Top 5 Meals of 2015

It has become an annual tradition. Each year, I write a blog about the 5 best meals I ate. This is very hard to do since my job involves eating and traveling “for a living.” This year, I traveled to 14 countries and 5 states in the US. Needless to say, I ate a lot of good food!

After considerable thought, these memorable meals made it to my top 5 picks of 2015:

Machneyuda Restaurant in Jerusalem – This concept restaurant is run by three genius chefs – Yosef “Pappy” Elad, Assaf Granite, and Uri Navon. They run the business like a party. The quirky website and non-descript menu that offer dishes like “Entrecôte Django Unchained Style,” and “Lamb with lot of tasty stuff,” with pairings like “yummy stuff, some sauce” offer some clues. The waiters are not just friendly, they are singing, dancing and even doing shots in the kitchen…at work! The food is served in unpretentious sharing plates and is absolutely to die for. Ingredients are sourced from the surrounding Machneyuda market.

The biggest surprise for me was the dessert. Our server cleared out our table (we were 5) and laid out aluminum foil to cover it. On it, was orchestrated a symphony of cake, chocolate sauce, caramel, candies, nougats, cookies, ice cream and whipped cream – spread around the entire table within matter of minutes. It looked very haphazard as it was happening, but then appeared to be a delicious pile of artful looking happiness. We dug in with our spoons feeling like kids, and started dancing to the Israeli pop tunes.

Catalina Rose Bay in Sydney – Located on the world-famous Sydney Harbour, this family run restaurant is known for serving the highest quality meat and poultry sourced from all over Australia. Sydney Seaplane Highlights Flight Fly/Dine experience, included lunch at Catalina overlooking the Rose Bay. We start by enjoying fresh oysters on the shell paired with an Australia white that is produced not too far from the bay. The warm Sydney sun refreshed us as we watched the Seaplanes go by. I had the Poached Western Australian Marron Tail (something I had not had before), and the small sushi plate with delicious fresh tuna, salmon, prawn, kingfish, tataki tuna and Catalina roll. Dessert was caramelized fig with bitter caramel mousse, brik pastry and sugared pistachio. It was a memorable dessert, though the others I took bites off were pretty good too.

best seafood in Sydney

Boulanger Patissier Le Fournil Notre Dame in Marseille, France – My husband and I got to this bakery in the South of France early Sunday morning when the aroma of fresh baked goodies were oozing out of this tiny neighborhood bakery. There were sleepy residents, some still wearing pajamas, lined up to get bread, croissants, pastries, macrons, and Tropezian cakes. We got a few assortments to share with our cappuccinos. Till this day, we still talk about how the croissants flaked into a thousand pieces and melted the moment it touched our tongues. It was so good, that we had to eat another. Though so simple, it was by far the best breakfast I had this year!
best croissants in France
Marea in New York City – My close friend know that I am a big snob when it comes to Italian food. I can just about dismiss majority of the Italian restaurants in the U.S., but when I find a good ones, my heart melts into clarified butter. This is what happened at Marea, 2 Michelin star restaurant located on Central Park South. My friend and I had to wait for a long time to a spot at the bar (reservations few days in advance are highly recommended), but it was great people watching too. Everything at this high end Italian eatery boasted freshness of ingredients, integrity of flavors, and perfection in cooking. Some of my favorites were the tender Noca Scotia lobster and burro found in Astice; al dante and earthy Funghi Risotto; flaky and dressed Branzino: as well as the fried doughnuts dipped in lemon ricotta and dark chocolate Bomboloni. The portions are not small and you may end up eating 10k calories, but now you can die and go to heaven on earth.
best Italian in New York
Yachiyo Ryokan at Himeshima Island in Japan – It’s hard to imagine that one of my top 5 meals was at a 1-lady run Bed and Breakfast in a sleepy island off the coast of Kunisaki. I stayed at this beautiful family run 8-room inn surrounded by gardens, where we were served a delicious seafood dinner with ingredients that were probably swimming just a few hours ago. I had eaten a lot of good sushi throughout my stay in countryside Japan, but this was an unbelievable spread. Every inch of the table was covered with a fresh piece of fish or vegetable that was delicately prepared and artful served. The Japanese chefs take great effort in presentation as you can see from this picture. Unfortunately, this place doesn’t have a website and the manager, Michuri-San, speaks limited English, so good luck finding it.
best sushi in Japan

