of impeccably moist chicken, lamb and oniony minced lamb. We drank Taybeh, a local beer like a honey lager, and a pretty decent arak. It was only later we found out that there is another more adventurous menu of domestic Arab dishes such as Lamb spleens stuffed with garlic and parsley, or mansaf of seasoned lamb cooked with pine nuts and served with rice and Bedouin yogurt. Next time… (Pasha’s is at 13 Shimon Hazadik Street, East Jerusalem. 02 582 5162.)
What next? Tonight we attend the concert given by the Artists of the Royal Conservatory. Watch this space.