Sunday, April 11, 2010
Dining in Israel is mistakenly confined to the culinary staples of hummus, shawarma and falafel. Even though great expressions of these foods can be found, solely seeking them is the sure fire way to miss what resident Israeli’s are eating. I spent a recent outing in Tel Aviv with Janna Gur, author of The New Israeli Food and editor Al Hashulchan, the main Israeli food magazine. Finding the best hummus was easy, for I had an expert guide and resident Tel Avivian. However, we spent the day traversing the cities ports, flea markets, slums and chic neighborhoods for various culinary delights.
She says in the beginning of her cookbook, “Nobody comes to Israel for the food.” This is the friction that author Janna Gur presents to her readership as the first line of her cookbook. It undoubtedly makes them realize—“she’s right, but why?” Perhaps the tension in the modern state and relics of the ancient past consume a traveler’s stimulus and make food an afterthought. This sounds convincing enough, but after my many trips to Israel, I leave well fed and inspired by what I ate.
The culinary trinity—hummus, falafel and schwarma—are tasty treats, but act blinders to other local culinary delights. Doner kabobs in Paris and hotdog stands in New York City are cheap eats, but who would give up the affordable quality of steak frits in Parisian bistros or emerging gastro pubs in the Big Apple? Is it really sacrilegious to eat these gastronomic staples in the Holy Land? Of course not, but its diner beware. Solely seeking these treats is a sure fire way to miss out on what resident Tel Avivians are eating and glimpse into the hearts of Israeli foodies.
I met with Janna on a balmy Tel Avivian morning outside of the sporting complex where she practices yoga. With the temperature close 90 degrees Fahrenheit, we were ready to start our gastronomic tour of the White City. “Let’s start at the newly renovated Old Port,” Janna insisted, with a strong yet sincere Israeli manner. Only in Israel are the words old and new used in constant tandem—clarification is constantly necessary. Does old mean ancient? New—relatively speaking? In this case, the port was the first of its kind in the first Hebrew speaking city, Tel Aviv, and was constructed in 1935. Of course, this is before the country of Israel was demarcated in 1948. Today, the port is inactive for boating activities but stays afloat as a meeting place of commerce and culture.
The streets are filled with daring motorcyclists, buses that maneuver like sports cars, and driving is sure to awaken one senses. The conversation inside of cars usually sways towards sensory experiences too, as Israeli’s spare no moment to talk about their country. “You can not appreciate the city if you not seen it 10 or 15 years ago,” remarks Janna, as we weave through the white Bauhaus buildings. Tel Aviv boasts the heaviest concentration of this German style in the world, and their minimalist aesthetic anchors this bustling Middle Eastern Metropolis. Many of the remarkable white buildings are darkened by car emissions and require refurbishing. None-the-less, they are beautiful.
Enthralled with Janna’s monologue, I look-up barely in time to see a car heading directly for our front bumper. Realizing that she chose the wrong direction down a one way street, Janna comments with the care free nature of a young girl by saying, “We are note easily impressed with this stuff (rules), here in Tel Aviv.”
She proceeds to bully the car into letting us pass. Next, we park—illegally—and walk from the dilapidated parking lot to the seaside promenade. Here, a 14,000 square meter deck is filled with restaurants, coffee shops, and swanky night clubs. Its curvy shape was built to resemble the sand dunes that dominated the early landscape of Eretz Israel, and could just as easily mimic the crashing waves of the Mediterranean Sea.
Nearly avoiding a one women information center on a Segway, we arrive to a peaceful enclave under colorfully painted awnings—Tel Aviv’s Farmers Market. I spent the day prior in the chaos of the Carmel Market, and am shocked to witness the democracy of this gathering. The serenity is quickly shattered by an aerial surprise, as a low flying plane passes overhead and slightly startles me. “There is a small airport for military and private planes,” Janna explains.
Regaining composure, I glance at the sunlight bending through the seams of the overhangs, which showcases the fresh fruits and vegetables. Had I been transported to California? More like Slowfood found its way here through the efforts of Shir Halpern and Michal Ansky in May 2008. For over a year, organic produce, artisan cheeses, Dancing Camel microbrewer beer and tahini consume some of the 50 stands as their proud producers look on.
