Twenty years ago, Rama Ben- Zvi decided to open a restaurant alongside the family’s nursery in Nataf, a pastoral community in the Judean Hills. Eight years ago, she made another momentous decision, hiring chef Tomer Niv, one of only a handful of Israeli chefs who has trained in a threestar Michelin restaurant, in his case London’s Fat Duck. His tenure has solidified the reputation of Rama’s Kitchen as one of the premier gastronomic destinations of the region, attracting hundreds of diners every weekend, the only time it is open.
The restaurant is currently celebrating its 20th anniversary with a special tasting menu, served Thursday and Friday evenings only. Like many who make the pilgrimage to the countryside, however, I chose to enjoy the daytime spring weather and sample the many tempting choices on the regular menu.
From our table in the restaurant without walls we had a partial view of the verdant valley, stretching all the way to the coastal plain. There are detailed menus in both Hebrew and English, although the latter are not updated as frequently as the former.
(The directional sign to the restaurant is in Hebrew only; look for the artistic wooden arrow indicating the first right on entering Nataf.) Rama suggested we start with one of the five house cocktails (NIS 46), which take full advantage of the fresh herbs from the nursery’s garden. In fact, the first cocktail on the list is called The Nursery, featuring a syrup concocted from a mixture of herbs, primarily sage and rosemary; blended with vodka, vermouth and lemon, it yields a bracing and refreshing elixir.
Her second recommendation was to try one of the two cocktails made with pear juice squeezed fresh on the premises; we chose the pear whiskey sour and enjoyed the thick fruit nectar livened up by the tangy kick of the classic bourbon drink.
The food menu is divided into four categories: Taboon, Sea, Earth and Meat. From the round brick oven we had the gibna flatbread (NIS 46): thin freshly baked dough topped with Palestinian white cheese, sun-dried tomato cream, tomato salt and garlic confit and sorrel leaves. This Levantine version of pizza is a medley of singular flavors you won’t soon forget.
There was only one soup, available in bowls or thermal cups that keep the contents warm while the outside remains cool to the touch (NIS 47/19).
The cream of Jerusalem artichoke with chive oil and crispy black rice somehow managed to be delicate and hearty at the same time, a testament to the complex layering of flavor and texture in this exceptional dish.
Rama’s next choice for us from the Earth section was Maggie’s Garden (NIS 44), named for the organic farm on Nataf that supplies not only Rama’s Kitchen but also customers from the center of the country, who receive weekly deliveries. This creation centered around steamed radishes, which presented on the plate as translucent white, like large pearl onions. They were served on beds of kishek cheese (the result of combining hard and soft labane with yogurt), together with dabs of turnip vinaigrette, olive tuiles, warm spinach leaves and sliced green almonds. The dish was a feast both for the eyes and the palate; it was hard to believe that this wonderful interplay of flavors revolved around a lowly vegetable that never gets much respect.
Asparagus, on the other hand, is like vegetable royalty. As such, it was the centerpiece of our next dish, asparagus in citrus juice (NIS 78).
Amazingly, although there was asparagus with both thin and thick stalks, they were all cooked to the same al dente perfection, stir-fried in olive oil pressed in-house and served with smoked goat cream cheese and alongside Rama’s Kitchen’s “perfect egg” – made with a technique that renders both the yolk and egg white the same texture before it is flash-fried.
Garnished with ribbons of crispy potato, the dish as a whole was outstanding.
Up until now it had been a flawless vegetarian repast, but we could not resist moving on to the meat category, where Rama had selected rare treats for us: lamb and duck, both roasted on the bone. When served, the two looked uncannily alike: thick slices of succulent meats, seductively pink in the center.
The lamb sirloin (NIS 86/146/186, according to weight), a cut I had never encountered before, was tender and chewy, and tasted like a cross between lamb and entrecôte. It could be dipped into smears of a pleasant red wine sauce and eaten with another delicacy that was also a first for both of us: crispy capers, an exotic accompaniment.
The duck breast (NIS 126), served on a generous bed of creamy sweet potato purée, was enhanced nicely by a subtle lemon grass sauce that thankfully did not overwhelm the naturally flavorful fowl.
There is a carefully curated wine list with a map of the Israeli wineries represented, most of which are in the Jerusalem corridor. There is also a small selection of wines from the “Old World” (France, Spain and Italy).
Unusually, the house wine is a rosé, from the nearby Seahorse Winery, bottled especially for Rama’s Kitchen.
The desserts (NIS 44) were presented as artistically as the dishes that preceded them. The panna cotta with apple granita and coriander seed syrup was a refreshing combination of icy fruit with rich pudding, while the lemon chiffon medallions coated with shavings of almond praline on lemon cream were the ideal balance of sweet and tart, in a gossamer confection that melted deliciously on the tongue.
A meal at Rama’s Kitchen is meant to be a leisurely affair, and it is sure to be one that richly rewards the time invested.The writer was a guest of the restaurant
Tel. (02) 570-0954