Magdalena’s Galilee food experience

Gourmet contemporary Arabic cuisine served on the shores of the Kinneret at Magdalena.

 "Galilean Lamb Chops" at Magdalena.  (photo credit: BUZZY GORDON)
"Galilean Lamb Chops" at Magdalena.
(photo credit: BUZZY GORDON)

Chef Yosef “Zuzu” Hanna grew up in a family of restaurateurs in the heart of Christian pilgrimage country in the Galilee, so perhaps it was his destiny to open a unique culinary complex right outside Migdal, just north of Tiberias. One of his two restaurants is Tanureen, which serves traditional Arabic fare most Israelis are familiar with: hummus, tahini, baba ganoush and other mezze starters, followed by grilled meats on skewers.

By far his more interesting establishment is Magdalena, whose cuisine is Galilee Arabic fine dining with a contemporary twist. The sprawling premises comprise a large dining area flanked by two bars (one in its own room), a lounge and an elegant room for private events, on whose walls are displayed the chef’s impressive culinary awards. As well, there is a spacious terrace for al fresco drinking and dining overlooking the water.

The decor is modern throughout, with handsome dark wood furnishings and comfortable leather chairs. The ambiance is rounded out with museum-like exhibits, an aquarium (in the private room), a wine cellar and a pleasantly unobtrusive soundtrack.

There are nine specialty cocktails (NIS 48-58), five listed on the alcohol menu and four on the food menu, including a distinctive liqueur-infused house sangria. There is an extensive wine list by the bottle, plus a short but adequate list of international vintages available by the glass (NIS 32-68).

The trilingual food menu consists of two substantial sections: First Courses (NIS 54-68) and Main Courses (NIS 95-195), each containing vegetarian and vegan options. As well, there is an eight-course Galilean Feast, which may be ordered as a table for NIS 329 per person.

After Chef Zuzu, who trained both in Israel and Scandinavia, inquired if there were any foods we did not eat, he proceeded to roll out our tasting menu. It began with the house bread, long sticks of Jerusalem bagel with an interesting red-tinged walnut dip (among others).

Somewhat surprisingly, what arrived first was the "Red Tuna Sashimi", stunningly presented on a raised black plate. This dish of ruby-red raw fish with ponzu sauce, tobiko caviar, mascarpone cream and seeded tuile is hardly Galilean, but its harmonious interplay of flavors and textures emphasized the virtuoso range of the talented chef.

Next was the "Tabbouleh Magdalena", in which the understated bulgur component was dominated by the mound of extremely fresh chopped green herbs. Ordinarily, I am not a fan of tabbouleh, but this house version – with toasted almonds, candied pumpkin and labaneh – was uniquely refreshing.

Another innovation is the "Fish Kubaniye", in which the usual meat and bulgur tartar is replaced by raw fish. The presentation of the two kebab-shaped patties on concentric circles of yellow cherry tomato gazpacho and green parsley oil was a feast for the eyes, even as we devoured the savory kubaniye dusted with grated stone yogurt.

The theme of multi-colored sauces carried over into the "Zahara", florets of gently fried cauliflower atop a palette of tahini, tahina amba and a slightly sweet green chili sauce. The golden-brown cruciferous vegetable, garnished with mizuna, radish, purple onion and red chili pepper was deliciously al dente.

Our intermediate interlude was a sampling of "Shishbarak", the classic Arabic pasta in yogurt sauce. The two ravioli floating on the pale yellow sauce had the least chewy dough of any I can recall; together with the outstanding lamb filling, it added up to possibly the best shishbarak I have ever tasted.

Our main courses began with the "Seafood Skillet", actually a modification of Magdalena’s seafood pasta dish in which a sea bass fillet was substituted for black fettuccine. This medley of shrimp, calamari and scallops – augmented with artichoke, snow peas and chickpeas, and simmered in a subtle coconut curry sauce – was another pleasant deviation from the standard Galilean fare.

We came back to local roots with the "Galilean Lamb Chops", three thick and meaty chops expertly grilled to a pink medium-rare – a rarely accomplished feat when it comes to often thinly cut chops. The tender lamb, served atop freekeh pilaf and alongside root vegetables, was juicy and succulent.

There are six desserts (NIS 48-58), only one of which – a chocolate confection – could be considered Western. Perhaps the most stunning dessert visually was the "Malabi Cannoli", twin tubes of crunchy pastry dough filled with malabi-pistachio cream studded with bits of candied pumpkin, and crowned with a scoop of raspberry sorbet contrasted with a sprinkling of powdered sugar underneath. Filling out the presentation was a dollop of mascarpone cream, ground pistachio and cherry coulis. 

Naturally, we had to try the "Halawet el Jibn", which earned the chef the Dan Gourmet Institute’s Best Dessert in Israel Award (2014). This delicate semolina crepe, stuffed with a sweet ricotta-like white cheese and sprinkled with kataifi strands and chopped pistachio, was as light as a cloud and equally heavenly – a fitting finale to a memorable meal.

Magdalena.Not kosher.Migdal Junction Center, Highway 90, Migdal.Tel. (04) 673-0064.

The writer was a guest of the restaurant.