Israel invents itself— from a deeply religious tradition and history to its modern-day culture of contemporary art galleries, stylish cafes, exciting restaurants, boutique hotels and avant-garde design. Writer and die-hard foodie Katherine Kims discovers the true meaning of “made in Israel”. Read the article here and in our current issue of QUEST magazine.
It’s 10 p.m. on a Wednesday and dinner service was just getting into full swing at Machneyuda in Jerusalem. Loud hip-hop and Israeli pop is blaring from the speakers, the kitchen is firing with the occasional outburst of drumming from a line cook and bartenders are taking shots and dancing in between mixing cocktails. It was hard to think that I was in Jerusalem.
Israel’s capital has long been known as the holiest city in the world. The mecca for the trinity of the world’s greatest religions—Judaism, Islam and Christianity—bring roughly four million people every year to visit its sites: The Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and Temple Mount. Inside the tight quarters of Jerusalem’s Old City, these sacred buildings stand side by side in a hot spot of religious relics and, inevitably, political tension. But while Israel’s inner turmoil may be played out in the headlines across the world, its creative culture and vibrant youth culture are just as dynamic. If the pluralistic today of young and old, Palestinians and nationalists, Orthodox Jews and Muslims, Eastern Europeans and Africans co-habitate to become a melting pot, then what they are cooking up is innovation.
This is the new Israel where tradition and history mix with the modern, played out in the country’s vibrant food, art, music, design and architecture. “You have tourists, Palestinians, Orthodox Jews and non-Orthodox,” says Uri Navon, the chef and owner of Machneyuda. “Because Israel is a nuclear fusion of people from all over the world with different customs and traditions, ethnic food is very big. From European, Persian, Moroccan, Polish, everyone brings their own cuisine. My mom is Spanish and my father is Northern Iraqi—so you can imagine what I grew up eating—while next door, our neighbors were Moroccan and, two apartments down, Russian. We tasted everything.”
You can find Jerusalem’s new culinary stars at Machneyuda, where on any given night, the restaurant is buzzing—tables are packed with hip, sophisticated diners; chefs cook up inventive food; bartenders mix up seasonal cocktails; and speakers blare with Israeli pop. Opened in 2009, owners and chefs Uri Navon, Assaf Granit and Yossi Elad collectively grew up and worked in the kitchens of Jerusalem before cooking abroad and returning back home to open the bi-level restaurant. The restaurant pays homage to the adjacent Mahane Yehuda market, the largest shuk, or open-air market in Israel, drawing inspiration in both its name and local ingredients. It’s here among the stalls of spices, smoked fish, tahini, fresh and pickled vegetables, and dried fruit of the 126-yearold market where Navon shops for the day’s ingredients to put on his menu. This melting pot of foods, flavors and scents of the market are plated in dishes such as Persian-style stew, “Shikshukit” of ground beef and lamb kebab with tahini and yogurt, filet mignon with cabbage and fried sweetbreads, and Uri’s Mom’s Famous Semolina Cake with tahini ice cream. It can only be described as modern Israeli cuisine.
“I didn’t invent the wheel but I made it my own. My cooking is influenced by my mom’s and my home. Israel is a young country and all of us have to rely on something. Cooking is very emotional and connects to memories the minute you put it in your mouth. I have customers say to me, ‘You brought back memories of my grandmother.’ This is why I come to the market every morning,” says Navon.
Chakra restaurant is another shining star in Israel’s dining scene. Chef Ilan Garusi’s family-style restaurant offers a modern, farm-to-table take on traditional Mediterranean dishes, from sardine pasta and goat cheese capelletti to a delightful sides of charred eggplant, zucchini tzatziki and tomato salad with black cumin. Today’s young chefs are calling upon their roots and past culinary traditions. This is especially hard to miss at Jerusalem’s First Station. After years of abandonment, the city’s original train station was recently renovated and reopened in May as a marketplace and community space. Browse traditional foods—artisan halva and bread to craft beer and wine from over a dozen local producers at The Culinary Bazaar—and organic produce at the Wednesday farmer’s market. Restaurants and cafes offer alfresco dining such as Adom, a dining institution in the city that relocated to this new complex. The menu of Israeli-inflected European dishes focuses on Israeli wine and offal, from braised veal cheek to sautéed sweet bread.
But it was the station’s temporary photography exhibit entitled “Seventy Faces” that showcased the obvious signs of multi-faceted Israel today, literally capturing the dynamic intersection of old and new, tradition and modernity, religious and secular, and civilian and municipal. The solo exhibition of Israeli photojournalist, Ziv Koren, was part of the city’s inaugural Jerusalem Biennale for Contemporary Jewish Art.
