It started with platters of house-cured meats at Boutik Naknik (“Sausage Boutique”) where homemade “schug” (spicy sauce) accompanies smoked duck and thinly sliced roast beef. From there it was on to Yom Tov deli, where proprietor Yomi, a third-generation Turkish Jew whose grandparents established the shop in 1947, continues to hone recipes for marinated olives and pickled vegetables from his family’s native Istanbul.
There, on a Tel Aviv street corner, two chefs from Miami — Sam Gorenstein and Daniel Ganem — sampled goat cheese-stuffed hibiscus flowers, brined olives, feta cheese marinated in pesto and olive-oil soaked garlic. They washed it all down with artisanal soda made by Benny Briga at his Cafe 41, not so much a cafe as a stall stocked with herbs, natural syrups and a kombucha tap from which he concocted refreshing beverages based on tastes and whims (the ginger-lemongrass soda with pomegranate seeds was an unbeatable combo).
The chefs were on a tour of Levinsky Market — a five-block stretch of spice shops, delicatessens, bakeries, dairies, fish stores and other food purveyors that represents Tel Aviv’s culinary riches, a Wonka Land for the food obsessed and, for one afternoon, the stomping ground for two chefs on a mission to taste the flavors of Israel.
Gorenstein is executive chef of popular Miami Peruvian chain My Ceviche, and Ganem is the chef tapped to head up Gorenstein’s latest restaurant — a fast-casual spot opening in Brickell called Zuuk Mediterranean Kitchen.
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For a week they traversed the country in the name of culinary adventure — and research. Their guide for that day in Tel Aviv, Ross Belfer, an American-born publicist who also gives food tours under the name Eager Tourist, led them on a small-plates crawl of his favorite haunts that eventually ended up at Konditoria Albert (“Albert Confectioner”), Tel Aviv’s only Greek bakery, opened in 1935 and still manned by the white-haired Albert.
Gorenstein attempted to coax the slightly grumpy baker into conversation regarding his legendary almond paste confections and pastries.
“I want to charm him,” Gorenstein said. “I want to find out his life’s story. For me it’s very inspiring to hear the ins and outs of maintaining a business for so long. These purveyors, they value being small and maintaining the family business. It’s their jewel.”
In the end he emerged from the bakery only with excellent borekas (stuffed phyllo pockets) ... and not the baker’s life story. But inspiration and plenty of life stories were to be had at nearly every stop on this marathon eating tour of Israel.
In the Old City of Jerusalem, the crew trekked through the various quarters of the ancient city, stopping for bites of local delicacies in between stops at the Church of the Holy Sepulchur and shopping in the market in the Arab Quarter. Their guide Shuki Haidu (who goes by Shuki Tours) led them to a stall where the delicate “Mutabah” crepe filled with salty cheese and drizzled with local honey is made by an Arab family called Zaltamo who have been making the crepes for 300 years in Jerusalem (with another location in Nablus). The flaky pastry had a delicate crust and subtle sweetness.
“You can’t compare this to a pastelito,” Gorenstein said. “It’s so much better.”
There was a stop at a “secret” hummus spot down an alley in the Arab Quarter that locals dubbed “Chummus Arafat.” Here, bare tables set the stage for the rich chickpea spread pooled with olive oil and stewed fava beans. “This is how my grandfather eats,” said Gorenstein, pointing to the raw onions and radishes that accompanied the hummus dish. The onions are meant to be eaten in between pita scoops of the hummus, as a textural contrast and palate cleanser.
This trip and the Zuuk project are personally significant for both chefs, since both have Middle Eastern backgrounds. Gorenstein’s great-grandparents were Syrian Jews who moved from Aleppo to Colombia, from where he moved to Miami at 14. Ganem has Palestinian roots — his grandfather was born in Jifna (a town near the West Bank of Israel) and his family emigrated to Chile when he was 3 years old.
“My grandmother was Chilean, but she learned to cook Palestinian food from her mother-in-law,” Ganem said. “I learned to cook with my grandmother making stuffed grape leaves and stuffed zucchini with ground meat and spices.”
Back in the Arab Quarter the chefs were introduced to the complexity of tahini, the sauce derived from concentrated sesame paste that some have called a Middle Eastern “mother sauce.” At a humble tahini factory housed in the back of a convenience store (squeezing past schoolchildren stopping in to buy ice pops and Cheetos), the chefs observed how sacks of Nigerian sesame seeds were emptied into roasters and then fed into a tahini press where the nutty nectar emerged in a trickle from in between one-ton millstone rounds that rotated over the seeds. On a counter, four different varieties were available, from an inky black tahini made from black sesame seeds, to dark brown versions that are the result of longer roasting periods. “It’s cool how you can get different levels of flavor based on the roasting,” Gorenstein said. “Similar to roasting coffee beans.” (For their tahini sauce at Zuuk, the chefs will thin the sauce with lime juice and cilantro, giving it a Latin spin.)
