A Food Pilgrimage From Tel Aviv to Jerusalem

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A Food Pilgrimage From Tel Aviv to Jerusalem

While Jerusalem venerates its past, Tel Aviv looks toward the future.

Jerusalem is one of the oldest cities in the world; approximately 3.5 million tourists—many on religious pilgrimage—arrive every year to visit centuries old holy sites. On the streets, modestly dressed nuns and rabbis cross paths within the narrow alleys of the Old City engendering an air of conservatism. New buildings are erected in the same white limestone that makes up their ancient counterparts to minimize distinction between the old and the new.

In Tel Aviv, modern hotels are popping up monthly alongside long neglected buildings, and bearded cyclists pass purple-haired German expats huddled around the city’s mobile book swaps. Young people, who make up nearly a third of Tel Aviv’s population, are on different sort of pilgrimage—the quest for startup success. But beyond the surface-level differences, nowhere is the divide more evident, yet the soul more constant, than in the food.

In Jerusalem, even new, trendy spots are content rehashing centuries-old regional dishes in modern formats, and kosher eateries remain the norm. This stands in stark contrast to Tel Aviv’s farm-to-table, craft cocktail, and fusion movements. Modern Asian, Italian, and North African influences are emerging in chic, hipster-approved eateries, where impeccably tattooed waiters will happily serve you pork smothered in cheese. Here’s how to eat your way through both cities—and catch some sites along the way.

Tel Aviv: Modern Foodie Metropolis

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At the intersection of Sderot Rothschild and Nahalat Binyamin, work your way through a cluster of trendy food and nightlife spots, including Abraxas, which serves modern takes on Levantine classics, like grape-marinated lamb shawarma in tahini sauce, and after 10 p.m. a DJ spins American hits for casual dancing; and Mizlala, which combines Middle Eastern and global flavors. Dishes include Kubaneh (pictured above)—Yemenite Jewish bread shaped like a chef’s hat—with a tomato and green chili sauce, and sashimi with soy and silan glaze and eggplant tempura. Just a few doors down, Bindella, a chic Swiss transplant, offers an Israeli twist on modern Italian food including a take on panna cotta with limoncello caviar, candied nuts, and pineapple, which alone is worth the visit. One of the most popular restaurants in Tel Aviv now is the elegant Asian eatery Taizu. From the interiors—gray concrete walls, sleek black tables, and glass sconces—to aesthetically plated Shanghainese dumplings and tuna tartar served in a rice cone, everything is artistic and chic.

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Walk along the cobblestone streets of Jaffa, popping into charming storefronts with colorful shutters and passing the port, which has been in operation for more than 3,000 years and is home to the largest city-commissioned works of street art.

The evocative Ilana Goor Museum (pictured above), housed in a former soap factory in Jaffa, serves as the famed Israeli artist’s private home and an open museum (only her bedroom is private), which showcases her private art collection, comprising everything from ancient pottery to large-scale contemporary sculptures. Stop at Haj Kahil for the famously juicy lamb shawarma and a bottomless basket of laffa (a traditional Middle Eastern flatbread baked in a taboon oven) and a slice of kanefeh—wispy pastry shreds surrounding a soft white cheese, soaked in syrup, and topped with pistachio.

For the heart and soul of Tel Aviv’s culinary culture, head to the markets. Levinsky Market, a five-block stretch of gourmet bakeries, spice shops and delicatessens founded by Greek and Turkish immigrants in the late 1920s, is the foundation of Tel Aviv’s gourmet food scene. Nearly a century later, many of the early family-owned shops, like the 40-year-old Yom Tov Deli (famous for its Turkish cheeses and grape leaves, made by the family’s 93-year-old grandfather), are still standing. A wave of trendy new eateries, like the Mediterranean-inspired Halutzim 3, have sprouted into the mix.

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Less polished than Levinsky, the Carmel Market is where most of the city’s working class shops. You’ll find golden mounds of spices followed by piles of plump pomegranates, and the occasional gnarly smells and sights, like whole cow carcasses strung from butcher stands and old men dumping ice buckets of pungent fish onto the ground.

