Restaurants prove Holy Land has divine dining

Travel Weekly editor-at-large Nadine Godwin spent a week in Israel, during which she had ample opportunity to sample the food. Her report follows:

efore I went to Israel, an all-knowing friend said that, of course, you don't go to Israel to eat. I repeated that remark to Scott (Teach) Mayer, an American and the chef de village at caberthe Eilat Club Med, whose response was, "Yes, you do."

My expectations were probably along the lines of my friend's -- modest -- although I did know about the fantastic and bounteous breakfast spreads. Indeed, those layouts -- at every hotel on the itinerary -- looked for all the world like the best of lunch buffets, as well.

Clearly, a few hotel guests agreed and acted accordingly: They either ate so much that they would not need another meal until night, or they packed up food items to carry away with them for the day.

In one amusing instance, I walked past the juice bar at the Holiday Inn Dead Sea and noted a sign on the machine that said, "Don't fill bottles." When I read the sign, two elderly women guests were doing just that, looking straight at the sign that they almost certainly could understand.

Back to the food: I was pleasantly surprised at most evening meals. Hotels serve kosher menus, whereas restaurants vary. The kosher status affects food choices on the menu, but it did not make any difference in meal quality. A good chef is a good chef. As a red wine fan, I had good dry merlots and cabernets with dinners, all Israeli.

Reservations usually are recommended or deemed essential at these restaurants, but only one, Lilit in Tel Aviv, was fairly crowded. The others were sadly under-used. Meal portions are very generous. While I sampled openers and main courses, a budget-minded visitor will be well-fed after ordering just one.

And, finally, the menus were a reminder that this was Israel: Some opened "backwards," with pages turning from left to right, as is fitting for the right-to-left standard for writing Hebrew.

The following is a short rundown of dining establishments selected for me by my hosts, with local phone and international fax numbers. Sample prices do not include service.

Tel Aviv

Lilit Restaurant
42 Mazea St.
Tel Aviv 65214
phone (03) 629-8772
fax (011) 972-3 629-1561

Lilit is a moderate-sized eatery wrapped with glass on parts of three sides, decorated in a "modern/cozy" style. The food is creatively prepared and presented, and the facility's goal is unique: It provides a vocational training program for adolescents with learning challenges.

My meal was a salad of asparagus and cheese, followed by the fish and vegetables. The dishes cost about $30, and a basket of bread, butter and olives was $3. Desserts are about $6; we concluded with a frozen red-orange mousse. No meat is served. There are fixed-price lunches at $15 and $20.

Keren Restaurant
12 Eilat St.
Jaffa-Tel Aviv 68119
phone (03) 681-6565
fax (011) 972-3 683-2825

Pilgrims came from Maine to Palestine in 1866, and they brought with them the two-story wooden house that is now the Keren Restaurant. The cuisine is described as French-European. I call it gourmet, and it is priced accordingly.

The restaurant offered tasty pre-meal teasers, among them figs stuffed with cheese. My appetizer was a tomato tart, a caprese salad laid out on a puff pastry, and it was delicious.

Main courses ranged from fish to beef to lamb. My fish came with smoked eggplant, which I will skip next time. The chocolate concoction for dessert was luscious.

Appetizers were $19 to $21; main courses, $35 to $38, and desserts, about $11. There are fixed-price lunches at about $31 to $46.

Eilat

Au Bistrot Chez Michel
Eilot Street, Eilat
phone (08) 637-4333
fax (011) 972-8 637-4333

Chez Michel, a French bistro in Eilat, is a family affair that serves dishes ranging from ostrich filets to pistachio desserts. This French eatery is a family business with 12 white-clothed tables, which seat from five to eight people each. The main courses emphasize beef and seafood. We shared openers of shrimp, calamari and Coquilles St. Jacques, all rich, abundant and delicious.

I ordered the ostrich filet; it won't be a favorite but was delivered with a tasty sauce and vegetables. We concluded with sorbets and a frozen pistachio dessert.

Appetizers range from about $8 to $16, and most main courses are about $19 or $20. The restaurant promotes $15 and $17 tourist menus.

Jerusalem

Restaurant Montefiore
Under the Windmill, Yemin Moshe
Jerusalem 91082
phone (02) 623-2928, 623-2925
fax (011) 972-2 624-4696

Described as Italian dairy, this bright, spacious restaurant sits near Montefiore's Windmill, named -- as is the restaurant -- for the Anglo-Jewish man who built the mill in the mid-19th century.

I chose the house salad followed by the very creamy cannelloni Parmesan. Most dishes on this meatless menu are priced from $7 to $12; fish dishes are about $16 and desserts, nearly $5.

Haneviim
54 Haneviim St.
Jerusalem 95141
phone (02) 624-7432/3
fax (011) 972-2 624-7263

This small kosher restaurant, set in the late 19th century home of a wealthy owner, was my favorite, both for its cozy ambience and creativity with the food.

Diners can sit in the bar area in the enclosed entry area or in one of two rooms beyond that. The proprietors plan to open a small hotel on the second and third floors.

We were first treated to a gazpacho and eggplant paste. My appetizer was a quail and eggplant combination followed by red snapper with a medley of vegetables. Complementing the snapper were "fresh herbs mousse" and "baked garlic and shallots paste."

Openers are priced at about $8 to $15, and main courses at $18 to $30. Mine were $11 and $28, respectively.

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