Tasting Israel With A Celebrity Foodie

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10 years ago, I made what I thought would be my last trip to Israel. I'd experienced the country's amazing sights on two different occasions and didn't really want to go back. However, this year an opportunity to return presented itself. I decided to go, although I wanted to make this trip more about the food than about the Biblical sites (seen them!). My friend Miranda tracked down a guide with the knowledge and expertise to give me the experience I was looking for. His name is Gil Hovav, a man I didn't know was a celebrity foodie until we were mobbed by his fans in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The guy's hosted travel shows, written books, and reviewed many restaurants in Israel. He's the real deal. 

I met Gil at the Levinsky Market in Tel Aviv, a bustling street of spice shops, bakeries, olive stalls, and other food shops that represent the city’s love for fresh ingredients. Gil took me to his favorite places, including “the smallest cafe in Tel Aviv”, Levinsky 41 owned by Beny, a charming gentleman who makes custom soda drinks using fresh ingredients and preserved fruits and spices blended in homemade soda water. Beny looked me in the eyes and created a special blend to match whatever he saw. Gil said he’d never seen him use so many ingredients! It was absolutely delicious (and beautiful!). 

Another favorite stop was Albert’s bakery, owned by Mr. and Mrs.Yehuda. A gentleman was sitting in the doorway hand peeling almonds while Mr. Yehuda was bringing bese (almond cookies) out of the oven. Mrs. Yehuda was gently packaging their homemade marzipan for the upcoming Passover holiday, when they sell out of everything they make. Getting to see them in action was truly a treat, and the food they were making looked delightful. 

I was mesmerized by the rows of spice shops selling many types of dates, dried fruits, nuts, olives, legumes, and mounds of fresh spices. Among some of the ones I bought were dried limes, dried cherry tomatoes, sumac, saffron, and pomegranate syrup (much thicker than molasses). We walked to the Shuk HaCarmel market where we strolled up and down aisles of specialty shops, including pastry stalls and a cheese shop where I got to sample some delicious salty Israeli cheese. We were soon hungry for lunch so we had lahmacun (a Turkish flatbread with minced lamb and tomatoes). By this time, I had really developed a crush on Tel Aviv! By mid-afternoon Gil and I separated so I could shopat the Nahalat Binyamin Craft Market, an array of artisan crafts, jewelry, and woodwork that is only set up on Tuesdays and Fridays. I had a wonderful time talking to the artists and purchasing some very unique olive tree bowls and hand-crafted jewelry. 

After I spent a few hours resting at my beachfront hotel, Gil took me on a breathtaking night drive around Tel Aviv. During the “tour,” he pointed out original architecture and modern skyscrapers, many of which were designed by German architects. 

We ate at a very modern Asian restaurant called Topolopompo, which is owned by a friend of Gil's. The food was delicious; each course was a work of art garnished with ingredients neither Gil nor I could identify. After dinner Gil surprised me with a nightcap at a very special “secret”bar called Imperial Bar, where we ended our day with a crafted cocktail and lots of people-watching. 

My second day in Tel Aviv started with a walk on the beautiful beach where people were strolling, jogging, and exercising at the open-air gyms. Gil drove to a winery between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem called Domaine Du Castel, where we were given a special tour and tasting of the wines produced from their vineyards just outside Jerusalem. I knew they were serious when we were served local cheeses to pair with our wines! Both were delicious. 

Gil took me to a nearby restaurant owned by his brother, Itamar, called Muma (named after their grandmother). We got there early, so I was honored when Itamar sat down with us and told stories of their family. His daughter served us the bread they are famous for called kubaneh. It is made with lots of butter (although Gil argued that it should be made with olive oil), and is served with tomato sauce, chopped parsley, and hummus. We were also served fava bean falafel, fried perfectly and served with hummus and pureed beetroot. Gil went behind the bar and made us all negroni cocktails, while Itamar explained the difficulties of operating a restaurant.

Gil and I moved on to the iconic Machane Yehuda market in Jerusalem. There are over 250 vendors lining the several streets, mostly open-air, but some covered. It's a very clean and happy environment where vendors sell fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses, nuts, spices, and much more! Of course, we were given special attention because of Gil's fame, particularly from sellers and customers. 

We visited Basher Fromagerie, a deli and cheese shop in the market, which was packed with customers sampling the dozens of cheeses. Of course, I tasted several bites while Gil was busy being photographed by his fans, including the guys working in the deli. We walked up and down the aisles tasting everything including fresh pastries, spice mixtures, dates, olives, and nuts candied with date syrup. 

I made many purchases, and when we couldn’t carry more packages or taste any more samples, we ended our tour in a special restaurant in the market where they make meat pies called burekas, using a pastry that takes days to make. It is risen 5 times before being rolled out and filled with meat that has cooked so long in its delicious fat that it has become confit. 

I was told that the meat was left over from the Sabbat dinner, and when the pie is cooked in the huge clay oven it is absolutely delicious. They are cooked to order, so we anxiously waited and watched while the row of pies rotated slowly in the oven. They were served to us piping hot. So,so good! Gil had planned one more tasting for us, but I insisted I couldn’t eat another bite. We said our goodbyes and promised each other we would meet again. It didn't matter when or where. It would just happen. 

Gil gave me so much inspiration that as I left Israel I couldn't wait to get home and try my hand at some of the recipes I learned from him. He showed me a different side of Israel, and I am forever grateful to him for showing me such a special culture. 

Izza Wei-Haas