Ten Best Things I Ate in Israel

During my recent Food and Wine Tour to Israel, I got a crash course in the cuisine that has spanned a few thousand years. I spent most of my days wandering around local markets, meeting chefs, taking cooking classes, drinking at bars and wineries, and dining at all kinds of restaurants (some had no name, while other’s were run by award-winning chefs).

There is no exaggeration in saying that I tasted over 200 dishes over the course of 7 days, yet I was only scratching the surface. Israeli cuisine cannot be defined in a sentence. Like it’s people, the food of Israel has roots everywhere in the world. Influences of Italy, France, Spain, Russia, Poland, Lebanon, Morocco, Iraq, Bulgaria and many more, can be found everywhere.

If you are planning to visit Israel, make room for a larger appetite because there’s a lot of good food to try. Here were my top 10 dishes from eating in Israel.

hot hummus israel

1. Hummus at Shlomon & Dorrone, Carmel Market. Ms. Moran of Delicious Israel took me on a walking/ tasting tour of the market. She told me that hummus is an integral part of the Israeli diet. Of course everyone has their own recipe and there is an ongoing competition of who makes the best hummus. Israel recently won over Lebanon for making the largest hummus bowl, at a whopping 11 tons!

The proper way to eat hummus though is as a meal, not as a side or a dip. It is always warm, with the chunkier part on the outside and creamier mashed garbanzo beans placed on the inner part of the dish. It can be topped with shakshuka, chick peas, cumin and parsley. You may see a brownish looking boiled egg in the middle, which has been cooked in black tea water. On the side, I am served raw onions (cut like scoops), long peppers, lemons and warm pita bread.

israel-food-falafal

2. Falafal – Like hummus, there are debates on who makes the best falafel. It is a simple recipe using ground chickpeas, parsley, and tahini, but the art is in balancing the texture vs flavor. A good falafel should be soft and flaky on the inside, and crisp on the outside. It shouldn’t be dull and allow for one ingredient to overpower another’s flavors.

israel-food-shawrma

3. Shawrma at Al-Shaweesh, Jerusalem. Oh the aroma of meat roasting on an open fire, as you walk past no-name cafes in the colorful Arab markets can be quite overwhelming. The best shawarma I had was at family-run cafeteria in the Old City of Jerusalem, called Al-Shaweesh. The meat was soft and peppery taste, and it was served with a variety of colorful side salads.

israel-food-maknuba

4. Maqluba at Eucalyptus restaurant, Jerusalem. A traditional Palestine and Jordanian dish, maqluba is one of those comfort foods, that when cooked right, goes straight from your mouth to your soul. The one I had at Eucalyptus had tender pieces of chicken, lots of root vegetables and turmeric rice. I helped the chef invert the pan in a maqluba turning over ceremony and enjoyed the delicious scrapes from the bottom!

Mahaneyehuda

5. Shakshuka at Mahaneyehuda Restaurant, Jerusalem. Similar to the Mexican breakfast dish huevos rancheros, shakshuka is a ragout of eggs poached in a sauce of tomatoeschili peppers, and onions, often spiced with cumin. The version at Mahaneyehuda, a happening restaurant in the famous Mahane Yehuda Market, also had flavorful ground beef mixed in. I just couldn’t stop eating!

sabich

6. Sabich at Sabich Tchernichivoski, Tel Aviv. Sabich is an Israeli sandwich, consisting of pita stuffed with fried eggplant, hummustahiniIsraeli salad, boiled potatoes (in some versions), parsley, amba, and hard boiled eggs. It is a popular street food of Israel and it’s origins stem from the Iraqi Jews who ate it on Shabbat mornings. I tried it at few different places and found Sabich Tchernichivoski to be the most fresh and flavorful. I could eat this everyday!

