Feasting on Chakra in Jerusalem (Part V: What I Ate On My Israeli Vacation)

Chakra
41 King George Street
Jerusalem, IsraelPhoto Jun 06, 1 47 52 PMAlthough Tel Aviv is certainly a very popular destination for visitors to Israel, and considered the cultural center of the country, it is actually Jerusalem that is the nation’s capital. One of the oldest cities in the world—central to three major religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam—Jerusalem sits in the middle of the country between the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean Sea in the Judean Mountains. A city entrenched in history, the oldest area is surrounded by walls, but modern Jerusalem has developed far beyond the ancient walls of the Old City. Downtown Jerusalem has become a hub of hipster coffee shops, posh hotels, high-end shopping, and gourmet restaurants intermingled with outdoor markets, religious centers and government buildings.

IMG_3145In the middle of downtown Jerusalem is Chakra. Chakra is a hip restaurant located on the busy King George Street with a large indoor-outdoor space that was busy when we arrived. There was a pleasant hum in the air, and the restaurant buzzed with energy on Saturday night. What’s nice is that Chakra is open on Shabbat, while there are quite a few restaurants in Jerusalem that are closed on the Jewish Sabbath, until at least an hour after sundown.

IMG_3148.JPG IMG_3147We were a large group, so we did not get the chance to choose individual dishes, and instead were served multiple plates of a variety of dishes. Though, many of us also ordered individual cocktails, and we were served lots of wine, as well as water and lemonana—a mint-lemonade drink served throughout Israel. The first brought out was the stone oven focaccia, tomato and olive oil—the delicious flatbread was still hot from the oven! It was the perfect accompaniment for the coming appetizers, and soon after some olive oil and harif were brought to dip. Harif is a traditional Israeli condiment made from spicy peppers and is very acidic, but also earthy taste and grainy texture.

IMG_3149IMG_3151Next up was the first of the appetizers—chopped liver with fig jam. Though this seemed very Yiddish, as opposed to Israeli, it fit in well with Chakra’s international fusion inspired menu. The spread was super creamy and had a luxurious mouthfeel to it. The fig jam was sweet and perfectly complemented the saltiness and musty, headiness of the liver. This was a wonderfully gourmet version of a traditional Jewish dish. At the same time that the chopped liver came out, we were served zucchini carpaccio with feta and tapenade. The zucchini was sliced very thinly and became almost see-through, and was garnished with salty feta cheese, briny olives, and juicy tomato. It was a light salad and the zucchini was thin enough that it absorbed the subtle dressing.

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IMG_3150The lemon garlic cauliflower was simple, but delicious. The cauliflower was roasted and dressed in lemon juice and zest, as well as garlic. The florets had a slightly crisp exterior and didn’t become mushy like many cauliflower dishes. It was spicy and slightly smoky with a lemony bite. The open fire eggplant, sheep milk yogurt and tomatoes was good, but nothing special. The eggplant was roasted in its skin—a very common Israeli appetizer—and served with a yogurt sauce. Although the flesh was very creamy and the yogurt was tart and tangy, the dish was sort of bland.

IMG_3153FullSizeRender-5The next couple of dishes were my personal favorites—beef carpaccio, parmesan and rocket and spicy tuna bruschetta & aioli. The beef was paper-thin and seared on one side. It was dressed with a strongly acidic vinaigrette, and the deliciously fatty meat was so-so tender. I wish I had another plate all to myself! The shaved parmesan and rocket, or arugula, helped cut through the heavy meat and the arugula provided a peppery bite. The tuna was chopped roughly, and mixed with Asian spices, and maybe some wasabi. It was piled onto toast points and then artfully arranged on the plate. These two cold dishes were very refreshing and helped prepare for more to come.

FullSizeRender-1The first entrée of the night was tomato and mozzarella risotto. The arborio rice was cooked al dente, and maintained a slight bite to it, and a deep tomato flavor. The mozzarella melted into the risotto, and there was a light garnish of parmesan atop the rice. This was a truly excellent dish and satisfied a craving for creaminess I didn’t even realize I was feeling. We were also served some caesar salad that was good, but unremarkable.

FullSizeRenderFullSizeRender-3FullSizeRender-4The main course consisted of three meat dishes—kebab with grilled vegetables and tahini, soy and honey chicken breast, and lamb shank gnocchi. The beef kebab was smoky and the ground meat was moist. The tangy tahini played well with the spice level of the kebab’s crust. The chicken was bone-in, and had a wonderful crust from the grill. The soy and honey caramelized on the chicken skin and kept the meat juicy. The lamb was absolutely delicious. It was cooked down with peas, and super tender—very stew-like. The gnocchi were pillowy soft and soaked up the, in essence, lamb ragout.

