Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Did I Mention That It's Hot?

Greetings from Israel. It's just under a million degrees here...
Celsius that is.

So, let's talk about food.

We scheduled a guided tour with a woman that does food-related tours of the Galilee.
CGG and I left Uncle Ilan in Petah Tikva and drove to Nazareth to spend two nights at a little hostel recommended by CGG's cousin. (The Fauzi Azar Inn)

Our guide, Abbie met us and took us through the "Souk" and we tasted a variety of tasty things from spices to sweets, spiced coffee to Knaffe. We walked to El Barbour, (sp?) an ancient spice shop that used to be the local wheat mill. What an aroma that hit us as we walked in!!

We then travelled to Yodfat for a lingering lunch at a goat farm where we were treated to fresh Labaneh and about six other cheeses that are made from the milk of the resident goats. There were some salads and other non-meat dishes that were all delicious. The cheeses are made in a nearby village as the farm has no electricity and is essentially "off-the-grid". We had some slightly aged versions and some that were more aged. The flavors were somewhat familiar to us yet, there were some cheeses that had been flavored with local spices and aged about five months that were truly delightful.

We arrived back at the Fauzi and started to work on our dinner plan. We had been given the advice of "Diana" as being one the best restaurants in all of Nazareth.
We got directions and made our way out of the Old City, walked down "Pope Paul VI", (the local main road). We arrived at Diana to find it closed! CGG got out her trusty CellCom Phone (Israel's primary celluar company), and using her "better-than-rudimentary-Hebrew" called the number on the door to find that this was the daytime location and the evening version was about 2-3km farther west.
At which point the nice man on the phone told her to stay there and he would come pick us up.
And he did!!!

We started with the Mezze, (appetizers), that included 17 different little plates of goodness! Each was good and most were very good and a few were simply exceptional.

I was feeling a little meaty, so we ordered the beef Kebobs we had seen the chef preparing in the open kitchen. A large pile of ground beef had some spices and other items added to it and the chef hammered away with a very large two-handled knife to mix it all together. Each kebob is a knob of beef, a hunk of onion, another knob of beef followed by a wedge of tomato and some more beef. Three kebobs per order; he steps them over to the grill and in a moment or two they're done.

Simply put, the finest ground beef dish I have ever eaten!
It was so juicy and tender and full-flavored I'm thinking that Nazareth really isn't that far away in a country this small, we could be there, (from Tel Aviv), in about an hour and some change! It was that good!
(And then, when we asked for a cab, our server said he would take us back!!!)

The next day Abbie met us at 9am in order to go to Rosh Pina, for a brunch type meal at a place owned by a guy that was originally from the Midwest of the United States. (He never did say exactly where...) His wife makes all the breads and they make a variety of cheeses, mostly goat's mik varieties. When Abbie introduced us to Mark and his wife I thought he looked like the typical Israeli hippie. Long beard, breezy pantaloons, a scarf wrapped around his head and chatting in what sounded like perfect Hebrew.
Then he addressed me directly in accent-less English and I thought maybe he was from Madison, WI.! We sat at a table and the goodness started to arrive, breads and cheeses and it was followed by a mushroom quiche that was incredible. We ate for the better part of an hour and sat for a while after that.
If you find yourself anywhere near Rosh Pina you should find these two and go to their house that has become the best restaurant in the area.

We finally drifted out of there and decided to visit Tsfat, Safat, or Zefat depending on who is doing the spelling! CGG had been there a week before and thought I should see it and Abbie said there was a cheesemaker there that was the seventh generation of cheesemakers in the family. While it took some effort to find the place, we walked in and sampled a variety of cheeses and bought three. A type of Ricotta, a Kashkaval-type and one more I simply can't remember. We arrived back at the Fauzi and later found our way to Al-Rida for dinner.

Al-Rida was really only steps away but we struggled to find it in the maze of streets that is Nazareth's Old City. We ate simply, a series of tasty Mezze's that were excellent and even though it was an Arab restaurant, they had alcohol and I really wanted something cold to drink and the giant (500ml) Carlsberg did the trick.
We found our way back to the Fauzi without much trouble at all.

Exhausted, we slept well, (there is no A/C) and the next morning drove back to Petah Tikvah with a stop in Acco along the way.

