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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An Israeli Feast in Philadelphia’s Historic Old City 

Zahav

I finally went to dinner last week at Zahav restaurant in Philadelphia, a raincheck due to a reservation mixup from the week before. The wait was worth it though, since the anticipation built. The menu at Zahav is broken up into many smaller dishes and sharing is encouraged.

 We debated ordering cocktails, but instead opted for a pitcher of the Limonana ($16)–a freshly squeezed lemonade steeped with mint leaves. They also make an alcoholic version that has whiskey, and is available by the glass or pitcher. The Limonana was refreshingly tart, slightly sweet and delicious. It made me think of going to the beach in Tel Aviv, especially since all the coffee chains in Israel make their own version of this drink.

  

Since we were at an Israeli restaurant, we knew that ordering hummus was essential. We went with the large Tehina Hummus ($12). The hummus was made with lemon, parsley, cumin, garlic and sesame. It had a great salty bite and was super smooth, with an amazing moth feel. The next thing to hit my palate was the garlic and parsley flavors with a backbone of sesame from the tahini, a classic ingredient in hummus. The lemon made it pungent, but there was no aftertaste–just hummus flavor. The hummus was paired with a couple of big laffa, a traditional Middle Eastern flatbread that they bake in their wood-burning oven. The laffa was hot, chewy, crisp, and huge. It had a great char from the wood-burning oven, with a light sprinkling of za’atar seasoning on top. It was clear that the za’atar went on after baking, which showed a definite refinement of technique and knowledge of spices–I think that cooking za’atar often makes it lose its bold flavor. The hummus appetizer was a great start to our Middle Eastern meal.   

  

Next up were the mezze dishes, or small plates. The Crispy Grape Leaves ($10) were a little greasy with crispy, thin as paper leaves stuffed with beef. The meat was spicy, with a smoky flavor. My first one was very meaty, and the second one had some more rice, and was almost creamy in texture. The grape leaves were garnished with a harissa tahini. Harissa is a North African–often from Tunisia–chili pepper paste. Our waitress indicated that they make their own Harissa with Aleppo peppers. The sauce was creamy and aromatic, with a smokiness that echoed the cumin in the grape leaves, and a pleasant aftertaste of building heat.

We also ordered the Fried Cauliflower ($10). The dish had a great aroma, and the cauliflower maintained a nice bite and were charred. They were rubbed with a spice rub, including cumin, and cooked tossed with some raisins. The accompanying yogurt labaneh sauce was delicious. My friend used the word “exquisite.” The labaneh was seasoned with chive, dill, mint and garlic. The tanginess of the yogurt cut through the almost heavy cauliflower, and there was a touch of acidity in the labaneh that added a nice twist.

After the mezze plates, came the Al Ha’Esh, which literally translates to “on the fire” in Hebrew, but referee colloquially to barbecue. The two proteins were served over a Mediterranean rice pilaf on the same plate, and featured  number of sides. This was to encourage sharing in a communal meal, which is the way Zahav prefers their diners approach the eating experience here. The Sirloin Sishlik ($14) had bIg chunks of meat, which were perfectly grilled, and served on skewers that were removed table side. The beef had an aromatic, grill flavor and was slightly chewy. It was seasoned to perfection with definite undertones of garlic.
 
The Salmon ($14) was also cooked excellently. The inside of the fish glistened, was juicy and white in the middle. The menu indicated that the salmon came with pomegranate molasses, and I worried that it might be too sweet, but the fish turned out very savory while still absorbing the deep flavor of the molasses. The skin was nice and crisp, which was probably helped by the molasses coating.

Along with the al ha’esh plates, came a bunch of condiment garnishes. There was a Mediterranean spiced bowl of stewed tomatoes, carrots and white beans. It had a creamy consistency and its heaviness stood up to the grilled proteins. It wasn’t exactly as light as a chutney, but not as heavy as a braise. It was especially tasty with the Schug, a spicy Israeli condiment that the chef prepared with pistachios and habanero peppers. The pistachios in the schug gave it great body and deep flavor, while the habaneros lent a serious, lasting heat. The dishes also came with some rice mixed with lentils and onions that was different from the rice on the main plate. It was almost like an Israeli version of dirty Cajun rice. Finally, there were some picked veggies that had a great tanginess that haloes cut through the richness of the meats, and some black garlic tahini. The tahini was very strong, but the garlic flavor was not super prevalent. It was actually fabulous with the pickles.
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If you knew us, then you’d know that we can’t resist dessert, especially to compete our Middle Eastern feast. The Kataifi ($9) was listed as chocolate ganache with a passionfruit soufflé. My first bite had a passion fruit punch–it was sweet, sour, acidic, and creamy. The passionfruit custard was lightly dusted with nuts, and sat in a phyllo dough birds nest. The chocolate ganache was nestled on the inside bottom of the nest. The entire dish was texturally almost a play on baklava, but visually the passionfruit looked like the egg white of an egg in a bird’s nest–very creative! The dish was very playful with textures–creamy, crispy, and chewy–and cerebral.
IMG_1926The Ice Cream Sandwich ($9) dessert came with thinly sliced, sweetened beets the outer layers of the sandwich consisted of a crumbly and chewy chocolate cake, which had an almost streusel-like texture, but fudgier. The cake was slightly weird, but a good foil for the sandwich. There were also chewy candied cumquat slices on the plate, which was sweet but still kept its bitterness. The “ice cream” was a labaneh semifredo, which differs from ice cream in that it has more of a frozen mousse consistency. The cream had a unique flavor from the labaneh and wasn’t cloyingly sweet. The melon in the middle of the plate was a nice fresh way to finish the dessert. If I had to guess, it might have been casaba melon.
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Overall, all of our food was super delicious, and we were so full after our Israeli feast. The highlight of the meal for me though, was that the chef and owner, Mike Solomonov, stopped by our table before dessert. He was really nice, and talked to us about our meal, the restaurant, and how our night was going. I loved how he made time to see how we were enjoying his restaurant. Thanks so much!IMG_1925