A stone’s throw from the station, the Mamilla Hotel is an architectural beauty. Built with the city’s original sandstone blocks, history is literally laid into the walls of this luxury hotel. Take in a 360-degree sunset from the rooftop restaurant or a nightcap at the hotel’s wine bar, Mirror Bar, which features live DJs and a cigar room. The Akasha Spa combines East and West with hammam and watsu services in a minimalist, sleek setting.
The undeniable energy is replicated in Tel Aviv. You could feel the singular buzz of the city walking along Rothschild Boulevard, any time of day filled with people sitting at open-air cafes and bars; the gleaming national pride of the White City, a UNESCO heritage site of some 4,000 Bauhaus buildings; the bohemian kinship of Jaffa, the ancient Arab port of Tel Aviv, with its lively mix of colors; the preserved charm of the nearby port city of Akko where time stands still; the domesticity of empty streets and closed shops on Friday night Sabbath; and the sense of familiarity in a sea of friendly smiles and sincere conversations of “How are you?” and “What do you think?” Such questions demand exploration.
The culmination of Israeli art can be seen at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. The evolution of the nation’s sculptures and paintings (a fairly short anthology considering the state’s creation merely 65 years ago) is presented in a three-part retrospective of Joint Identities, Private Identities and Glocalism. Works from the museum’s collection of Israeli artists were unveiled in November 2011 in a brand new space of the museum’s latest wing including: Romanian-Israeli Reuven Rubin’s self portrait of his family, Ze’ev Raban’s plastered bust of a Yemenite boy, Raffi Lavie’s abstract graffiti and Moshe Gershuni’s propaganda art “Rise! Awaken!”
The stunning Herta and Paul Amir building is the country’s gleaming feat of beauty. Designed by Harvard’s architecture department chairman, Preston Scott Cohen, the five-level, 195,000-square foot building draws inspiration from original Brutalist architecture and geometric shapes. The triangular, concrete and glass structure centers around the sunlit “Lightfall” atrium; and, within the walls, a proud history of Israeli art is showcased beside the works of Warhol, Rothko, van Gogh and Picasso. With all eyes on Tel Aviv as a destination for art and design, plenty of diversions unfold block after block in the city’s booming contemporary art scene. Break for lunch at the museum’s newly opened restaurant Pastel. The lovely patio and the airy dining room make a perfect setting to contemplate art. The nearby Toto offers some of city’s tastiest Italian food—the truffle gnocchi is an obligatory order among the smart set—from chef Yaron Shalev.
Galleries scattered on and off Rothschild Boulevard, the city’s heart, and recently further south in the outskirts of gentrified neighborhoods like Noga, where warehouses and historically Arab settlements meet artist studios and workshops. Noga Contemporary Gallery is a veteran on the scene—established artists like photographer Ori Gersht have made a platform for their work here—and a new generation is following suit. Tempo Rubato gallery, opened last year on Sgla street, is a tiny space showcasing contemporary art of Israeli and international talent. One of Tel Aviv’s oldest contemporary art galleries, Dvir Gallery, has exhibited Israeli contemporary artists in the country and abroad since opening in 1982. Next month, its second location will open its doors, showcasing dual exhibitions—including works by Lawrence Weiner and video artist Omer Fast—in a tri-level exhibit space. Nearby, nestled among the designer boutiques along Heh B’Iyar is Zemack Contemporary Art gallery, a bilevel space that opened in 2011 featuring the work of established contemporary artists.
And even further south, in the suburban development of Holon, modern high rises and palm trees are erected around the showpiece of the area, the Design Museum Holon. As the country’s first design museum (2010), the $18-million project from Israel’s design darling Ron Arad, is itself an architectural feat. Inside, designers like Yohji Yamamoto and others from the digital and furniture design worlds are bringing attention to contemporary artists and to Tel Aviv’s design scape.
Continuing towards the beach, the port of Tel Aviv offers an idyllic stroll along the water and dining options such as Market Table, a second-floor restaurant within the covered market of newly opened craft beer bars and artisan bakeries. Seaside views are paired with the Mediterranean menu of seafood and handmade pasta. You’ll soon learn that waterfront dining and sunset cocktails are part of every day life (and much sought after) in Tel Aviv. Do as the locals do at Raphael where the food is as much a draw as the view. Celebrity chef Raphael Cohen offers surf and turf using seasonal and handmade ingredients to guide the first-rate menu. And from another well-known culinary figure, Jonathan Roshfeld’s Herbert Samuel is a pioneer in Tel Aviv’s gourmet dining scene. His Mediterranean cooking is as elegant and elevated as the dining room and its smartly dressed diners.
Whereas Jerusalem is subtle and serious, rooted in history, Tel Aviv is loud and carefree, untouched by politics, religion and extremism. Nicknamed Ha-Buah or “the bubble,” Israel’s capital of culture is where the party never ends with 24-hour nightlife and a vibrant gay and lesbian scene. The Middle East’s largest gay pride parade convenes in the streets with an all-day celebration.