Photo Jun 06, 1 02 47 PMThe girl sitting next to me was a vegetarian, and the restaurant was very accommodating and brought her a bonus dish—beet tortellini with Roquefort butter. The tortellini dough was very delicate and you could see the beautiful pink, beet filling through the pasta. The tortellini were extra-large, very filling, and not too sweet. The sweetness may have been tempted by the Roquefort butter sauce that imitated a cream sauce and made the dish rich and luxurious.

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Photo Jun 06, 1 30 56 PMEven though we didn’t have that much room left, after our veritable feast, we were then served dessert! The panna cotta was flavored with wild berries, which gave a nice sour flavor to the sauce. The panna cotta itself was formed from a vanilla custard, and perfectly set. There was also a chocolate cake a la mode. The cake was deliciously moist, chewy, fudge with a slightly crisp edge. The ice cream was just icing on the cake—pun intended! The final dessert was sorbet with cookie surprise. The sorbet was tangy with a lemon-like flavor and almost edged into ice milk or sherbet territory since it was so creamy. The cookie surprised was crumbled on top and added a nice textural contrast to the otherwise one-note dessert. This was a nice way to end a decadent meal on our last night in Jerusalem.

IMG_3146.JPGI might have been part of a large group, but this might have been one of my best meals on the trip! Chakra has an amazing atmosphere, fabulous food, lovely location, and wonderful waitstaff. I definitely will be returning on my next trip to Jerusalem—and it should be on your list as well.

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A Culinary Tour of Machane Yehuda Market (Part IV: What I Ate On My Israeli Vacation)

I would be very remiss if I were to only focus on restaurants in Israel. Throughout the small country, there are many, many outdoor markets or “the shuk.”

Photo Jun 04, 10 30 05One of the most well-known markets in Israel is Machane Yehuda in Jerusalem. The market has over 250 vendors and sells everything from fresh fruit, vegetables, nuts, spices, meat, fish, cheese, breads, pastries, and more. It’s a cornucopia of smells, textures, flavors, sights, and beautiful food scenery—food porn really.

Photo Jun 04, 11 25 51Photo Jun 04, 11 47 06Photo Jun 04, 11 20 13Photo Jun 04, 11 47 27My trip was lucky enough to go on a culinary tour of Machane Yehuda, and have a fabulous guide—or madrich in Hebrew. Residents of Jerusalem come to this market from all over the city in order to do their shopping for the week, and on Thursdays and Fridays it gets super crowded with all the people doing their shopping for Shabbat. In fact, on Friday afternoon there is a bugle that plays to signify the market is closing for the Jewish Sabbath. Our guide gave us a funny anecdote on the market as well: How do you know if a woman is married, has children, etc., in the market? On Wednesdays the grandmothers shop since they have lots of requests from their grandchildren for special treats, on Thursdays it’s the mothers since they cook all day Friday, Friday morning it’s the married women, so they can cook Friday afternoon, and Friday afternoon it’s the single women since they forget to cook until the last minute 😉

Photo Jun 04, 10 16 47 Photo Jun 04, 10 16 49 Photo Jun 04, 10 16 51 Photo Jun 04, 10 16 53To start off our culinary tour, our guide went into the market and brought out some traditional appetizers and snacks sold throughout the shuk. Kibbeh, also sometimes known as kubbeh are football-shaped croquettes made of bulgar wheat, stuffed with minced lamb or beef, and baked. It has a thick skin that keeps the meat inside moist and delicious. It is often served with tahini to dip, and a staple dish in many Middle Eastern countries. The next treat for us to sample were cigars, which are not tobacco, but get their inspiration from it—they somewhat resemble cigarettes and consist of ground meat or potatoes rolled inside phyllo dough that’s then deep-fried. Though it sounds very heavy, it’s actually light and delicious. They have a nice kick of spice as well. The final pre-tour sample was stuffed grape leaves. The grape leaves are a vegetarian option and are filled with a mediterranean rice mixed with herbs, lemon, garlic, and other spices. They have a briny quality, very acidic and has a wonderful cleansing quality for the palette.

Photo Jun 04, 10 32 24 Photo Jun 04, 10 34 15 Photo Jun 04, 10 35 44The next stop on our tour was for the #1 food of Israel—Hummus! Waiting for us at a small cafe across from one of the entrances to the market  was a table filled with a variety of hummus and hummus-themed dishes. One of the plates had sautéed mushrooms, one with fresh chickpeas, one studded with roasted garlic, a bowl of tahini and a plate of fresh, hot, crispy falafel and more. The falafel balls, especially, were fresh from the fryer and even though they burnt the roof of my mouth a bit, they were soft and pillowy on the inside and a crunch while biting into the outer coating.