Janna runs into a local photographer who is teaching a class on food photography. The students have some venders arranging produce for the perfect shot, and Janna jokes, “That is rather annoying.” I agree with her stark comment and wander around to sample stranded halvah (sweet and dried sesame paste), and a pieces of juicy yellow watermelon. Shortly thereafter, we make our exit and return to the drag-racing-streets while heading towards the southern town of Jaffa. This port town is largely considered as the oldest in the world, and is not as refined as its northern neighbor.
On Jerusalem Boulevard, we pass through a place that Janna can only describe as a “slum.” However, pealing back the grime reveals a surprisingly rich gastronomic area. “There are many Greek delicatessens here. Jaffa, you know, has lots of Hungarian Jews.” Actually, she just taught me that morsel of culinary knowledge. “Further,” Janna persists, “there is a harmonious cuisine that developed between Arabic people and Hungarian, which are both based off of Turkish foods.”
Like an encyclopedia, Janna marks the passing buildings with little secrets. She temps me by highlighting hand stretched phyllo at Leon Bakery and perfect marzipans sold at a Turkish newspaper stand. I trust our passing of these sweet-shops is in good faith and something delicious is on the horizon.
In this spirit of this neighborhoods culinary anonymity, what could be more idiosyncratic than a stand which bears no name? The malabi stall on Dr. Erlich Street is called by any variety of those names and Janna swears it offers the best product in town. “There are many places to eat malabi,” she says while confidently shaking her head, “but there is something special—unique—about this one.”
Malabi is a simple Turkish custard based on milk with corn starch, and can be topped with thick fruit syrups and various crunchy sweets. Behind the counter is Sholomi, the baby faced vender whose grandfather was the ambassador of this recipe to Israel. He is embarrassed to know that I’ve seen his picture in Janna’s book. “It is always funny, to me, when people have seen my picture,” he says shyly. None-the-less, Sholmi happily obliges to pose next to a portrait of the mastermind himself.
Janna insists that we keep our malabis simple: custard with rosewater-kissed-raspberry-syrup floating on top. The base has a light jelly texture and is unsweetened. Thus, it fully relies on the fruit syrup to offer its flavorful qualities. It is mild, refreshing, and awakens my taste buds like a mild aperitif.
Our next stop at the Jaffa flea market has me thinking that we on course for yet another stop devoid of some serious eats. This market is a combination of street-side venders and permanent stalls where old and new weave the fabric of this gathering. There are beautiful middle eastern rugs, elaborate tea and coffee sets made out of gold plated metal, and ornate chandeliers carved out of black rod iron. The antiques are interspersed with disassembled computers, radios, Krups coffee makers and televisions. Men are dressed in white Arabic robes and smoke the ubiquitous hookah, or sheesha, which keeps the setting largely traditional. However, like most situations in Israel, a radically new setting can appear with a blink.
Janna insists we take a right off the main street to a wider and more serene avenue. Yochanan Street may be for cars but it looks more like a pedestrian walk way—it is wide, airy and offers a radically calmer vibe. First we pass Charcuterie (3 Rabbi Chanina St), a familiar word that sounds unrecognizable when Janna pronounces it. It is a long and narrow place with a sleek bar and a second floor with tables. True to its name, it serves cured meats and other small plates. This is clearly a trendy hang out for young Tel Avivians on dates or for drinks with friends.
Near by is a restaurant that instantly steals my heart—Puah (3 Rabbi Yohanan). It is down another quite boulevard in the flea market and the outside patio is outlined with green astro turf. The restaurant utilizes various odds and ends from the shuk and uses them to create the internal décor. The tables don’t match each other, chairs are never the same, and patrons will never eat off of the same plates—heck cups might not even match saucers. The aspect of the restaurant that speaks to its location is that everything is for sale. If you happen to find something without a price tag, inquire and bargain—this is Israel after all.
I feel this places bohemian vibe matches the pace of our day, and Janna and I choose a seat at the bar towards the back. The barn style doors to the kitchen never stop moving as hipster equivalent and young hippies make up Puah’s service team. Everything is laid back and Puah is an idea brunch spot with plenty of egg dishes, hardy Israeli salads and bourekas with a variety of fillings.
Coffee is our first choice and Janna passes on any food. I see a word that catches my eye, malawach, and decide that will be my culinary indulgence. Every culture has their staple bread, and this Yemenite flat bread is flaky from the folded layers of dough and butter, and then it’s fried.