Stop at the Druze Chalabi Family stand near Simtat HaCarmel Road for laffa baked on a hot crescent-shaped stone (pictured above), then smeared with labneh (creamy cheese made from strained yogurt with a distinctive, sour taste), pickled lemons and tabouleh (a salad made of chopped tomatoes, parsley, mint, bulgur and onion), and rolled up into a warm wrap that falls apart in your mouth.

The Yemenite Quarter holds some of the market’s best-kept secrets. In a hollowed-out kitchen, an over 100-year-old bakery informally named Syrian Cookies (to find it, ask Moran Broza of Delicious Israel) makes only two things: buttery, biscotti-like cookies and burekas—triangular pastries filled with cheese and covered in sesame seeds. The simplicity of each belies the mastery of flavors and textures; you could polish off an entire tray with ease.

In Tel Aviv, if you’re looking to start an hours long argument, there’s no need to bring up religion or politics; the Tel Avivim fight most passionately over who makes the best hummus.
Though the famed Abu-Hasan/Ali Karavan in Jaffa deserves a visit (be prepared to get there early and wait in line), for me, the conflict ends at Shlomo v’ Doron. A blend of pureed and whole chickpeas, plus a swirl of Egyptian fava puree and an Earl Grey-boiled egg that melts into creamy, fluffy hummus makes it the clear winner. Top it with steaming shakshuka—poached eggs cooked in tomato sauce—for a twist, and scoop it up with freshly baked pita or sliced onion, and you’ll be hooked.

Fatout is a pastry made of thin layers of dough baked in traditional metal pot burners and smothered in butter and honey. Get it at Milky Way, a dollhouse-like cafe decorated with postcards from around the world. Though you’ll come for the pastry, you’ll stay for a conversation with the adorable owner, Shim Shom. Grab an early cocktail at the bar in The Norman hotel in the heart of the White City, Tel Aviv’s UNESCO-protected Bauhaus district. Situated in two restored Bauhaus homes from the 1920s, the building’s structural details and interior design are impeccable—from the sculptural pewter bar to the Portuguese mosaic floors. Order a French 75 and settle into one of the stately leather armchairs.

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The Brown Beach House (pictured above) is spearheading a revival of the otherwise lackluster Tel Aviv waterfront. With sea and city views, the hotel bar offers a Miami Vice feel with long white couches, gauzy curtains and a two-story tall vintage Playboy poster, gazing seductively over young Israelis tossing back martinis.

Across the street, the side entrance to the otherwise uninspiring Imperial Hotel leads to a dimly lit cocktail lounge. Imperial Craft Cocktail Bar serves expertly-mixed libations, like the Thyme to Kill with Tanqueray, Ouzo and St. Germain, shaken with mandarin jam, lime and thyme. The bar fills up fast, so call ahead or plan to get there before 9. The new Poli House opens this May in a restored corner-lot Bauhaus building, overlooking the intersection of Nahalat Binyamin and Allenby Streets on Magen David Square. Locals will be buzzing about the rooftop bar, which promises pumping music and an infinity pool cascading over the edge.
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Jerusalem: Pristine and Preserved

Approaching Jerusalem—Israel’s capital city and greatest tourist attraction—you’ll be enchanted by a sparkling white skyline and ivy-covered buildings that glisten above the cool desert hills. The façade is impressive, better maintained than Tel Aviv; but come night, the city gets quiet, leaving an air of the sacred and the shaken.

One of the more lively spots is the Alrov Mamilla Avenue shopping strip, where strings of lights link designer boutiques to trendy eateries. Find the entry to the mod-chic Mamilla Hotel and head to the roof for a peaceful, picturesque view of the Old City, Tower of David, and Jaffa Gate, all lit up at night. Stay for dinner to taste what many Tel Aviv chefs call the impossible: haute, kosher food without compromise or blandness. Chef Cobi Bachar’s winning dish is the bone marrow with Jerusalem artichoke, white truffle, and veal brain. Wash it down with an Israeli-made Cabernet.

The heart of Jerusalem beats in the Old City. The scene is as you’d imagine it from the Bible: a girl wearing a white tunic strokes a harp and women dressed in long black robes and pillbox hats pass. Today, the 6,000-year-old walled city is one of the most important destinations for pilgrims of several major religions. But the sites are fascinating for anyone with a penchant for ancient history. At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (pictured above), Catholics pay respects at the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and anoint themselves with the oils above his tomb.

