On Wednesday and Thursday (23 and 24 February 2011), I spent two days in the Galilee, there visiting and doing extensive tastings at various wineries. As man cannot live on bread alone, nor can he live on wine alone, so several meals were in order, in each case accompanied by the winemakers and others from the wineries that I had visited. Anyone expecting to hear about the great wines consumed with our meals is going to be disappointed for as often I have said, after an intense day of wine tasting just about the very last thing one wants to see in front of him is a bottle of wine.
Wednesday Lunch: Baladna – In The Village of Jish
My first meal was taken in the Arab village of Jish (the Hebrew name of the village is Gush Chalav) at the recently opened Baladna where chef Tony Elazar serves up the most traditional country-style fare of the Galilee. Elazar takes pride in serving up the dishes of his village, those made from the freshest possible ingredients and with no tricks and not a single false note.
On entering the restaurant via an stone-arched passageway we found ourselves in an open courtyard, that covered by straw mats, in which are set four or five near-antique wood tables, none matching the other. We specified that we wanted to dine primarily on mezze, that is to say the opening courses for most Arab meals. Dishes appeared in groups of three or four and, as we indicated that we had finished one or more those were quickly replaced by new offerings. If we erred at all it was only in convincing the chef that we were four mortals, for the food that made its appearance was quite enough to feed a battalion of hungry soldiers.
Among the first dishes to appear were a manakeesh, a bread something akin to a thin crusted pizza in this case topped with ackawi, a semi-hard country-style cheese, olive oil, oregano, sesame seeds and onions. That got polished off rather quickly and we went on to sample the musakhan, a dish usually made with roasted chicken over a taboon baked bread, in this case however a vegetarian version, the bread topped with fried sweet onions, allspice, sumac and pine nuts. From here it was on to several versions of mahashi, stuffed vegetables, in this case baby eggplants, zucchini squash and Swiss chard, each filled with a differently spiced rice mixture, some with raisins, some with pine nuts others with freshly made tomato sauce.
Nor was this anywhere near the end of our feast, the next things to appear being sumaghiyyeh, ground sumac blended with tchina on a bed of garbanzo beans, garlic and hot peppers. Next was a plate of jibneh baida, a soft goat's milk cheese that could be eaten plain or spread on one of the breads. Nothing would have been complete without the fine fattoush (tasted bread croutons on a salad of chopped cucumbers, tomatoes, radishes and spring onions, all seasoned with sumac) and, of course a tabbouleh of finely chopped parsley and other green herbs and garlic, those seasoned with olive oil and lemon juice. We closed out with piping hot tea flavored with na'ana (mint).
Simply stated, every dish was a mini-masterpiece from the traditional Arab cuisine of the Galilee. Jish is a remarkably friendly town, nearly everyone you pass on the street nodding and saying a good word as you stroll by. One good bet would be to visit in the afternoon when, in addition to dining you can stroll around exploring the narrow local streets, the churches and the mosques. Another equally good bet would be to visit in the later hours of the evening when this charming restaurant serves as a meeting point for villagers and visitors alike.
Oh yes – would you believe that with all of the food we ate our bill for four came to an extraordinarily reasonable NIS 270 (about US$75 or if you prefer, well under $20 per diner).
Baladna, in the village of Jish. There are no street numbers here so just ask any passerby where the restaurant is. If that doesn't help phone 054 6991151 and the chef will give you good instructions. The restaurant is open daily from 10:30 – 03:00.
Wednesday Dinner – Muscat in the Mitzpe Hayamim Spa Hotel – Rosh Pina
Because I had dedicated two full days to visiting wineries it seemed wise to spend the night in the Galilee and my choice for overnight was the Mitzpe Hayamim Spa Hotel in Rosh Pina. Okay – I'm not into the notion of having my body pounded, massaged and otherwise manipulated in the way of the spa treatments for which this hotel is famed, but that is no problem because this is one of the most exquisite hotels in the country. With panoramic views that extend from the Galilee to the Golan Heights (yes, on a clear day even including Mt. Hermon) and plantings on the extensive grounds this is a place in which serenity is a given. In addition to dozens of kinds of trees and literally hundreds of shrubs and plants wherever one turns the eye there are also the organic herb and vegetable gardens and the ducks, geese and chickens that wander about free-range wherever one looks.
