Hit the spot

A new travel book takes readers on tours of the best places to eat in the country.

mahaneh yehuda 224 88 (photo credit: Ben Jacobson)
mahaneh yehuda 224 88
(photo credit: Ben Jacobson)
In the past decade, Israel has seen Starbucks open and close, most of the Ben and Jerry's chains and KFCs depart, and even some McDonalds, the king of the fast-food pantheon, shut their doors. While plenty of vacuous restaurant franchises do still thrive, the Israeli diner remains steadfast in the dynamic cultural heritage found here. Villages and cities across the country display family-owned institutions of the many eras of this young country, including the markets of Ramle, the Sephardi soul food of Beersheba, the Bulgarian establishments of Jaffa and the many proud shwarma stands that dot the length of the land. Food enthusiasts have reason for excitement with the publishing of Hilik Gurfinkel's new book, Culinary Journey: Mapa's New Good Food Guide to Israel. A veteran of Israel's culinary scene for well over a decade, Gurfinkel builds on a similar book published 10 years ago and updates it with his own favorites and personal anecdotes. The result is an encyclopedic collection of all things relating to food from Eilat to Metulla, from the finest restaurants to hole-in-the-wall humous joints. I met Gurfinkel for a demonstration of how to get the most out of his guide. Though we had planned to go to Ashdod to explore charming Moroccan restaurants he likened to New York Italian restaurants in the '50s, he issued himself a bold challenge when he picked me up in Jaffa. "Instead of Ashdod, how about I take you to places in your own neighborhood you've never heard of to satisfy all your food needs and tell you stories you've never heard?" Initially I was taken aback; as a tour guide who specializes in Jaffa, I had my doubts; but he assured me I would be impressed. "Challenge accepted." We started our journey at Abu Marwan, a small humous place on Ajame's Rehov Mendes France. Introducing new "best in Israel" humous joints is a national pastime in the Holy Land, and I was certainly skeptical of finding a new one in my own backyard. In my line of work, I am always looking for new humous joints to bring tourists to, and naturally, my first inclination in Gush Dan is Jaffa's famed Abu Hasan. Gurfinkel and I paid our due homage to Abu Hasan, discussing both its culinary and atmospheric merits, but I had to acknowledge that Abu Marwan had a masabacha to rival any humousiya in the country. The impressive quality of Abu Marwan's chickpea begs an interesting question regarding the culinary experience - to what extent does experience influence the psychology of taste? Gurfinkel asserted that his wife actually preferred Abu Marwan to Abu Hasan, however Abu Hasan has been a family destination for four generations of Gurfinkels and Hilik could not admit to preferring another. Just across the street lies Abu Hilwa, a bustling butcher shop with fresh meats and reasonable prices. No matter how crowded the shop gets, the counter keeps customers served briskly. If you know what you want, you can be in and out with a nice piece of meat in minutes, no matter how long the line. Abu Marwan has been known to accommodate patrons who bring their own meat by grilling it up to go with their humous. Following our humous and meat portions of the tour, we went deep into Ajame to a nondescript produce shop called Um Ali on Ibn Sina Street. As we approached a strange-looking vegetable Gurfinkel said was an eggplant, Um Ali herself yelled, "Baladi, baladi!" from behind the counter to alert us that this was no ordinary eggplant. Gurfinkel explained that baladi is the Arabic word for earth, and in this context denotes non-genetically modified produce. This is not to be confused with organic, as baladi can be grown with fertilizers - and organic often comes from genetically modified seeds. Baladi simply indicates that the seeds are in their original, natural form. Apparently I had never seen an eggplant in its original form. Full of interesting-looking produce uncommon on the shelves in Tel Aviv, the modest shop is a pilgrimage site for chefs throughout the city. The produce is not only different, but it is always exceedingly fresh, as are the spices which Um Ali prepares herself. Depending on the latest harvest, the inventory constantly changes, providing the freshest locally grown produce in the area. After a full day of exploring hidden treasures in my neighborhood, Gurfinkel directed the trip to Jaffa's institutional gourmet spots by the clock tower. At Dr. Shakshuka on Rehov Beit Eshel, Hilik shared the untold stories behind the famed facade. The owner Binu used to exchange dollars illegally back in the '70s, and a few months before Israel changed the laws, he was arrested and spent some time in jail. It was during Binu's incarceration that he had the opportunity to perfect his unique shakshuka, today the envy of all of Israel. Upon his return to freedom, he opened his restaurant, which has become a pilgrimage spot for all those interested in the finest of Israel's cuisine. A true chef with a deep gut love of the finer things in life, Binu has a fitting quote attributed to him in Gurfinkel's book, which sounds as awkward in Hebrew as in translation: "A Tripolitani man, what does he have in his life? Just to eat, and afterward to go home to fight with his wife." The man leaves no doubt as to the importance he places on his meals. We finished the day at Yoezer Wine Bar, the very kitchen Gurfinkel helped launch to prominence, and at which he began his own career in the industry. Fifteen years ago, Shaul Abrun opened the restaurant with Gurfinkel as its first chef. Gurfinkel brought a copy of his newly published book for his old boss. "I have butterflies in my stomach, to give my mentor the product of this project that's consumed me for the past two years." When Gurfinkel entered, he was greeted as family and we sat at the bar for a cool glass of white wine on a hot day, and stories were exchanged about the earliest days of one of the most famous restaurants in Israel. I keep the book on my coffee table with two bookmarks in it at all times. One stays in the Tel Aviv section to mark my next place to explore by home; the other is in the next region I plan to visit. I trust Gurfinkel's recommendations to keep me well fed and entertained and within my budget. Culinary Journey: Mapa's New Good Food Guide to Israel by Hilik Gurfinkel has been published only in Hebrew at a list price of NIS 129.