THE EFENDI HOTEL in the heart of the Old City of Acre.
(photo credit: ARIEH O’SULLIVAN)
Close your eyes and imagine you are an effendi or a pasha – a lord living in a palace in the mid 19th century. Your large salon, windows from floor to ceiling, overlooks the ocean and you are being fed sweetmeats and other delicacies cooked up by the city’s most famous chef. There’s laughter as the glasses clink with those of the other guests as the feast goes on until the wee hours when you retire to your grand bedroom into a bed encased in thick Egyptian cotton sheets and pillows to welcome in the dreams of the aristocratic good life.
It is no dream. It is a night at the Efendi Hotel in the heart of the old city of Acre. This boutique hotel of just a dozen rooms is marking its sixth year. It has a well-earned reputation of one of the top boutique hotels in the country and is adored by foreign tourists and Israelis alike.
“We have here a pearl and we have to use it,” says Uri “Buri” Jeremias, the 73-year-old owner of the Efendi and legendary fish restaurant a few alleys away.
The Efendi is now offering a special event where they bring in a well-known winery, brewery or distillery and connect up with the Uri Buri restaurant for a fabulous night of luxury and excellent food and drink.
The evening begins with cocktails, this time mixed by the Milk & Honey distillery, on the roof deck at sunset. Listen closely and you can hear the waves break against the city walls just an alley away. The Carmel Mountains to the south twinkle as ships anchored in Haifa bay fade away in the dusk. From this perch you can see all the way to the Rosh Hanikra on the northern border with Lebanon.
Beneath a thin veneer of modernity, this is still a medieval city. But the 19th century was a prosperous time for Acre, the capital of the Holy Land and main port. Wealthy merchants began building large palaces atop the houses on the alleys, adorning them with magnificent ceiling paintings and murals to show off their culture.
This house was most likely built after the city under the rule of Ahmed Jazzar Pasha, who (with the help of a British fleet) successfully defended itself from Napoleon’s army in 1799 and sent the Frenchman scurrying back to Egypt.
Alas, this mansion fell upon hard times and was actually condemned and in fear of collapsing when Jeremias rescued it in 2002. After painstakingly restoring it over the course of eight and a half years, the Efendi hotel opened its doors.
Looking like Santa Claus with his long bushy white beard, Jeremias leans on the railing and explains his vision to develop the culture and create coexistence in this luxury hotel. As a founding father of modern Israeli cooking, he adamantly protests any comparison to other ancient cities like Damascus or Cairo.
“We have here something that is very special. And this is coexistence in practice. Half of the workers are Jewish and half Arab, but it is not meant to be measured,” he says. “It is not like anything else. I want people to experience that and take it back home with them.”
Indeed, our valet was named Al’a. “As in Allah?” I asked, pointing to the nearby al-Majadalah mosque. He laughs and says, “No, Al’a like in ‘going up.’”
The hotel is actually two palaces built on the top floors of adjoining houses, connected by a closed bridge. Each room opens to large salons with original richly painted ceilings that renovators touched up. One opens to a large porch where morning yoga classes are held. There is also an authentic Hamam, or Turkish bath, available for guests.
Joining about two dozen other guests, we descend to the candle-lit 900-year-old wine cellar dating from the Crusader era, with some of the exposed stone walls going back to the Byzantine period.
Yuval Soffer, the brand ambassador of the Tel Aviv-based Milk & Honey distillery, is ready with Levantine gin made with eight botanicals followed by appetizers like anchovy brochettes and salmon sashimi. Mushroom soup is followed by a three-course meal; each course proceeded by a various gin cocktail. It’s an intimate atmosphere with guests sharing stories and food and our table is clearly the most boisterous. The meal goes on forever, broken up only by a short break to walk the stone alleyways for fresh sea air before diving back for more pairings of food and drink. We even made room for the hot knaffe and house-made rose ice cream followed by M&H’s young single malt.
“I want to connect food and wine, drinks, with a public that loves it, and make a kind of small event, intimate, that suits this kind of place and history including a meal from Uri Buri. It’s a whole package,” says Jeremias.
The Efendi holds these events about every six weeks, usually on Friday evenings, but also on Thursdays. These collaborations are with top wineries, breweries and distillers throughout Israel. The next is on New Year’s December 31 with the Golan Heights winery. Best to check the hotel website for more details. www.efendi-hotel.co.il
The price is about NIS 300 a person.
The lagniappe about partaking in this sort of event is the ability to joyously retire to your deluxe room in the very same building and collapse in your bed with a smile.
Surrounded by mosques, including the al-Jazzar, the largest in Israel, we were surprised not to hear the traditional muezzin call to prayer in the early pre-dawn hours. Had they come to an arrangement with the muezzin I wondered? No. the double plated windows were just that good, filtering out modernity and leaving in luxury.
The writer was a guest of the Efendi hotel and Milk & Honey distiller.
Prices for a double room including breakfast range between $320 to $730 a night.
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