“This is a typical breakfast for Yemenite Jews,” Janna tells me, which fits into the Israeli culture of hearty meals first thing in the morning. Accompanying the bread is a brown egg, fire-roasted-shredded-tomatoes, and zhug, a spicy condiment of chili peppers and cilantro. Each bite is crafted to my preference of the moment, and I create perfect malawach quarters until the fried disc is no longer. The eclectic nature of Puach paints an accurate picture of the young Israeli Jewish generation.
On our way out, one of the employees from Puah delivers two bags full of recycleable bottles to a beggar on the street. Given their familiar greeting, this seems like a ritual that they perform everyday. This beautiful exchange juxtaposes the stigma of total chaos in Israel and refines a sense of solace under the mid day sun.
Janna insists that we walk back to the car—which is parked in a run down area—through one street that is unmistakably cleaned up. “Here,” she declares, “is the next trendy spot of Tel Aviv.” Janna is certain and who am I to argue with the refurbished Bauhaus buildings flecked with a pinkish hue? She continues to tell me about the rebuilding efforts already taking place in Jaffa, and this tiny slice of the port is a picture of what’s to come.
Making its way over the Mediterranean, the sun reflects onto the city creating an ascending peacefulness. At this hour, Tel Aviv starts a unique transformation. It is Friday after all, and the city is getting ready for the Sabbath. We return to the car and embark on the final leg of our culinary tour.
I know Janna’s feelings about people that come to Israel and want to only eat falafel, schwarma, and humus. As someone who knows the ins and outs of Israel’s culinary scene, she maintains a firm stance on this issue. However, just as a New Yorker should know the best pizza in town, an Israeli better have a noteworthy place for these foods at their disposal.
After a day of peering past the typical culinary fare, it is time to refocus on the chickpea and Janna forges ahead towards the “local myth” of hummus. Abu Hassan is located in Old Jaffa and for the last 30 years, is known as making the best chickpea spreads. Not only do they make flavor hummus plates, but they also make its lesser known cousin, massabaha, which is served warm and is ever bit as flavorful.
The tiny restaurant is full which to Janna, comes as no surprise. Luckily, the line is a stump of what is usually is. “This is short,” Janna announces, “so we are very lucky.” I let my guide order at the street side walk-through-window, and she picks one plate of each dip. Also, Janna suggest we drink Maltstar, a non-alcoholic malted beverage. This, to some Israelis, is the ‘Coke’ drink of their childhood.
The normal protocol at Abu Hassan allows their customers to scour the neighborhood to devour their food—they don’t let the buildings size limit their sales. The agreement—unwritten but devotedly adhered to—is that all plates are to be returned to the restaurant. This is a fare trade to say the least. Thus, the surrounding streets are dotted with families, single diners, and even people in their cars eating Abu Hassan.
Janna and I collect our two plates, a plastic bag of warm pitas, container of spicy pickles and our beverages as we hunt the local area for a spot to dine. We happen upon a shaded staircase which is carved out of stone and cheated towards the glistening water. We quickly set up our urban picnic and without wasting time, take our first bites. I started with the familiar hummus and quickly realized how Abu Hassan rose to fame. The texture is perfect with the chickpea and olive oil’s flavor shining through. The pita is warm and is just as delicious.
Just when I think I have reached a high in dining pleasure, I sample the warm massabaha and realize what I have been missing. The elevated temperature and mash of chickpeas—as opposed to the cold and smooth puree of humus—creates a more robust burst of flavor and brings out the greedy diner in me. I simply want to take the plate, a fork, and eat it as quickly as possible. In between my pita dunks, I wash down the bites with the chilled malted drink. With simple food prepared this well, I am back to pondering the “why not” sentiment of visitors to Israel with regards to the “typical” dishes.
Our final stop is important and could properly be labeled as the cynics end. Here Janna and I are eating, and enjoying, mere pedestrian food to the chagrin of Israeli foodies. These people (Janna included) want to showcase the diverse culinary landscape of their country and break free from certain gastronomic handcuffs. Israel is in a constant state of renaissance as seen in the quantum leaps of technology and culture inn a mere 60 years of existence as a modern state. As a place that Janna properly describes as a “laboratory of freedom,” innovation and patriotic self expression are the way of life in Israel. Some view hummus, falafel, and schwarma as static reminders of the past—out of line with Israel’s progression. Make no mistake, these comestibles are here to stay, but it is important to look at other terrific eats while in Israel.