Photo Jun 04, 10 58 22 Photo Jun 04, 10 58 23 Photo Jun 04, 10 58 56We next stopped at an Eastern European cafe further into the market area for some khachapuri. Khachapuri is a traditional Georgian (the country, not the state) snack of cheese filled bread. This dish is so popular among Georgian people that it is sometimes believed to be more popular than pizza, and is, at times, used to measure inflation—similar to the butter and guns model in Keynesian economics. The stuffed bread is cooked in a pizza/laffa oven, which makes it chewy, but also slightly charred with a nice crisp crust. We also sampled a khachapuri filled with beans as well. While not as popular as the cheese version, it was tasty as well.

Photo Jun 04, 11 16 42 Photo Jun 04, 11 22 07 Photo Jun 04, 11 23 13 Photo Jun 04, 11 23 18We then spent some more time walking around the market and had the opportunity to taste delicious, fresh juices and smoothies, homemade spice blends, zahtar flavored flatbread and also buy some fruit, cookies, and more gifts to take home.

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Photo Jun 04, 11 19 48One of the interesting place we passed towards one end of the market was Casino de Paris. It’s a new project that developed from an entrepreneur that already opened another coffee shop in the market and has been very successful in transforming parts of the market into modern, chic hotspots. Casino de Paris is open after the market closes, and there are other locations, including in London and Paris.

Photo Jun 04, 11 26 09 Photo Jun 04, 11 26 25 Photo Jun 04, 11 27 17 Photo Jun 04, 11 27 24 Photo Jun 04, 11 30 51 Photo Jun 04, 11 38 00The final stop on our gastronomic journey was at Kingdom of Halva or Mamlechet Ha’Halva in Hebrew. Kingdom of Halva has multiple stalls around the market and is known as the place to buy halva in Jerusalem. Halva is a traditional, Jewish dessert usually made with some sort of nut butter, and most Israeli halva is made from tahini or sesame paste. Kingdom of Halva makes all of its halva varieties homemade, and uses a blend of 90% sesame paste made from whole grain, Ethiopian sesame seeds and 10% sugar. They have over 100 flavors available including, but not limited to: pistachio, Belgian chocolate, pecan, coffee, nougat, piña colada, and more. The halva here is so delicious. It has a nutty taste from the sesame, a non-cloying sweetness, and a slightly grainy texture that melts in your mouth. Another great thing about halva is that it can be stored at room temperature for most of the year and last for months. Kingdom of Halva also makes many varieties of tahini that can be used to make delicious falafel or hummus, as a condiment on Mediterranean sandwiches, as a dip for bread, or even eaten on its own.

Photo Jun 04, 12 04 42 Photo Jun 04, 12 04 45Although our tour of the market was over, our guide surprised us with another treat to end the afternoon of Marzipan rugelach. Marzipan rugelach—as often assumed—do not actually have any marzipan in them, but rather are named since they were first made at the Marzipan Bakery in Jerusalem. These rugelach cookies differ from traditional rugelach, often flavored with cinnamon or raisins, with a flaky exterior, as they are filled with chocolate. In addition, marzipan rugelach are sticky, fudgy, intensely chocolatey, and have a cult following in Israel (and among many Jews around the world as well). They are super decadent with a wonderful richness, doughy and exceedingly sweet. They are almost like crack rugelach—they are that good and worth a trip to Jerusalem just to try these treats. What a perfect way to end our afternoon at Machane Yehuda market.

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Photo Jun 04, 11 54 41So I hope you’re inspired to go out and eat some tasty Israeli treats, or even take a trip to Jerusalem and visit the market yourselves! B’Teiavon and stay hungry!

What I Ate On My Israel Vacation

I recently returned from a visit to Israel. The trip was amazing and we did so many great activities – rafting in the Galilee River, riding ATV’s in Golan Heights near the Syrian border, partying and relaxing on the beach in Tel Aviv and much more. However, my favorite part of the trip was the delicious food that we had. Everyday there was a big spread at breakfast of salads, breads, fish, cheeses, yogurts, bourekas, and juice. The large Israeli breakfast is well-known and filled me up for lots of activities throughout the day. Yet it wasn’t just the breakfast that filled me up. Israel has become hotspot for a growing food scene.

IMG_2689FullSizeRender-1Nowhere is the growing culinary movement more prevalent than in Tel Aviv—the cultural capital of Israel. Tel Aviv is part beach town, but also had a big downtown area that is reminiscent of San Francisco. Plenty of young chefs come there to cut their teeth and open some amazing restaurants.