israel-food-sambusa7. Sambusak at Wahad Falafel, Iraqi Market in Mahane Yehuda Market, Jerusalem. These fried savory turnovers were stuffed with spicy chickpeas and potato curry, and served with amba. They reminded me of their Caribbean cousin, Doubles. The kiosk was very small, with only 2-3 tables. It served only sambusak and falafel in take-away paper bags.

israel-food6

8. Majadara at Pnina’s house, Maghar village. I took a private cooking class at the home of Pnin, a Druze woman, through GalilEat. Lentils and rice is pretty common combination all over the world, but this lentils and bulgur wheat recipe was so simple yet delicious. Brown lentils were lightly seasoned with baharat seasoning and made for a great vegetarian entree or side.

 

boureka9. Bourekas at Syrian Bakery, Carmel Market in Tel Aviv. There was a little shop in the corner that looked like a tin shed that was about to fall. No name plate, address, menu or showcase. You had to step inside the bakery and point out to what you wanted (unless you spoke Hebrew). This family run operation has been around for 100-years but only the locals know about it. They undoubtedly make the best boureka, a phyllo pastry made with margarin and flour, and stuffed with either sour cheese or mashed potatoes. You can tell what’s inside by the shape of it.

Uri Buri Akko

10. Seafood at Uri Buri Restaurant in Akko – Located on the Mediterranean, 12 miles from the Lebanese border, Uri Buri Fish Restaurant is a fisherman/ chef restaurant that serves the catch of the day like you have never tasted before. As part of the chef’s tasting meal, I tried tuna, salmon, shrimp, octopus, calamari, roe, anchovies, scallops, and much more. Every single dish was cooked very gently with a drizzle of olive oil, salt and lemon juice, keeping intact the integral flavorful of the seafood. This is by far the best seafood I ate in Israel!

Modern Jewish Cuisine with Chef Avi Bitton

Chef, restauranteur and author, Avi Bitton visited Atlanta from Tel Aviv, Israel.  Bitton started working in the restaurant business at 14 years of age, and went on to open restaurants – Bucharest (Romanian inspired), Adora (named 10 best restaurants in Israel), Chill (chic bar on Tel Aviv’s famous Dizengoff Street), and Mercado (Kosher restaurant on the top floor of the highest building in Tel Aviv). Bitton is now one of Israel’s top celebrity chefs.  Bitton hosts two shows on Israel’s main TV networks called “A Maximum of 24” and “Global Kitchen.” He is also a frequent host on various programs on Israel’s Food Channel. Bitton is author of the books – My son and my Father Cook and Tell Chicken.                                                                                                                                                        

chef avi bitton
chef avi bitton

Here’s a Q&A with Chef Bitton courtesy of Consulate General of Israel in Atlanta.

#1. You started working in restaurants at the young age of 14. When did you know you wanted to be a chef and run restaurants?

AB: I think when I was maybe 5 or 6 when I cooked my first recipe at home. It was tuna salad from a children’s magazine.

#2. At 24 you opened your first restaurant. What were some of the major challenges you faced?

AB: There were a lot of challenges! First, when I agreed at 24, I was in shock. I was only a cook at the time and I had never organized a restaurant or managed a kitchen. It was a challenge to handle waiters, bartenders and manage salaries. When I started in my restaurant I thought I only had to buy ingredients, cook and serve. After one month I realized it’s like the army – everything needs to be perfect of you lose everything.

#3. Today you have several eateries. What’s the difference between your restaurants? Why did you choose to open a Kosher restaurant (Merkado)?

AB: I have one restaurant and two bars. Adora, my first restaurant, is a fusion between Israeli and Mediterranean. We serve seafood, but with Israeli serves small tapas that are both Mediterranean and Jewish. The Jewish food is a little trendy including foods like chopped liver and gravadlax. 

I opened a kosher restaurant because kosher is important. Our religion is 5000 years old and it’s important to respect our religion. In my other restaurants I mix milk and meat. For example, I make my roast beef with lots of butter. I want Israelis and tourists who keep kosher to have the ability to eat at one of my restaurants.

