Eating off the beaten track

Chef Yizhar Sahar’s Rutenberg restaurant is an open foodie secret.

Yizhar Sahar in front of Rutenberg (photo credit: BEN YOSTER)
Yizhar Sahar in front of Rutenberg
(photo credit: BEN YOSTER)
Driving around the south of the Kinneret, close to the border with Jordan, the last thing you’d expect to find is a fine boutique restaurant. But there is one – Rutenberg, owned and managed by chef Yizhar Sahar and his wife, Hila.
They like to say that their restaurant is “literally in the middle of nowhere.” And that’s how they like it. Rutenberg is surrounded by olive trees, with views of sheep peacefully grazing the Jordanian hills. It’s surrounded by herb, fruit and vegetable gardens.
Set in a heritage site building almost 100 years old, whose walls still bear the pockmarks of bullets shot in the War of Independence, the restaurant draws people who enjoy eating off the beaten track. Many become devoted customers, spreading the fame of its excellence by word of mouth.
Yizhar and Hila, both 38, grew up on kibbutzim.
Yizhar, of Kibbutz Afikim, gained his culinary experience in Australia, working his way up from humble jobs to kitchens in Australia, New Zealand and Spain. Along the way, he also put in a year in agricultural work, something that would pay off later in life at his own restaurant. Hila, born on Kibbutz Tzora to American and South African parents, gained an extensive background in wine at the kibbutz winery.
“When I returned to Israel, I was able to take charge of a kitchen,” Yizhar recounts.
The couple met and married in Tel Aviv, Hila working as a wine importer and consultant to wine shops and restaurants, and Yizhar training under different chefs. Eventually, Yizhar ran the food side of the Lehamim bakery chain and also cooked for high-end catering companies. After six years in Tel Aviv, they grew tired of city life, wanting to spend more time with their two daughters and longing to go back to the land.
“I used to work on a tight schedule, but now we have what everyone says they don’t have – time. It’s better to be chasing your kids around the lawn than chasing your own tail,” says Yizhar humorously.
“Rutenberg is intimate; it seats only 35,” says Hila. “One of us is always there. The way we see it, we’re hosting people.
They’re our guests. We want them to enjoy the experience.
Most customers say our prices are low in comparison to what we’re giving, and certainly compared to prices in the center of the country. We have to work very hard to keep things balanced, but we love doing it.”
The food at Rutenberg is unusual in that almost all of it is locally sourced and even grown on the premises.
“The only commercial product we buy is ketchup, for the kids,” say the Sahars. They own about half an acre of fruit trees, herbs and vegetables, all crops that thrive in the Jordan Valley climate.
“The idea is to use as much of our own produce as possible, even cooking the wild greens that grow around us,” explains Hila. “For example, wild mustard grows everywhere here now. We take it and make pesto from it. Even the flour we buy is milled nearby, from locally grown high-protein wheat. The shrimp we serve are raised in salt-water pools we own.”
The Sahars read extensively about local history, building menus that recreate the seasonal foods of the area.
“We learned that people ate kid in the winter and lamb in the spring,” says Hila, “so we offer those meats at the correct seasons. We also cook quail, which we get from someone in Daliat al-Carmel. All meat is under veterinary inspection,” she hastens to add.
Rutenberg is a family restaurant. The Sahars enjoy working together (”We don’t kill each other, so we’re good,” they say), and encourage their daughters to participate.
“My 8-year-old came home from school and told me, Daddy, I want turnips,” recounts Yizhar. “I said, OK, and started experimenting. I developed a salad that has blood grapefruit, hearts of lettuce, avocados and turnip. It’s a good salad for autumn and winter. She liked it, I liked it and our customers liked it,” he winds up with a smile. The salad with turnip has remained on the winter menu.
“She asked us to cook fish with mushrooms,” chimes in Hila. “So we did. The dish also wound up on the menu, and it’s very popular.”
Asked if the younger child, four years old, offers any culinary opinions, Hila says, “She likes to taste wine. And she does inform us what she thinks of it.”
“Cooking is like composing music,” muses Yizhar. “You layer mixtures of flavors and textures like a composer layering sounds. I develop my own recipes; I don’t consult cookbooks much, except to pick up techniques. What happens is, I usually get a crush on a certain ingredient, and start building dishes around it, like with turnips. Cooking is multidimensional. I feel that every ingredient can be used in multiple ways; every technique can be applied in multiple ways.”
The restaurant is named after Pinhas Rutenberg, a pioneer Zionist who founded Israel Electric Company’s first hydroelectric plant at nearby Naharayim. Yizhar’s grandparents were among the first workers at the plant, walking from the original Kibbutz Gesher to the plant and back every day.
“They built it with their hands,” says Yizhar with pride.
Rutenberg is meat and nonkosher. The menu offers vegan options as well.
For information: (04) 675-2237,, (includes a map)