Saturday, January 2, 2010
Thursday, July 23, 2009
After spending a weekend with dear friends, I ventured to Terroir Natural Wine Merchant in San Francisco. Okay, so it was my second trip to this enclave in five days. The first go around was hectic, as there was a Spanish tasting going on. None-the-less, Degan helped out with selecting the biodynamic estate Huet, Le Mont, Vouvray, Loire Valley, 2006—a refreshingly mineral treat. If only he explained that I could have eaten my skate cheeks from Spencers on the Go while sipping some vino inside. Next time…?
After a few days I made my second go-around which was a relaxing few hours before boarding my flight back to New York. This time I dragged another great friend, Julia, who willingly succumbed to my visit request. There was no Spencers (I really wanted curried frog legs and riesling!), but we opened the door to a private playground. Terroir was empty except for Guillame behind the counter and an unidentified chick typing away on her computer.
The mere mention of a selection from the by-the-glass-chalk-board drew Guillame to grab a new glass and offer a sip. First, and for me most interestingly, was the Monastero Suore Cistercensi Vodemmia, Coenobium, Rusticum, Umbria, Italy, IGT, 2007. This is a blend of four organically grown grapes—verdicchio, trebbiano, malvasia, grechetto—and receives extended maceration and minor oxidation. The result is an orangeish color, Sherry-like perfume but a weightier palate with distinct ruby-red grapefruit. These nuns know how to vinify unique wine.
Next was the Domaine de Montrieux, “Le Verre des Poètes,” Coteaux du Vendômois, vin de table, Loire Valley, France, 2006. This petit appellation on the southern banks of the Loire River gained it’s demarcation in 2001. This ‘glass of the poets’ is made with pineau d’aunis, and is also known as chenin noir. This wine sang pinot noir cherry notes with a heavy dose of steamy green flavors. It was light to medium bodied with lively acidity and was distinct and fun to drink.
I ended up with another Domaine Huet and sat relishing the final moments of a memorable trip to San Francisco.
Saturday, June 13, 2009
For some, the anxiety of opening a sparkling wine in the dining room is unmatched. This is not an irrational fear given the injuries caused by UFCs, or Unidentified Flying Corks. Imagine the old caves of Champagne akin to a mine rigged battle field, were one weak bottle set off an explosive chain reaction from its 8 atmospheres of concealed pressure. It is no mistake that old time remurs wore masks and body protection—even today accidents happen. With many factors to already consider, Ales Kristanic of Slovenia’s Movia Estate decided to pass off a new responsibility to the consumer—keeping the wine clear. His wines Puro and Puro Rosè are shipped un-disgorged. That’s right, wine drinkers seeking a little more excitement with their bubbly have the duty of removing the dead yeast cells. The quirky Mr. Kristancic claims his design is such “…that now a monkey, the stupidest monkey in the world, can open it!” Who is this man from Slovenia anyways?
The Kristancic family has been making wine since the 1820’s, which translates to eight generations of understanding their land. Movia Estate is located in Slovenia, just across the Friuli boarder of Italy. However, its vineyards traverse the political separation and sit on both sides, known as the Collio in Italy and Brdra in Slovenia. Autonomous boundaries aside, it is terroir that drives the wines from Movia. Typicity from the land is governed by strict biodynamic practices. In the winery, the mentality is also adhered to with atypical—albeit tried and tested—methods for handling familiar grapes in the cellar. White wines are matured in 600 liter Slovenian oak casks and some in 225 liter barriques. They age on their lies which can last up to two years. Red wines are treated much the same and see extended aging in small Slovenian barrels. Racking? Not at Movia. Fining and filtering? The barometric pressure and phases of the moon dictate these practices. Sulfur…what do you think?
Out of all the wines Mr. Kristancic elaborates, both Puro’s honor the subtleties of his eclectic personality and devotion to true varietal character. The day before drinking, the bottle should be stored up-side down (it comes with a mini stand), to encourage the yeast towards the cork. Then, it is imperative to bring the sparkler to temperature on ice. The practice is particularly pertinent for the Puro because it not only slows the release of carbon bubbles, but it freezes the collected yeast into a disc. When ready, remove the cage from and hold the bottle’s neck underwater. Twist it much the same as if it were right side up, and monitor the surging pressure. When the force shoots off the cork, quickly turn the bottle right side up while removing it from the water.