Tonight it's dinner with CGG's cousin and family in Tel Aviv.


Monday, June 29, 2009

I've Been Detained...

My wife, The CheeseGuy's Girl has been in Israel for the last ten days and I'm going to meet her. So I did just that a few days ago and arrived at JFK with plenty of time to spare. So I wandered up to the El Al counter and tried to check in.

I answered a few questions and was asked to wait for a supervisor. Then the supervisor had a few questions for me and I answered them as well. I was then asked to have a seat over there...

(Clearly the "Group W" bench...)

(I think they were a bit put off by the fact I had no carry-on luggage.)

I was asked to return in 45 minutes to this particular spot and wait.

So I did.

I was then asked a few more questions and was taken directly to the gate, by-passing the long security line and then, jumping the queue, entered the search area with two El Al agents and then whisked off to the gate at the end of the B concourse.

A few minutes later, boarding began and I was kindly asked to board.

No chance to buy some water, go to the restroom etc.
I was in my seat 50 minutes before takeoff.

Fast-forward ten hours...

Arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport, near Tel Aviv, I went to Passport Control, answered some questions and was asked to: "Please come this way."

I was asked for my father's name and for his father's name as well, then left alone with the other detainees. About twenty minutes later I was released.
I decided to ask what the problem was and was casually told that
I had a "similar last name".

Well, Welcome to Israel!

I wonder if I will be detained on the way out of Israel.


Friday, June 12, 2009

About Last Night...

At the last minute CGG and I decided to heed the call that came out the day before...

"Chef Wolfgang Puck will be in the kitchen at 20.21 and a Tasting Menu will be offered"

We didn't need too much convincing really.

As a Chef he is rather extraordinary and the empire he has created is rather impressive as well.

Once you get past the "It's Jack Nicholson with Arnold Schwarzenegger's accent" aspect I found him to be
a relatively regular guy.

I wonder about the number of people he must meet and greet on a regular basis and think that after a while that kind of celebrity status must become exhausting.
At least he wouldn't be tired out by cooking this night.
Nor would the Executive Chef or the Sous for that matter.

So, my tip of the hat goes to the "commis" in the kitchen. Only once did I see Chef Puck go behind the line and that was only for a few moments. I never saw Chef Miller go behind the line and only one of the two Sous was doing any expediting.

Which means that the execution of the five-course Tasting Menu was handled by the regular kitchen staff. Which in turn means to me that this is one of those restaurants where it is not really necessary for the Chef to be "in-the-house".

We started with a rather ubiquitous spicy green bean amuse and then received a starter of "Spicy Tuna Tartare". Topped with a little shaved Bonito it was creamy and delicious, That was followed by a "Tempura Softshell Crab". Perhaps the best soft-shelled crab I have ever had. It was enormous and perfectly prepared. I admit I'm a sucker for a soft-shelled crab in any format and this was truly fantastic.
The fish course was a "Miso-Sake glazed Black Cod" that was beautifully cooked and presented with a chilled noodle salad. A Miso vinaigrette accompanied the dish very nicely. Onward to the main course which was a "Szechuan Style Prime Beef Tenderloin". Spiky peppercorns provided some heat but, really more of a textural element I thought. This dish was also cooked perfectly and arriving at our table, it was served hot and not the lukewarm it could have easily been.
The dessert was a "Cherry Truffle Cake" and while tasty, was simply a hot chocolate cake, (with a gooey inside) served alongside a shot-glass of cherry sorbet that had had some champagne poured in as well.

Really an excellent meal.
Made a bit more impressive by having Chef Puck visible for most of the evening. He stopped by our little two-top twice and was really quite a warm and congenial fellow indeed. He graciously signed our menu and and thanked us for coming.
A nice touch coming from a man who must be constantly pulled in every direction in order to meet the needs of the many who require his presence for everything from television shows to fundraisers to book signings and everything in between.

I think another visit to 20.21 is in order for a... Tuesday night...
You know, a regular "weekday-walk-in-without-a-reservation" just to see if the commis can do it again...

When Chef Puck isn't there to provide the moral support necessary for a truly great meal.

And for tonight?
Since D'Amico Cucina is closing very soon, we managed to get invited to dinner there this very evening!
I expect great things from them.
We will soon see...