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Food + Cooking

24 Hours in Jerusalem: A Culinary Tour

Published in Gourmet Live 12.21.11
It takes a miracle to fit all the modern deliciousness of this ancient city into one day

Jerusalem is a falafel-fabulous, hummus heaven, but this melting-pot city offers so much more. Esoteric ethnic cafés thrive (Kurdish or Georgian cuisine, anyone?), as do market-driven restaurants run by impassioned chefs, starring local artisan foodstuffs. Pious Jerusalem, catching up to trendsetting Tel Aviv, now has a full-fledged culinary scene.

Start your day with a lavish buffet breakfast at Inbal Hotel Jerusalem’s Carmel Restaurant near the Old City. Every item—even cream cheese—is made in-house. American palates will find comfort in familiar waffles, omelets, and—odd for Israelis—bagels with cream cheese and smoked salmon. (This combo is an American Jewish tradition: Bagels were brought to the United States by Eastern European Jews and the now-famous lox and a schmear was born in New York’s Lower East Side in the early 20th century. Jerusalem bagels are much larger, oblong, and soft.) Inbal’s chewy bagels rival Manhattan’s best, as does the silken salmon.

But step outside the American breakfast box to explore the local flavors—try Safed cheese, a white, semisoft, slightly salty cheese (named after the northern Israeli town where it’s produced), ripe olives, crusty whole-grain breads, thick yogurts, bright-hued salads. Don’t miss fruit-forward preserves such as apricot and orange, hummus, halvah (sesame seed–sweet), dried apricots, and fresh figs. Shakshuka, a dish of eggs poached in spicy tomato sauce, is wildly popular throughout Israel.

Walk it off with Old City sightseeing and when you’re ready for more noshing, follow your nose (the baking-bread aroma is that intense) down Jewish Quarter Road to a dingy industrial storefront marked Kosher Fresh Bakery. Here work the Rembrandts of flatbread, bakers shoving pale dough into weary ovens and pulling out masterpieces of olive oil–glistening disks, thickly topped with za’atar (a blend that contains sumac, sesame seeds, and thyme) or caramelized onions. Grab one straight from the oven—hot, puffed, and chewy—to eat on the street.

Or meander to the Christian Quarter, where Lina Restaurant (Shchunat Harotzrim St.; 02-627-7230) prepares hummus—their one dish, with variations—perfectly. Pots of freshly cooked garbanzos sit on the stove by a mortar and pestle. Softly swirled hummus, its edges high like snowdrifts, comes crowned with olive oil, tahini, and pine nuts. Pita, pickles, and house-made pomegranate-orange juice are splendid accompaniments.

Next, make your way to Mahane Yehuda Market (between Agrippas Street and Jaffa Road), about a 10-minute taxi ride from the Old City. Colorful, noisy, and crowded, this marketplace is packed with vendors hawking everything from dates, pistachios, and olive oil to Mediterranean fish and poppy seed pastries. Mounds of freshly ground spices are everywhere.

New-school foodie meccas flourish at this market, too. Basher Fromagerie is crammed with 1,000 varieties of cheese (try the Israeli Feta) and Israel’s own boutique beer and wine. Nearby Russell’s Bakery (Hadekel 2; 02-624-9175) sells divine handcrafted bread. Everyone loves Mousseline (17 Ha’egoz St.; 02-500-3601), the market go-to for ice cream in house-made flavors such as pistachio-pomegranate and saffron-strawberry.

Who’s got room for a late lunch?

Machneyuda (10 Beit Ya’akov St.; 02-533-3442), its name a quirky take on the spelling of the nearby market, is a hipster hangout. The restaurant has concrete floors, wooden tables, pulsating music, and funky decor (vegetable crates, old teapots, and vintage typewriters). A trio of chefs constantly shake up the menu to reflect Mahane Yehuda Market’s daily best. Polenta comes in a Mason jar; release the lid and tantalizing aromas swirl around the table in a puff of steam that looks like smoke from dry ice. Inside, grassy asparagus, creamy cornmeal, and fat juicy mushrooms cuddle up to shards of intensely flavorful Parmesan.