#4. Let’s talk about your food. Do you consider your food Israeli? How do you define Israeli food?

AB: I call it “New Israeli.” Actually, we don’t have an Israeli kitchen. It doesn’t exist. The Israeli kitchen is a unique blend of all cultures that came to Israel. There are recipes from Europe, Africa and all over the world. Only in Israel do you find Chinese chicken served in warm baguettes or fresh prawns that are typically European with tahini . When I was in New York three months ago I ate at 36 restaurants in three weeks! Everything was perfect, but I didn’t find any good fusion. 

Chef Bitton was scheduled to teach a modern Jewish cooking class at Hal’s Kitchen/ Go Eat Give. Here is one of the recipes he shared with us…

Veal Fillet Stuffed with Nuts Recipe

Ingredients:
Fillet weight of 1 kg
 
For the filling:
2 onions, chopped and fried in olive oil
1 cup chopped walnuts
salt & pepper to taste
1 teaspoon of ground coriander
1 Tablespoon of toasted sesame
 
Preparation:
Mix the ingredients for the filling. Make a hole in the center with a knife dropped all the way and put the mixture nuts. Season the roast with salt and pepper and roast in the heat of 250 C for about twenty minutes. Slice and serve.

~ Recipe courtesy of Chef Avi Bitton. To learn to make this recipe join the cooking class on February 25 hosted by Hal’s Kitchen and Go Eat Give in Atlanta. 

Jerusalem Bakery

I chanced upon this little tucked away place in Marietta on my way. There was a big sign saying “Jerusalem Bakery” so naturally, my curiosity arose. As I got closer, I saw there were two side by side establishments under the same banner. Making a detour, I walked into the bakery waiting to discover what it was all about.

Soon I was surrounded by rows of fresh breads, cookies, baklava and warbats. There was also a cooler with Safed cheese, soft drinks and some grocery items. As I walked closer to the counter, I noticed pies (or Israeli pizzas), pockets (calzones) fresh out of the oven, Harisah (semolina dessert soaked in honey) and a lot more.

Family owned and operated, the owner Tariq makes everything from scratch every single day. No wonder you can taste the freshness in the baked items. He also supplies pita bread to restaurants in Atlanta and the South East. Most of his business comes from the bakery, he says.

As I made my way next door, I realized there was a full fledged restaurant. A few tables in a very casual setting, Styrofoam plates and plastic forks is what you got. There is an open kitchen with self service counter where the aroma teases you.

I asked Tariq to serve me his specialties since I wasn’t well aware of Israeli cuisine. Apparently, I was wrong! When I saw this huge platter of hummus, babaganoush, tabbouleh salad, olives, falafal and pita, I felt on familiar territory. He also brought out a platter of chicken and beef shawarmas, rice and grilled chicken. The chicken was seasoned with a special spice blend that Tariq’s brother makes in Israel and is top secret! The shawarmas were well cooked, juicy and tender.  To me, none of these were new dishes but the flavors differed somewhat from that of Turkish, Lebanese, or Greek cuisines.

What I discovered today was that Israel has had influences of the Middle East, Europe and the Mediterranean making it a culinary melting pot. It’s cuisine, therefore happens to be very similar to that of the surrounding areas and you won’t be very surprised by a Jewish restaurant.

Tariq has tried to cater to the American as well as his Israeli clientele. He makes sandwiches and pizzas with a Jewish twist, and serves to regular patrons for weekdays lunches. He also offers platters of kebabs (chicken, beef, lamb), kufta, grilled meats and shawarma sandwiches. Vegetarian  can opt for the Jerusalem vegetarian sampler which is a combination of the appetizers. For his more traditional clients, he caters a whole lamb made to order (for about $350) which is quite popular at special occasions.

Alpharetta Location                        Marietta Location
770-777-0193                               770-419-1666
4150 Old Milton PKWY                   585 Franklin Road, Suite 160
Alpharetta, GA 30005                    Marietta, GA 30067

www.jerusalem-bakery.com