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Location is key to eating out in Israel

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Israeli salad WIKI COMMONS PHOTO
Israeli salad (WIKI COMMONS PHOTO)

From the humble roadside stand serving falafel or fricase (a panzerrotto like to-die-for “sundveech Tunisai”) to the expensive, celeb chef restaurant, food in Israel is invariably fresh and delicious. So what are the three most important things to consider when eating out? Location, location and location.

Kornmehl Farm has the best location in all of Israel: the middle of nowhere. The only walk by traffic consists of the odd camel escaping its owner (it does happen). Follow Hwy. 40 south from Be’ersheva and, once it turns sharply east, look for their sign on the left. If you’ve reached the turnoff to Ben Gurion’s grave you’ve gone too far.

Anat and Daniel Kornmehl met as university horticulture students and decided to marry, raise goats and sell their own cheese. Daniel apprenticed with Shai Zelcer, the dean of Israeli cheesemakers. After a mere five years of red tape the government granted them a spot in the Highlands of the Negev.

In 1997, they arrived with two children, 40 goats, a trailer, goat pen and milking station. They erected the trailer and applied for a permit to build a house. Twenty-two years later they are still waiting. Undeterred, they increased one of their herds by two kids and now have two trailers, one housing their four children.

Fifteen years ago, they started a restaurant. The menu is based on cheese from their goats’ milk: goat cheese pizzas, calzones, salads, a cheese platter with home made bread, desserts like kanafeh and exotic offerings like kettem cheese drizzled with home made fig jam. A few items do not contain goat cheese. There is a great espresso bar.

You can eat in a converted railway carriage or on an outdoor, awning covered terrace staring out at the desert and the Kornmehls’ Anglo Nubian goats whose footlong ear flaps draw heat away from their bodies. Kornmehl takes “locally sourced” to a new level. Produced within 100 km? Try 100 yards.

The ancient port city of Acco, continuously inhabited for the last 6,000 years, boasts immense sea fortifications. For seven generations, the Zaqour family have gone down from their home inside these walls to fish the Mediterranean Sea. Ten years ago, Yaoub Zaquor opened the Pisan Port Restaurant on a terrace between his home and the sea.

People eat outside on tables less than a metre from the Mediterranean looking out at Haifa Bay and Mt. Carmel. For 30 shekels ($11) a person you get an assortment of 13 salads which no one can possibly finish. Non-vegans may order a whole fish that comes either fried or grilled. I asked Na’ama, the matriarch of seven children and 26 grandchildren, how they get their fish. She explained that returning fishermen call her when close to shore and tell her what they have caught. She buys what she needs over the phone and sends one of her children or grandchildren to the Pisan Port, a three minute walk away, to pick up the order. Yaoub explained that he can tell which fish is the freshest simply by looking at the eye of the deceased.

The prize for longevity of location surely goes to Keton Jewish Bistro in Tel Aviv. In either 1932 or 1937, Hedva Shapiro, then either 17 or 22, emigrated to Palestine and got a job as a waiter. In 1945 she and her husband opened a restaurant at 145 Dizengoff St., she cooking, he managing the front room. Like Judaism, ownership of Keton has been transmitted down the female line to Hedva’s granddaughter, Orna Raskin.

Each mother insisted her daughter get an education and profession. Dutifully, each did. But each left her profession and took over the restaurant as her mother “retired.” The most remarkable thing about Keton is not that it has been run by the same family at the same location for the last 74 years but that its menu has been virtually unchanged during that time. It is best described as uncompromisingly, defiantly East and Central European traditional Jewish: chicken soup, cholent (including a vegan version), varenikes, cabbage rolls, chopped liver… you catch the drift.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             In 1945, the Jewish population of Palestine was mostly eastern European and this is what the restaurants served. As Sephardic Jews began arriving their cuisine – more flavourful and varied – naturally took over. Today, Tel Aviv has the cuisine of every country and ethnicity on Earth. Keton may be the only ethnic east European one left. It dishes not just the food but the memory of and longing for the kitchens of our grandparents.

On one wall hang paintings by important Israeli artists such as Menashe Kadishman, whose Three Discs has been in Toronto’s High Park Sculpture Garden since 1967. Keton, it seems, in the 1950s-60s became the eatery favoured by Tel Aviv’s bohemian set whose bar hangout was Kasit (1935-2004) at 117 Dizengoff. Orna figures when artists were broke they paid in art. A similar sized Kadishman is $US2,800 at the Dan Gallery.

The other wall has signatures and greetings of well-known customers, the most famous of whom was the world renowned pianist and bon vivant, Artur Rubinstein.

You get white table cloth service inside but I suggest the street patio, where, from your anachronistic perch, you can observe the young Tel Avivis: “heepsterim” whizzing past on electric scooters, walking their rescue dogs, hanging out, hedonists living for the moment, totally oblivious that history is in control.

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