The wine chosen for this tasting was the Movia, Puro Rosè, “un-disgorged,” Brdra, Slovenia, 2000, which is made from 100% pinot nero. Even after the aggressive opening method, the perlage was un-yielding with a plentiful array of tight bubbles. Although it is labeled as rosè, the juice was distinctly copper in color. Nothing was aromatically challenged about this cuvee and notes of apple cider and buckwheat honey sang from the glass. On the palate, it tingled with acidity while expressing purer red delicious apple flavors. Given the wines recent dégorgement, there was a clean yeast and sour dough bread component. Instead of a lingering finish, the Puro parked itself on the back of the palate.
I would highly recommend any wines from the Movia Estate, and the Puro is a steal at $50 dollars. It will leave you scratching your head with delight—and that is the idea. Welcome to the world of Ales Kristancic: hold on tight.
Monday, March 16, 2009
One look at Nicholas Joly’s business card and it is easy to see he is unlike any other vigneron in the world—who else has the job title Natures assistant. Given his devotion to biodynamic viticulture, it is understood why his self-imposed occupation is perfectly fitting. The specific details about biodynamics are found in Mr. Joly’s books, Wine from Sky to Earth, and Biodynamic Wine Demystified, in which he admits that he fell into this style of agriculture by accident. Make no mistake, he is committed to spreading his organic-meets-metaphysical methods by promoting vital life forces—Joly wants a drinker to feel the wine’s energy. The vintners who share his passion put their wines on display at the 5th Annual La renaissance des Appellations (Return to Terroir) tasting in New York City.
Joly’s famed estate is called Le Coulée de Serrant in Savenniéres, Maine-et-Loire, France. It sits on hallowed ground that was first planted by Cistercian Monks over 800 years ago. He was not always growing under the guiding biodynamic principles of the sun and stars but converted his entire estate to biodynamics by 1984. Previously, Joly used herbicides and pesticides to control his vineyards. However, his desire to change started after he noticed that nature began to vanish from his vineyards, leaving the soil dusty, dead, and the man yearning for what he lost.
At the conference, Virginie Joly, Nicholas’ daughter, was at the table pouring the three cuvées that they produce. True to style, the wines were not on ice, as Joly is a believer in serving his wines at around 14-15 degrees Celsius and if possible, decanted and left open for 12 to 24 hours. Let’s be reminded that we are talking about the chenin blanc grape. How could I know what to expect from the wines when Joly himself takes exactly what nature offers? The grapes are picked in a series of vineyard passes, as they only take the ripest bunches. This leads to different amounts of hang time, the potential of botrytis, and some raisining on the vine. Sometimes there is malolactic fermentation, other times not. He crafts wines with vintage character and is working towards creating not only “a good wine but also a true wine.”
The 2006 Coulée de Serrant, Savenniéres AOC, France, “Vieux Clos,” had an intensely spicy nose that followed through on the palate and tasted of mustard. There was also a distinct mineral presence that was carried by the highly acidic juice and rounded with a wild flower honey component. I found this wine to be coarse and obnoxious like an adorable screaming child— a descriptor that Joly himself would quite enjoy. Next was the 2005 Coulée de Serrant, Savienniéres Roche aux Moines AOC, France “Clos de la Bergerie” which traded the earth of the previous wine for riper fruit with a yeasty and sour apple cider flair, followed by an intense nuttiness on the back end of the palate. Joly credits this to harvesting later which causes the grapes’ forces to turn inwards and ultimately express the power of the seeds— welcome to the Joly school of thought. Finally, I sampled the coveted 2006 Savenniéres Coulée de Serrant AOC, Savenniéres, France “Clos de la Coulée de Serrant.” The wine had not been opened long but there were hints of white peach, oregano and heavy doses of crushed slate. The palate was firm and oily but quite clean as the acidic chenin blanc is so capable of. Light and aromatic acacia honey was omnipresent and there was refreshing spearmint as well. I would love to see this wine opened for multiple days and taste it through its extraordinary evolution.
There is so much to learn from Nicholas Joly and his crusade to bring wines back to the earth. I would, however, proceed with caution because biodynamics does not ultimately always taste better. The guiding principles are admirable but I found many wines showcasing an “empty terroir.” However, Joly’s fight is noble and he not only fully expresses his land, but he is able to humble wine to a deeper understanding of man’s place on this earth.