Hummus from Abu Shukri (Jerusalem)
This was hummus bowl #1 of my trip, and you never forget your first, right? After a long morning of walking through ancient, sacred spaces in the old city of Jerusalem, we squeezed into this (what's smaller than a hole?)-in-the-wall for bowls of hummus. There were three varieties: one came topped with toasty pine nuts, another with whole chickpeas, and another with fava beans, all with puddles of olive oil on top.
Abu Shukri: 63 Al Wad Rd, Jerusalem (map)
Falafel from Abu Shukri (Jerusalem)
Hummus may be the centerpiece of the Abu Shukri spread but it becomes a falafel feast when the crisp falafel fritters emerge from the fryer and are delivered to the table along with fiery red hot sauce, briny pickle slices, and fresh-baked pita.
Mutabak from Zalatimo (Jerusalem)
It will take time and patience (and some yelling at Google Maps) to actually find Zalatimo tucked into a corner near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but once you do, you'll be rewarded with mutabak. The pastry starts with a wad of filo dough that a guy tosses in the air, pizza style, then stretches out until it's tissue-paper-thin. Filled with soft white cheese crumbles or nuts and fruit—there are only two options on Zalatimo's menu—it's folded up like an envelope, then goes into an oven (that looks like it's been around since they opened in 1860). Hot and crackly-edged, the mutabak gets the powdered sugar shaker treatment.
The Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi (of Plenty cookbook fame) actually visited this mutabak bakery for a BBC special on Jerusalem food. Watch a clip here!
Israelis love white cheese. Soft and salty, it's usually just referred to as "white cheese" but if you want to get technical, you can call it "Bulgarit," which simply means "Bulgarian" (look for Bulgarian feta outside of Israel). Usually made from a combination of cows', sheeps' and sometimes goats' milk, the cheese is pretty similar to feta but has a less crumbly consistency. The firmer the Bulgarit, the higher the fat content.
Across the street from the Mahane Yehuda market, there's a standing-room-only Khachapuri Restaurant that bakes different types of khachapuri, the Georgian cheese bread. This boat-shaped one called "Adjaruli Khachapuri," named after the Adjara region of Georgia, was my favorite. You have to wait 25 minutes for it to bake, and then it'll burn your tongue, but totally worth it. The yeast dough gets baked with Georgian cheese, a few pats of butter, and eggs cracked in the middle. Pull apart the browned bread edges and dunk them back in the salty, cheesy, buttery, yolky center. They make other dough pockets too with cheese, spinach, potatoes and various fillings.
Khachapuri Restaurant: 5 Hashikma St, Jerusalem (map)
Cottage cheese in Israel makes any other "cottage cheese" (note the quotes!) from anywhere else in the world look like a sorry impostor. It's not treated as a Must-Lose-15-Pounds food in Israel. So much brighter and fresher-tasting with plump curds and a good, wholesome dairy taste, it was like tasting cottage cheese for the first time.
Many Salads, Pickles, Olives from Haj Kahil (Jaffa)
One of my most memorable meals in Israel. Really. Wow. So many small bowls filled with vibrant salads shared family-style: tomatoes and salty cheese cubes, cauliflower with tahini, marinated eggplant, tabouleh, pickled carrots, okra, and oily green olives. "You still have a shoulder of lamb coming," the waiter warned us. But I could have filled up (and did) on just these gorgeous salads.
Haj Kahil: 18 Raziel Street, Jaffa 68120; hajkahil.com
Fried Haloumi from Haj Kahil (Jaffa)
Fried cheese can be really good or really bad. This was transcendentally good. The kind of good where you have to close your eyes and eventually you stop hearing words around you, and you enter a blissed-out state of fried cheese elation. The golden-brown fried shell was still crackly-crisp, darker around the edges, and the salty haloumi center wasn't squeaky or too chewy, but more like medium-firm tofu.
Kanafeh from Haj Kahil (Jaffa)
Underneath all those wispy pastry shreds there's a soft white cheese base. The whole thing is soaked in a sweet syrup and topped with pistachio bits. Crisp on top, soft and creamy underneath, with the sweet nuttiness mingled throughout. Kanafeh, you may look like a bird's nest but you taste so much better than bird's nest ever could.
Pomegranate Juice from Haj Kahil (Jaffa)
Tart and juicy, this chilled glass of fresh pomegranate juice was lip-smackingly refreshing. (Though I pity the person who had to remove all the pomegranate seeds; that sounds a little cumbersome.)
Ika Chocolates (Tel Aviv)
Chocolatier Ika Sarah Cohen is like the young, blonde marine-biologist-turned-Willy-Wonka of Israel. She was named a World Finalist at the International Chocolate Awards in London this year, and you can see why. Trained by the best confectioners in Paris—Michel Chaudun, Jean-Charles Rochoux, and Jacques Genin—Ika opened her own chocolate boutique in 2011. "They're all my babies," she said of the 24 different chocolates in her shop. The coffee-cardamom bonbon is nicely spiced and gives you a bit of a coffee buzz. The coconut chocolate was another favorite, even for an anti-coconut companion of mine.