In addition to the hotel's own dining room (which is kosher), the grounds also serves as home to Chef Chaim Tibi's Muscat, the restaurant at which Tibi converts many of these free range and organic products into dishes that have given the restaurant its fine name since it first opened more than a decade ago. The physical setting of the restaurant is no less pleasing than that of the natural setting in which it finds itself. Spacious, with large wrought-iron framed windows offering up their magnificent view, and with pressed white tablecloths, fresh flowers, with a large central candelabra and smeller candles on every table, this is a restaurant whose decor proudly announces its sophisticated country-style cuisine with a distinctly French- Mediterranean touch. Certainly no less important, the service is efficient and genuinely warm.
Because I had dined earlier on a generous lunch, here too my companions and I decided to restrict ourselves to opening and first courses. This too is country-style cuisine, but it is highly sophisticated country-style with a distinct nod to the classic French.
Among the first dishes to reach the table were beet raviolis, those made by laying a mixture of goat's cheese and a tartar of beet on a thin round of sliced beet, the cheese seasoned with crushed butternuts and then placing another beet slice to cover, and crimping the beet slices together to form raviolis. With flavors that burst forth in the mouth, this is a Tibi standard and one that I sincerely hope he never drops from his repertoire. This was followed by a crab polenta, the richness of the polenta and crab meat complemented nicely by a green salad that had been treated to aragon oil. From here it was on to a dish in which slices of lightly pickled red tuna, the fish topped with salmon eggs and served with an enchanting mustard enriched vinaigrette.
Now it was on to the "serious stuff", the first of those being of veal sweetbreads, those lightly grilled and served on a salad that contained among other things humous beans, the crisp beans an ideal foil for the just soft enough and sinfully rich sweetbreads. Nor would Tibi ignore the role of eggplant in his offerings and one offering included grilled baladi eggplants, those split open and spread with raw tchina before being sprinkled over with sesame oil. Up to now all was excellent but the last dish we tried was out-and-out superb – tortollinis with duck liver, those set on a bed of leeks and all sprinkled over with an artichoke cream.
What can one say except that Tibi continues to demonstrate his talents handily and that Muscat remains the very best restaurant in the entire Galilee. Based on the dishes we ordered the bill for three will come to just about NIS 300 (about $83 or, if one chooses $27 per person).
Muscat: At the Mitzpe Hayamim Spa-Hotel, Rosh Pina. Daily 13:30-24:00. Telephone 04 6999555.
Thursday Lunch – Amburger – Rosh Pina
Located in the somewhat provincial and not especially eye-appealing shopping center on the fringes of Rosh Pina, there is no question but that Amburger is a mass market restaurant. The good news is that as much as this may be mass-market, they offer darned good food in a thoroughly friendly setting. In fact, this is the place that quite a few Galilee and Golan winemakers call their home away from home.
I suppose I've lunched here on a dozen or more occasions and if the truth be told, have always walked away with a clear smile on my face. On this visit, largely because I had been eating rather heavily during the preceding twenty-four hours I decided that the most appropriate meal would be of a hamburger.
My choice was for the 330 gram burger, that of high quality beef with nothing added other than a bit of salt and pepper. Cooked medium-rare, precisely as ordered, and served on soft buns with lettuce, tomato and sliced onion these demonstrated nicely that there are truly excellent burgers even in the provinces. Topped with a slice of Emmenthal cheese, the burger was a treat with a bit of both mayonnaise and chili sauce sprinkled over. My companion opted for two first courses, one of baby calamaris that had been dipped first into beaten eggs and then coated with breadcrumbs before being deep fried and another of shrimps coated generously with panko before being fried. As with the burger, simplicity personified but crisp, full of flavor and great fun to eat. Nor should I forget the crisp and full of flavor French fries that I received, those as is my sometimes want dipped into a bit of mustard before making their way to my mouth.
Including two draft beers, Tuborg red in my case, Pauliner for my companion, our bill came to NIS 180. Not a complaint in sight.
Am-Burger Bar: In the new shopping center, Tsomet Rosh Pina. Open daily 12:00 – 02:00. Tel 057-9440831