My friend Marina Bundy and I were intrigued, to say the least when we were invited to a dinner promising a dive into “Israeli cuisine,” as well as a few words from an Israeli tourism executive at Butcher & Bee.
We joined an intimate crowd of local media folks for welcome snacks that included vibrantly colored pickled deviled eggs with beets and savory lamb kebabs.
After meeting Michael Shemtov, the owner of Butcher & Bee, and talking with John David Harmon about the exceptional wines that he had tasted in the old city of Akko and how they changed his perception of Israeli wines, from an expectation of New World grapes to one of dynamic new flavors.
We sat down to enjoy mezze, which Chef Chelsey told us was a distinctly Israeli and more broadly, Mediterranean service that usually is featured before the entree at any major meal. The dishes were served family style, and we were treated to heaping portions of savory tahini, hummus, and a sweet dish of whipped feta, fermented honey, and cracked black pepper, all of which we sopped up with fresh bread.
Next, beets, amba—a sweet and tangy pickled mango condiment, labneh—strained yogurt, pickled onions, and dill were served along with falafel, baba ghanoush, and Israeli salad.
“I think we have yet to see really great Israeli-inspired food in the South, but it’s on its way,” said Shemtov.
A major question posed as the hosts sat for a chat with guests was “How does Israeli food distinguish itself from the broader cuisine of the Mediterranean?”
pickled vegetables and falafel
Shemtov explained that one of the features that sets Israeli cuisine apart from that of its neighbors is the influence that immigrants from all over Europe, Africa, and Asia bring to it.
“We bridge the gaps in cuisines between Iraqi, Ethiopian, Spanish, and Eastern European immigrants to Israel,” he said
Chef Chelsey told us about her recent love affair with amba, which before her trip she had regarded as an afterthought, and she raved about the diverse array of fresh spices such as Aleppo peppers that the travelers were able to bring back to the States.
As Shemtov and Harmon discussed their experiences meeting with Shemtov's family for meals, we were served the main attraction—entrees of moist chicken schnitzel with Meyer lemon and tahini, along with an amazingly complex cabbage salad, accented by more amba.
Overall, it was a delicious meal that served as the vehicle through which we were able to learn a great deal about the expanding culinary footprint of modern Israel—did you know that the country boasts the most vegans-per-capita in the world?—and piqued our interest.
Israel is definitely on my list for food-travel destinations now.