Start with a stroll along Rothschild Boulevard, the artery of the city, turn onto Dizengoff in the White City, deemed a UNESCO heritage site in 1994, where around 4,000 Bauhaus buildings stand, and head towards the beaches and ports of Tel Aviv in the north of Jaffa to the south.
Built as a suburb of Jaffa seaport, Tel Aviv—literally translated as “hill (tel) of spring (aviv)”—is a city of renewal, settled in 1909 by 66 Zionist families who were looking to create a utopian Hebrew state. The name seems appropriate for a country with centuries of cultures—Jews, Arabs and Crusaders that have conquered and re-conquered throughout history. This pioneering spirit lives on in Israeli culture, from its booming high-tech industry to its collective of young creatives.
With artists drawing inspiration from tradition and collective history, perhaps the biggest influence is the collective culture and idea of the “kibbutz.” The first kibbutz started in 1909 at the same time as the birth of Tel Aviv, when the spread of Zionism created Jewish communities, including agricultural cooperatives. In kibbutzim, everything is shared—from land and chores to meals and income. However, this system (similar to Socialism) hasn’t survived the most recent decades, losing about 50,000 members from 1984 to 2004. Literally meaning “group,” kibbutzism failed and most of them no longer exist, but the ethos, spirit and culture still prevail.
“Because this is such a small country, it feels sometime like all the designers know each other. It ’s a very cozy community that [is] constantly growing and developing,” says Stav Mandelbaum, a recent fashion graduate of Shenkar who opened, Ratzif, a design store last August. Tucked inside a high-rise office building in the northern high-tech neighborhood of Ramat Hachayal, Ratzif carries all Israeli designs. Men’s and women’s fashion, handbags, jewelry, ceramics, furniture and prints—customers can discover designers that they’re never heard of before and designs that are truly Israeli.
In keeping with the local experience, Tel Aviv has mastered the boutique hotel. Montefiore, the hotel that started it all, is still the city’s top destination with locals and the international crowd. The hotel is as homey as it is stylish with Italian-European flair throughout the dozen rooms and restaurant, a popular destination for breakfast and afternoon cocktails. Another fixture of the city’s boutique options is the Rothschild 71. The Rothschild suite is a sprawling, bi-level room complete with wraparound deck and kitchenette. Two new properties to open this year, the Brown and the Shenkin, have seen a younger crowd of creatives who lounge on the rooftop decks and unwind at the on-site spa. For those looking for more glamorous, design-forward lodging, the Alma Hotel is a former apartment outfitted in bohemian-chic opulence. Chef Jonathan Roshfeld (of Hebert Samuel) brings haute finesse to his newest fine dining restaurant.
You can taste Israel’s history and future at Mizlala. Opened in 2011, chef Meir Adoni’s restaurant sits in the same Bauhaus building as his flagship restaurant, the fine-dining Catit. Whereas Catit is small and formal with a seasonal, three-to five-course tasting menu, Mizlala is big, loud and casual. Chicken shawarma with garlic and honey aioli, roasted peppers, onions and coriander; charcoal-grilled lamb souvlaki with tomatoes, grilled vegetables, mujaddara, eggplant and tahini; Indian-spiced panna cotta with fig, pistachio, halva, chai ice cream and a date cookie—street food combines with haute cuisine, tradition with modernity, and lively with subdued. This is Tel Aviv. This is Israel. Its character is discernible and infectious.
Haifa & Akko
Israel’s third largest city, Haifa, sits on a northern port filled with industry and universities. The thoroughly modern seaport’s biggest attraction is the Bahá’í World Centre and its stunning shrine. The palatial gardens slope down in Versailles-like magnificence to a mosaic dome.
Half an hour away, Akko (or Acre) is a port city that was conquered and re-conquered by the Greeks, Romans, Ottomans and Crusaders. The result is a city that is literally rebuilt on top of each other decade after decade; today, UNESCO is still discovering history and artifacts underground. Corridors and tunnels such as the Templar Tunnel and Knight’s Hall were only discovered a decade ago, revealing the doomed arches and French-influenced, Gothic architecture of the Crusaders. And the city’s posh hotel, the Efendi, has also discovered ancient remains, unearthing a wine room and artifacts such as glazed plates. The building itself was a labor of love, preserving the original Turkish architecture (and hammam) and fresco paintings, hand painted in each of the dozen rooms. The hotel’s owner, Uri Jeramias, is adamant about preserving Akko’s past and its historical beauty.“Akko is one of the very few, if not the only, old city in this standard of glory. We still have a genuine city, which maintains the dignity and spirit of old times,” says Jeremias who also runs the Uri Buri, a seafood restaurant offering a tasting menu of local catch in an old-world setting. The wines are all Israeli, whereas some of flavors of crudo, grilled fillet and baked crustacean. The spirit is timeworn, but the tastes are novel.
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