“Butcher’s cut” (hanger steak, filet mignon, and rib eye trio), presented on a tree trunk platter, gives new meaning to the word whopper. And when that plate’s two honking-big bones spill their marrow into rich beef jus, which mingles with bursting-with-butter mashed spuds, well, you’ll believe Jerusalem is a sacred city for more reasons than religious ones. Semolina cake with tahini ice cream and “Jew-York” (yup, real name) cheesecake deliver the last exclamation points to an exhilarating meal.

Too much for lunch? Make Machneyuda a dinner destination instead, and grab a counter seat at downtown’s excellent P2 Pizza (36 Keren Hayesod St.; 02-563-5555) for your midday meal. The thin crisp pie is made with Italian flour and tomatoes, but Israeli whole-milk mozzarella seals the deal. Smoked-goose pizza is a hot seller, as is any pizza with basil, which perfumes the room.

Time to caffeine-it-up at one of the Aroma espresso bars located throughout the city. This premium chain delivers a mean cappuccino, foamy to the last sip with bracing coffee notes that never quit.

Eucalyptus, another excellent dinner option, enthralls with biblical-inspired cuisine. Its celebrated chef, Moshe Basson, resembles Willie Nelson, with a long gray braid and soulful eyes. Basson’s knowledge of ancient Israeli food is as bountiful as his gardens; he grows herbs and vegetables (like sage and grapes) in the mountains and on the restaurant’s rooftop. Ask to peek at the roof garden; smell the Yemeni basil, see the vine that sacrificed a squash for your dinner.

Basson is no one-trick-pony. His chef know-how transforms his Iraqi mom’s homey recipes (like a dish of chicken legs, eggplant, and rice, simmered and served in the pot) into scrape-your-plate feasts. Then he does a 180, creating dainty Michelin-star-worthy dazzlers, such as smoked eggplant with tahini and pomegranate sauce, Jerusalem artichoke soup with almond milk, or chicken-stuffed roasted figs in tamarind sauce. Count Israel’s president Shimon Peres as one of Basson’s many VIP fans.

Or, find romance and ravishing food at Arcadia (10 Agrippas St.; 02-624-9138), a beautiful Mediterranean restaurant of brick, stone, and candlelight down a narrow alleyway. I don’t have to sell the stunning flavors of chef Ezra Kedem: Let the perfect pairings of ultra-fresh ingredients, like skinny focaccia from the olive and citrus wood-burning oven, with house-made turmeric oil-scented yogurt dip; velvety gnocchi with seafood and bottarga; and gray grouper with hyssop butter and cured lemons do the work. (Tip: Start with the Israeli farm-raised osetra caviar.)

You could just get your buzz on at Chakra. If Mick Jagger were a chef he’d be Ilan Garousi, a wiry, intense, high-energy guy who plays loud music late at night and gets his kicks from buying the freshest produce and seafood, inspiring a dozen or more nightly specials.

Sometimes Garousi prepares small-plate tasting menus, presented in waves. They could be Italian, Greek, Spanish—whatever sparks Garousi’s Med-inclined fancy. His secrets sound small but are transformative: hand-squeezing juice from the ripest tomato over fire-grilled eggplant just before serving; blending fig or chestnut confiture into his voluptuous chicken liver pâté.

Some Israeli wineries (like Flam, SeaHorse, and Bazelet ha Golan, all of which demand their own article) have made giant leaps in quality, and their bottles are special enough for Chakra’s and other top restaurants’ menus. So lift a glass this holiday season, and know that whether you worship (or not) in a mosque, church, or synagogue, the one place in Jerusalem always deserving of reverence is the table.

Janice Wald Henderson first traveled to Jerusalem decades ago, when fancy French and hole-in-the wall ethnic dives were the only food scene. This regular contributor to Epicurious, among many other publications, can’t wait to revisit Jerusalem and dreams daily of za’atar flatbread. To learn more about Henderson, go to JaniceWaldHenderson.com.