A walking tour through the Machane Yehuda market or “shuk” of Jerusalem proved the most revelatory, with stops at food stalls that varied from Balkan origins to Kurdish, Turkish, Yemenite and Iraqi restaurants. There were bites of chewy, egg-topped Georgian bread, a tasting at a cheese shop ranked fifth in the world for its epic variety and sips of Israeli craft beer in between. A visit to the Slow Food-approved Iraqi joint Azura where owner Ezra Shrefler has massive pots of stews, stuffed vegetables and soups cooking all day was so influential that the chefs made their way back to the restaurant on their last day in the country, just to taste again the “sofrito,” a long-simmering beef and potato marriage that hits all the right pleasure notes.
“It’s home cooking, and it’s insanely good,” Gorenstein said. “The pots are simmering all day over low heat, and it’s got strong flavors. I was trying to figure out the dish, how they get the meat to have this deep flavor. I think they cook in its own fat, not a tomato sauce or reduction.”
In the market Gorenstein was invited inside a bakery and taught to make the trademark “laffa,” a blistered flatbread. “They don’t use a rolling pin, instead they use a pillow,” Gorenstein said. “First you expand the dough with your hands, then you put it on the pillow and then you slap the dough into the wall of a barrel-shaped oven.”
After a long day trekking through Jerusalem’s winding alleys, they found themselves at a restaurant off the shuk called Ishtabach, a play off the Hebrew word for praise and a pun that means “man of the kitchen.” There they sat by the counter at the open kitchen mesmerized for more than an hour as the chef methodically made the equivalent of Kurdish calzones — dough filled with combos of slow-cooked meat, caramelized onions and chimichurri that was then baked in a clay oven.
“It was essentially a beef empanada,” Gorenstein said. “Dough, meat and spices — just a different version of it. But I loved watching him make it.”
There were trips to Israeli wineries where they tasted Israel’s most-celebrated kosher wine at Domaine du Castel. “This is the most ancient land for wine-making,” the winery’s guide said as they looked over the vineyard in the Judean Hills. “The practice of making wine here dates back 3,000 years.” Down the road at Kibbutz Tzora’s wine tasting room Uri Ran, Tzora Winery’s general manager, explained the harvest season (late summer) and how Israeli wine makers are forging their own paths. “We’re not trying to be like Bordeaux,” Ran said. “We’re trying to develop our own style and flavors and build a common language among ourselves.”
The winery’s dessert wine, a 2013 Or, proved a big hit with the chefs, with Gorenstein declaring “it’s like having a green apple with caramel,” and both Gorenstein and Ganem buying several bottles to take back home.
A much-anticipated meal at the lauded Machaneyehuda restaurant, known for its market-to-table menu (it’s two blocks from the shuk) and its raucous atmosphere, resulted in a parade of plates that hit the table at once — a shwarma tartar, a pan of offal with Jerusalem artichoke and chilis, Persian-style stew with yogurt sauce, polenta with mushrooms and truffle oil, sweetbreads with amba (mango chutney). “That meal embodied Mediterranean tapas,” Ganem said.
At the end of the meal, when everyone was too stuffed to move and the cooks and waiters were clanging pots and pans and patrons were getting up to dance on tables (as is the custom at the energetic spot), a cutting board served as a platter for every dessert on the menu. There was semolina cake with tahini ice cream, cheesecake mascarpone mousse, ice cream sandwiches and tiramisu with pistachio cookies. It was a mess and it was delicious — a fitting coda to the exciting modern cuisine that Israel is now producing.
A visit to the ancient city of Acre (known as Akko) to dine at legendary seafood spot Uri Buri was one of the highlights for Ganem, who had been trying to track down chef-owner Uri Yirmias’ cookbook for years. The rotund host, whose long white beard and trademark suspenders make him unmistakable, sat with the chefs for more than two hours as they were bombarded with an “attack of small plates,” his description of dishes that offered exotic bites like dehydrated watermelon slices rolled around goat cheese and topped with basil shreds and sea bream in a yogurt and pickled lemon sauce to the not-so-exotic (at least not for these guys) like salmon sashimi in a soy marinade topped with wasabi sorbet.
“Uri Buri spending all that time with us was special,” Ganem said. “I really appreciated his hospitality. Even though his food was not incredibly Israeli [much of his seafood is imported], he taught us about food, about being a restaurateur, about his life, his family, about being a chef and a father and a husband. He was like the Obi Wan Kenobi of the food world. I just wanted to learn as much as possible from him. And even though he’s had so much success, he’s so humble. And that was humbling for us to see,” Ganem said.
Now that the chefs have geared up to launch their own restaurant, they’re looking to bring some of those influences to Zuuk’s menu of “fresh casual” cooking.
“We’re doing a seasonal hummus. So in winter we’ll use a root vegetable; if it’s spring we’ll do a green hummus,” Gorenstein said. “We would love to do a tahini frozen yogurt like the one we tasted. The base will be Greek yogurt; the toppings will be dates, halva, pomegranate seeds.” The restaurant’s name is an invented word — Gorenstein says they wanted something that evoked the word “shuk” or “souk” but didn’t want it to be strictly Hebrew or Arabic, opting instead for a melding of the two.
If You Go
Shuki Tours: 050-630-7042; firstname.lastname@example.org
Machneyuda Restaurant, Beit Yaakov 10 St., Jerusalem, 02-5333442
Azura Restaurant, Ha-Eshkol St. 4, Jerusalem, 02-623-5204