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Steps away, Jews pray at the Western Wall (pictured above), the last remaining piece of the Jewish Temple; scribble down a wish or a prayer and tuck it into a crack in the wall (you may dislodge about a handful of other notes in the process; it’s OK), and it’s said to go straight to God. And the Dome of the Rock twinkles over East Jerusalem, commemorating the Prophet Muhammad’s mystical Night Journey.

Between the sites, the windy cobblestone streets are tightly packed with stalls selling rosaries, mezuzahs and Moroccan-made clothing; the paths lead you seamlessly through four quarters occupied by Christians, Muslims, Jews and Armenians. Look beyond the tchotchkes and you’ll uncover some of the city’s best food. In a hidden stone kitchen, a few minutes walk from the Coptic Church, get the Zalatimo family’s murtabak. The pastry starts with a wad of filo dough, kneaded pizza-style and stretched out until it’s paper-thin. It is stuffed with a spongy sheep cheese, folded up like an envelope, and baked in the oven. Once it’s baked, the murtabak is dressed in simple syrup and powdered sugar. Each lightly crisp bite oozes oily, sweet goodness.

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A ten minute walk from the Old City on Artist’s Colony alleyway, chef Moshe Basson, a monkish figure and Iraqi transplant, riffs on biblical cooking at his restaurant The Eucalyptus. Order the maqluba (pictured above)—a Palestinian dish of rice with chicken legs, eggplant and other vegetables that is traditionally flipped upside down to serve. The casserole—think busier paella—ends with an almost caramelized layer of meat and rice stuck to the bottom of the pot; that’s the best part.

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At Yemenite Falafel, there is only one thing on the menu. While there are hundreds of places to get falafel (pictured above) in Jerusalem, this place is the real deal: perfectly crisp outside and fluffy inside, the chickpeas are ground with fresh parsley, and the falafel always comes out hot and fresh. The owners have even been known to give you some fresh falafel balls to crunch on while you are waiting. Plan to go early Friday afternoon; like many places in Jerusalem, it keeps Sabbath, meaning it’s closed Friday night and Saturday.

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Jerusalem’s (cleaner) equivalent to the Carmel market is Machane Yehuda (pictured above), where more than 250 vendors vie for your attention, new shekels, and taste buds. For 99 Shekels ($25), you can buy a Shuk Bites tasting card in advance, which makes the decisions easier by giving you generous tastings at more than half a dozen of the most popular vendors. Highlights include Hatz’aforia, a Georgian bakery where you can get Imeruli (a comforting pizza-like pastry stuffed with spinach and cheese), and Mousseline, an ice cream shop that churns exotic flavors, like basil and saffron.

Not included in the card but a must-visit is Azura. Shabi Sherfler runs the small stand his father, Ezra, opened in the market in 1952. Their signature dish is kubbeh, a semolina dumpling stuffed with beef, and eggplant stuffed with ground beef, cinnamon, and pine nuts. You might think you’ve had good—even great—rugelach, but the chocolate rugelach at Marzipan change your world. The secret is the chocolate-to-dough ratio: “Where most make it 80 percent dough and 20 percent chocolate, we do the reverse,” says Itzik Ozarko, the current owner and son of the bakery’s founder. Once it’s rolled, the cookie is painted with a coconut, vanilla, honey-like glaze that makes the cookie fall apart in your mouth.

The market’s eponymous restaurant Machneyuda makes the case that tradition can be still be as compelling, if not more compelling, than anything else. The decor hits that sweet spot between your Jewish grandmother’s kitchen and a hipster Williamsburg eatery—think long wooden tables, family photos on the walls and intentionally mismatching floral-printed plates. The staff dance and take shots in the open kitchen to get the crowd going. While you’ll be hard-pressed to find a dish you don’t like, the most engaging is the dessert: a group of servers swarm the table, feverishly flinging caramel, raspberry, and chocolate syrups; catapults of whipped cream; and fragments of apple pie, cornmeal cake, and fresh fruit. Don’t be shy about using your hands.

When it starts to wrap up around 2 a.m., the proprietors would love for you to continue the party across the street at the even rowdier Yudale; they own and run that too.

Christina is a beach kid living in Brooklyn and a world traveler on a budget. She writes about food, style, travel—and the occasional short story.

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