Israel and I have history.
When I was seventeen I worked on Kibbutz Afikim for six months, in the Jordan Valley, the lushest part of Israel, close to the Sea of Galilee. For breakfast I would eat sweet avocados, each no bigger than a plum, eight at a time. At the end of my stay I travelled around for a few weeks. I saw the Dome of the Rock, which I am no longer allowed to do, and the cave where Christ was born in Bethlehem, which I think is now on the other side of the forbidding wall that separates the West Bank from Israel. I floated in the Dead Sea, which stung. I stood on a bus all the way from Jerusalem to Eilat for six hours reading the Carpetbaggers. In Eilat I slept on the beach. I looked up at Masada, the site of an ancient siege, from ground level and declined to climb to the top. I hitched to parts of the desert that are now in Egypt and slept in makeshift tents at the nudist colony of Nueiba, by the Red Sea. In the week before I flew home I stayed in a hostel in Tel Aviv, six bunk beds to a room, and spent each day tanning on the beach. I could only afford to eat falafel that week, and one scoop of ice cream a day. My flip-flops broke at the airport and I arrived home skinny, barefoot, my feet black but the rest of me Pantone 4625. In short, I’d had a ball.
When I was twenty I went with my father. We stayed at the Hilton for the week, only a short walk from the hostel, but also a million miles from it. It was early Spring so not too hot and we ate cholent, traditionally eaten on the Sabbath. It’s a stew of brisket or short rib, cooked long and slow, with butter beans and kishke, a dumpling. It’s eaten with tzimmes, a dish of carrots sweetened with honey. We went to his friends’ houses and drank lemon tea and ate cheesecake, much airier than you find in the UK, more like a light, sweetened cheese mousse.
That was it until he died over thirty years later. I was in my fifties and wondering how I’d become the man I was. I thought that going back to where I’d been a young adult would be a way to find out. I went to Tiberius, on the Sea of Galilee, where I’d danced one night when I was seventeen at a disco on a pontoon floating on the lake. The view across the water was breathtaking, but the town looked neglected and forlorn. I took a taxi to the kibbutz where I’d stayed all those years ago. I walked around unrecognised. Other than looking thirty years older, as did I, it hadn’t altered. I looked in at the canteen. They were serving the same brown, stewed chicken I’d eaten for lunch when I lived there. I realised that even if it hadn’t changed, I had.
Next came Jerusalem. I’d been told that the best hummous was found in Arabic cafés. There is a place on the Via Dolorosa in the Old City that goes some way to proving this. The two evenings I spent in the city I went to the American Colony Hotel, where Tony Blair and Natalie Portman stay, maybe not together. You walk through the hotel and down stone steps into a dark, glamorous bar, the sort of place where spies are recruited. I ate two excellent dinners sitting at the bar, enjoying the intrigue.
I went on to Tel Aviv where I could not find a way to settle. I was staying at a big, shiny hotel by the beach and it didn’t suit me. I ate at easy-to find restaurants where the food could have been better. Waitresses tapped the table with their fingernails before taking your order and reminded you that service wasn’t included. I was uncharmed.
But three years on from that trip, last year, I felt the urge to return. Perhaps because I hadn’t found a way to enjoy the city I thought I had unfinished business. I booked a room at the Cinema Hotel. It was small and smart and in the centre, on Diezengoff Square, which is a circle. It overlooks a colourful fountain that, every evening at six, rotates in time with music as fountains dance. Israelis think it kitsch and are embarrassed by it, but I love it.
This time I arrived with lists from Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, from Ottolenghi, of course, and Itamar Shrulevitch of Honey and Co, of their favourite places to eat in Tel Aviv. There were swanky places as well as street-food stands. I wanted to taste it all. On my first night I went to the restaurant at the Montefiori Hotel. It is handsome, as is the food. I had a creamed corn dish, they called it polenta which I suppose it was, topped with girolles. Then I had a perfectly cooked sea bass followed by a sweet fruit soup. I walked back to my hotel a happy man and stopped for a glass of Israeli gewurtz, as I watched bats flying from tree to tree. Tel Aviv is a verdant city, with many beautiful and exotic trees. Even in late October there are flowers and blossom growing everywhere. I liked the wine best with a couple of ice-cubes in it, a la plouf as the French say.
Israelis, slim hipped and broad-shouldered, are as figure conscious as an LA starlet. Their genes come from a world-wide pool and they are a good-looking people. They spend two years in military service when they are young, then return for a month every year until they’re forty-five. It is an informal country. I wouldn’t want to be a tie salesman there as no one wears them. The weather is warm and they lead outdoorsy, sporty lives. They don’t drink much and a salad comes with every meal. They are obsessed by cottage cheese. Every supermarket has aisles of it, every food shop has fridges full. They think it’s slimming, like we think yoghurt is.