FullSizeRender-12One such restaurant that I had the pleasure of dining in was Branja, in Tel Aviv’s super trendy Sarona complex—a blend of historic Tel Aviv architecture, modern urban green space, and a mix of stores, cute cafes, and hip restaurants right in the middle of the city. Even better, many of the restaurants, bars and cafes are open on Shabbat (Friday night/Saturday day). Branja is a Spanish-Mediterranean inspired restaurant, housed in a two-story Templar building that allows for a vibrant first floor restaurant, and a night bar and private dining space on the second floor. Since I was part of a big group, we had rented out the upstairs area, which was a treat—especially the wonderful terrace.

IMG_2692 IMG_2693 We started the night off with a wonderful happy hour—waiters offered flutes of effervescent champagne, glasses of spicy red wine, and mugs of crisp, cold beer. There was a cute lounge bar in the salon with drink refills and they were very accommodating for our large group size. The dining room had a very rustic chic feel to it, with large, rectangular wooden tables set simply with ceramic plates and glass cups. IMG_2700IMG_2701Our meal began with a simple salad of peppers, tomatoes, feta cheese, and cucumber in a light dressing made with fruity olive oil. Not only was the salad fresh and light, but also so pretty to look at with bold colors. There were also big baskets of freshly baked bread—white or wheat—served with creamy butter and house made schug, a traditional, spicy Israeli condiment made from hot peppers. The mix of the slightly sweet yet salty butter and the spicy schug spread on the bread made for a wonderful pop of flavors in my mouth. It was complemented nicely by some briny olives.

IMG_2702Next up was a plate of thinly sliced Sirloin Carpaccio. The beef was flavored with aged balsamic vinegar and pistachio to give it a nice punch of acidity, as well as an earthy flavor, and garnished with some peppery arugula that helped balance the richness of the meat.

IMG_2703IMG_2704To follow, we had some fried red mullet with a crispy coating, served with a Tzatziki and a tomato salsa reminiscent of a cocktail sauce. The fish was moist, and the bones were so small that you were able to bite right through them and eat the fish whole if you like. A plate with a large potato and cheese pancake arrived as well, which was tasty but didn’t strike me as super Mediterranean in nature.

FullSizeRender-4My favorite appetizer of the night were the lamb pierogies. The pierogi were pan-fried with a nice crust and a savory, slightly smoky lamb filling. They were garnished with a pan sauce and plated on a black plate which made them look even more enticing.

FullSizeRender-9We had finally arrived at the main course, and had a choice of gnocchi, chicken or ram–which many of us assumed was lamb at first. The gnocchi was served in a white butter sauce that was mild in flavor, but was nicely garnished with long pieces of Parmesan. The mini-dumplings were cooked al dente as to maintain a good bite without being mushy. They were also tossed with some asparagus that really woke the flavors up and helped cut through the richness of the sauce. My only complaint would be that I wish the potato in the gnocchi was incorporated a bit more.

FullSizeRender-6 FullSizeRender-8The second option available was for a chicken kabob, which was marinated in Middle Eastern spices, including cumin, garlic, za’atar, and harissa. The chicken was skewered and cooked perfectly. It was moist, and the chicken had a spice crust that helped seal the juices in the meat. It was plated with roasted eggplant and tahini. A popular cooking method for eggplants in Israel is to cut the vegetable in half lengthwise, then roast it until the flesh becomes super creamy and delicious. This eggplant was dressed with tahini sauce–made from sesame–and was a nice contrast in flavor to the bold poultry meat.

IMG_2714The final choice of entrees was ram steak on a stick. This was actually my first time eating ram, and, although we had to wait a little extra time for it to be prepared, it was very tasty! The meat wasn’t too chewy and had wonderful grill marks and was cooked somewhere between medium-rare and medium. It was plated with spicy, peppers, a generous amount of roasted potatoes, and demiglace.

FullSizeRender-13After our large meal we, of course, needed a delectable dessert, and Branja did not disappoint. We were presented with a trio of desserts. The creamy, mini cheesecake almost had a key lime pie flavor. It was not too tangy or sweet, and absolutely refreshing–especially following such a heavy meal. The lime crumbs on top were a nice touch. The plate also included some wonderful churros that were crisp on the outside and fluffy in the middle. They emitted an amazing cinnamon aroma and were served with a bittersweet, dark chocolate dipping sauce. The final pastry of the trip was a dense chocolate cake square with nougat. The cake was intensely chocolatey, but not super sweet. It was delicious, but my favorite part was actually the house made whip cream.FullSizeRender

Overall, dinner at Branja was absolutely delicious and such a great taste of the local, Tel Aviv food scene. We followed up our meal with a wonderful wine tasting at Tasting Room, also in the Sarona complex, and went back to our hotel that night with our bellies full and having had a wonderful night. Check back for posts on “What I Ate On My Israeli Vacation.”

Branja
15 Rav Aluf David Elazar Street,
Tel Aviv-Yafo, Israel