Ika Chocolate: 11 Yad Haruzim Street, Tel Aviv (map)
Challah from the Bakery in Bnei Brak
Just east of Tel Aviv, the Bnei Brak neighborhood is inhabited by orthodox Jews. Visit on Thursday night and everyone's running around and preparing for Shabbat. Prime time for challah baking. We saw them speed-braiding 18 long snakes of challah dough in the warm kitchen.
A huge bowl of diced, crunchy vegetables: cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, and bell peppers. It's commonly part of the breakfast spread, then reappears all day.
Carpaccio from Salon (Tel Aviv)
Only open two nights a week (Wednesday and Thursday), Salon is one of the most talked-about restaurants in Tel Aviv. Chef Eyal Shani can be found in the open kitchen, slicing up ruby-red tomatoes. Order the carpaccio and it'll arrive with a pounding presentation. BAM BAM BAM. After some intense BAMming, it becomes the thinnest, most tongue-melty carpaccio. Then at some point in the night, Salon turns into one big dance party. As the music cranks up, waiters start dropping plates. People are dancing on chairs and somehow the kitchen team is still laser-focused on whatever they're preparing.
Salon: 8 Ma’avar Yabuk, Tel Aviv (map) 052-703-5888.
Breakfast from Manta Ray (Tel Aviv)
Breakfast in Israel is the best, and if you really want the full experience—a spread of salads, shakshouka, fish, breads—and a view overlooking the Tel Aviv beach to boot, then get yourself to Manta Ray.
Manta Ray: Alma Beach, Tel Aviv; mantaray.co
I would start every morning with shakshuka if I could. Usually served in the same pan in which it's cooked, the eggs are cracked straight into the tomato sauce. The best part: the side of bread to swipe up that glorious, garlicky, tomatoey shakshuka swamp.
Egg in Challah Toast from Cordelia (Jaffa)
Challah bread with an egg in the middle. Poke the yolk and watch it ooze. Oh, and also the toast was pan-fried in bone marrow.
Cordelia: 30 Yefet Street, Jaffa
Masabacha from Abu Hassan (Jaffa)
Masabacha is a bowl of warm chickpeas—some remain whole, some smashed—in tahini with olive oil, chopped herbs, and spices. Abu Hassan is a popular Jaffa joint, always packed, especially in the morning when everyone piles in for a hummus breakfast. They usually sell out by noontime. With each bowl you get a pita and a plate of raw onions for scooping. "That's how I really judge a girl—if she can handle the raw onion scoopers," said my buddy Amit.
Abu Hassan: 14 Shivtei Yisrael Street, Jaffa
Shawarma from Shawarma Bino (Jaffa)
There's an all-shakshuka restaurant in Jaffa called, appropriately, Dr. Shakshuka. The "doctor" himself is Bino Gabso, and he also runs a shawarma stand next-door. This is the real-deal Turkish shawarma made from 100% lamb. Go crazy at the condiments bar out front: hot sauces, pickled vegetables, cabbage slaws, etc.
Shawarma Bino: 29 Raziel Street, near the clock square, Jaffa
In true Mediterranean fashion, Israelis love fish, whether herring, smoked salmon, or mackerel. It's never too early, either. Here was a bowl we enjoyed for breakfast with red onions and soft white cheese.
You'll find them next to the olives at most markets. Preserved lemons are the finishing touch on a stew, a piece of fish, a plate of couscous, or really whatever else needs a kapow of bright acidity and brine. The peels (the best part) become soft and intensely lemony.
Over half of the world's Medjool dates are produced in Israel. Sun-ripened and soft, they are huge and oozing with sticky sweetness. Baked into cakes, made into syrups, and of course eaten straight-up.
The anise spirit shares a flavor profile with Greek ouzo or French pastis. It's too intensely licoricey for some people to drink neat, but it shows up in a number of cocktails. This one was as refreshing as a Gimlet with some anise perk and a long, crisp cucumber slice.
Salmon and Wasabi Sorbet from Uri Buri (Acre)
Uri Buri has to be the most beloved fish restaurant in all of Israel. (Yes, it's called Uri Buri—completely factual.) Uri himself buys the fish straight from the fisherman's boat in the Mediterranean seaside town of Acre, then serves it fresh at the restaurant. Wasabi sorbet sounded a little gimmicky at first but the spicy bite from the Japanese horseradish and the cooling powers of the sorbet totally worked. "It makes wasabi more friendly for humankind," said Uri of the sorbet.
Uri Buri: HaHagana 11, Acre, 24315
Ice Cream from Endomela (Acre)
On the same block as his fish restaurant, Uri opened an ice cream shop called Endomela where the flavors are locally-inspired and wonderful: apricot, halvah, and arak are some standards. Just look how happy the man looks scooping out samples.