Over two weeks I ate well, although I recommend you don’t eat at the beachside cafés. You can walk the ten metres to shaded tables, but you can also order from a waiter while you’re sunbathing so you don’t even have to leave your lounger to eat lunch. The only waterside place to eat is Manta Ray, which is a cut or two, maybe three, above the rest. I had a lovely scallop and leek dish there. It is surprising how everywhere serves shellfish, which isn’t kosher. This wasn’t the case thirty years ago.
One night I ordered a shrimp burger, imagining a sort of fish cake, but a beef burger with three medium-sized prawns arranged on top is what I got. A bowl of calamari came with it, looking like pale hula hoops. I picked at it absent-mindedly until the bowl was empty.
Barbunya isn’t smart. A waitress bangs down nine lozenge-shaped dishes with salads and relishes onto the paper clothed table. She shows you a list of the fish they have for that night, but may not let you have what you first ask for. It might be finished or, I’m sure this is what happened but still can hardly believe that it did, she may think it’s the wrong fish for you. I was allowed red mullet that night and it was very good indeed.
Go to the bric-a-brac market in Jaffa on Friday or Saturday. Have lunch somewhere, either at one of the cafés by the shops, where you’ll be lucky to find a table, or at an open-air place on top of the hill overlooking the sea on the way back to Tel Aviv. I had a St Peter’s fish with a spicy sauce. Too hot for me really, but still good. It’s not far to walk back after your meal along the promenade, a kilometre, less than two, anyway. I ate more fish than I normally do on that trip. I ate more fish than a seal.
One of my favourite surprises of Tel Aviv is how the air is perfumed with the sweet aroma of fruit from the many juice stands. And don’t miss the Carmel Market, stall after stall of the plumpest, most colourful fruit and vegetables, mountains of Middle-eastern spice mixes, pastries and breads. I ate gundi, a chicken dumpling in broth with herbs, chickpeas and finely sliced radish, at a cafe next to the market. It’s my favourite item on Honey and Co’s menu and I’ve cooked it several times from their book, Food from the Middle East. I didn’t find, or, coward that I am, didn’t look for, the place described so poetically by Itamar, where he finds his favourite gundi, …in a side street in the red light district… you walk through a foul-smelling underlit corridor into a very square room with aluminium chairs, laminate tablecloths, ceiling fans, sweaty people… next time I’ll go for that glamorous gundi.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, how Middle-Eastern food, particularly from Israeli chefs, is wowing London and therefore the World right now. There’s the trailblazing Ottolenghi, of course. His empire is spreading and his books are loved everywhere. And The Palomar is named as London’s favourite restaurant more often than it isn’t. And Honey and Co is thriving and winning every award for their book. I asked Itamar and Sarit why they thought this was. It tastes good, suggested Sarit. Well, yes, it does that. But it’s more than that, too. It’s exotic without being too unfamiliar – we recognise the pomegranates and quinces and cous cous. And I guess it’s seen as ‘healthy’ with its emphasis on fruit and vegetables. It satisfies our taste for sweet and sour. Also, Sarit is right, it does taste good.
French Jews are moving to Tel Aviv in large numbers and it’s noticeable how often you hear French accents where you used to hear Russian. There are patisseries opening in Tel Aviv to satisfy the French taste. I wonder if the French finish will have an influence on Israel. I don’t mean Tel Aviv has no finesse, but it’s of a less elaborate kind than you’ll find in Paris.
My favourite place, for breakfast or afternoon tea, maybe my ideal café, is the Liselotte, on a quiet, leafy corner near the centre. If you ask for something they’ve run out of they’ll bring you some freshly baked biscuits to make up for it, without charge. You may detect a faint aroma of pot as you eat your three-inch slice of fresh, soft cake. The other people there are handsome and laid back. Tel Aviv is handsome and laid back. The city is both cool and hot. Much of it was built by émigrés in the thirties, so large areas are two and three storey high blocks with wide, curved balconies. Quintessential Bauhaus.
I was so reluctant to leave I extended my trip by four days. It cost me a fortune, not least because the call to the airline didn’t disconnect so I had to pay a stonking charge. But it was worth it. On the plane back, full of bearded men praying, I realised I hadn’t eaten a single falafel. Or gone to North Abraxis. Or the old bus station. Or Machneyuda in Jerusalem, sister restaurant to The Palomar. There are quite a few places I hadn’t been to on my list. Reasons to return in October, so I’ll have another chance. Also, and this is weird, four of the five times I’ve been to Israel a Planet of the Apes film has been shown on the way home. Seriously.
American Colony Hotel Louis Vincent Street 1, Jerusalem
Cinema Hotel Zamenhoff Street 1, Tel Aviv
Ottolenghi 287 Upper Street, London, N1
Honey & Co 25a Warren Street, London W1
The Palomar 34 Rupert Street, London W1
Montefiori Hotel Montefiori Street 36, Tel Aviv
Manta Ray Charles Clore Park, Tel Aviv promenade
Barbunya Ben Yehuda Street 163, Tel Aviv
Carmel Market HaCarmel Street 11, Tel Aviv
Liselotte Reines Street 20, Tel Aviv