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Highly personal, idiosyncratic restaurant reviews from our recent Israel trip

Just got back from 2 weeks in Israel with my husband, 3 daughters (ages 7, 5 and 3), and Israeli nanny. This is a brief re-cap of some of our meals, in chronological order:

Orca – Tel Aviv. The finest dining experience we had. Hip, understated decor. Great wine list, smooth service, remarkable food. Surprised by the veritable treyf fest on the menu, though Israeli friends said this was a trend in Tel Aviv over the past 15 years. Had to try the fire-roasted tomato soup, garnished with “squid stuffed with pork.” In the states we would at least call it pancetta or chorizo, anything but “pork”.

Meanwhile, the soup was divine, the squid small and tender, and whatever minced meat inside spicy and tantalizing. Main dish was a tender whole locally caught mediterranean fish served smoked in a hot stone pot over diced roasted root vegetables in a glazed reduction. Prices were high for Israel. A nearby table of smokers made me long for smoking restrictions. Kids were mercifully with their nanny – this is no restaurant for young children.

Manta Ray – Tel Aviv. Waterfront restaurant, walking distance from our tiny hotel in Nevve Tzedek. The kids ran around outside collecting sea glass from the beach between courses. Good fresh fish, incredible tray of mezze selections. Again surprised by glaring treyf options, such as salad of beets on goat cheese and crab. Superb calamari. Service more typical, but still fine.

Samir’s – Ramle. Never had felafel like this. Crisp, peppery outside, soft dark green inside, oval shaped, exploding with flavor, so soft. Pita also a novelty. Fuller, softer, tan-colored. Incredible number of kebab options. Hoummos and salads truly echt. Tried the chicken hearts on a skewer, found out later I could have had beef testicles. An opportunity missed. Chicken hearts sublime. Samir, the proprietor a caricature: deep gravelly smoker’s voice, huge belly, huge hands, coronary arteries probably occluding as I write. Everything fresh, home-made including labne. Unbelievable local experience. Would never had found it alone.

The Spa at Carmel – Carmel. This is not typical spa cuisine. Massive buffets made losing weight or even just maintaining body weight a challenge. The breakfast buffet had everything imaginable. Lunch and dinner were sit-down with multiple courses. Parve desserts disappointing as usual. Wonderful make-your-own tea with strainers and large choice of loose teas. Loved the cultural mix of good-looking young Israelis, portly Eastern European retirees, and seriously observant modern orthodox. A unique spa experience, heavily weighted towards hedonistic spa treatments, much less towards standard American pastimes of working out and improving cardiovascular tone.

1868 – Jerusalem. We were a bedraggled group that stumbled into this restaurant one evening, desperate for food after a long day of travel. Should have guessed something was up when the maitre’d asked 3 times if we wanted to see a menu before sitting down. Luckily our 2-year-old fell asleep in the stroller. This was fine dairy kosher cuisine, the finest I have ever experienced. Waiter disappointed we couldn’t try the 8-course tasting menu. Hyper-attentive service. Started out with wonderful soups, beautifully presented roasted vegetables. Kids had two different home-made pastas, marred only by too much cream on the pumpkin ravioli. Grouper was outstanding. A lot of food, large portions. Great bread, great wine. Nearby smoking disturbing. Quiet dining area, formal decor. Next time would try the 8-course tasting menu, without children, with a big appetite and lots of time to spare.

Ein Kamonim – on the road between Karmiel and Tiberias. Tiny rustic restaurant nestled in a hillside, same owners for 30 years. All dairy, all cheese made by owners from locally raised goats. Kids ran around outside, petting friendly dogs and the long-haired alpacan ram eating vegetable scraps. We ordered the full tasting menu – 84 sheckels I believe per person, half for kids and they didn’t charge the 2-year-old. Then sat back and feasted. Fresh squash soup, multiple salads, home-made locally grown olives, labne, sweet potato quiche, and a totally show-stopping board of goat cheeses. Only the bread rolls were a little stale and slightly disappointing. Wine was a good vin de table, unlimited refills by the carafe. Superb coffee and hot chocolate for the kids. Sat by an open hearth of crackling logs. Personal service. Great art on the walls. Unbeatable local experience. Nextdoor shop full of great food that didn’t transport home except the vacuum-packed olives, and couldn’t resist bringing home two 2-liter cans of their locally made olive oil. Those were inspected at the airport.

Har Chalutz – tiny mountaintop village north of Karmiel founded by society for progressive judaism, or something like that. Man named Avner currently running a B&B there with his mother in log cabins imported from Finland. Breakfasts of incredible hot bread baked right there (I insisted on knowing how they did it — started dough night before in 4 bread machines, formed loaves early next morning, 2nd rise and baking finished by 9 am), home-made jams (kiwi was our favorite), super fresh salads, great olives, labne, beautifully presented omelets. Also home-made granola. Wonderful staff, very personal. Rooms now fully booked more than 2 months in advance.

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3 Responses to “Highly personal, idiosyncratic restaurant reviews from our recent Israel trip”

  1. Another Boy Says:

    Orca: That’s what’s known as “Glatt Treif” :-)

    The Spa At Carmel: that’s what’s known as a This-Could-Only-Be-An-Israeli-Spa – a few years ago I was there for four days… one of my friends was a friend of the General Manager’s… an hour after we got there, a waiter arrived at our room bearing a basket of warm chocolate cookies; I went for four days to get in shape, and ultimately put on five pounds…

    :-) )

    Another Boy

  2. Phyllis Bieri Says:

    Did you notice how small the workout room was at the Carmel Spa? Another clue that I wasn’t in the States….

  3. DriveIsrael.com Says:

    The really big deal in Israel these days are the day spas which can be found in cities and in rural areas. They offer body treatments both for couples and alone. An excellent work-out center, as opposed to a spa treament center, is the Holmes Place chain. You can get a visitor entry by buying a spa treatment and then you have entry to the work out area as well – lots of top of the line equipment in a large airy space, with no waiting lines for equipment.

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