Musty smell, fine food

April 10, 2013 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Food 
A dining room at Racha in Jerusalem

A dining room at Racha in Jerusalem

I’m not sure if the oddly wafting odor of mold, or was that mildew, emanating from the walls of Racha, a funky restaurant in the center of Jerusalem specializing in Georgian food (the country, not the U.S. state), was intended to be part of the experience.

Perhaps the smell was meant to evoke memories of the kind of small town inn one finds nestled in the foothills of the country’s Caucasus Mountain Range. More likely, it’s a remnant of the building in which Racha has settled, a mash-up of two former storerooms dating from the British Mandate period. Which is OK if the owners’ lack of scrubbing bubbles is intentional; a means of enhancing the establishment’s authenticity in contrast to casual carelessness, which would suggest a very different calculus.

No matter – the mold was entirely secondary to the food, which my wife and I ordered during a lunch visit to the restaurant this week – food which was both familiar and inventive, to at least this non-Georgian carnivore.

And carnivore you’d better be: the main courses, except for a skewered spring chicken, which my non-red meat eating partner chose, consist of beef and more beef. There are beef patties and beef stew; a couple of lamb entrees round out the cholesterol-busting menu.

The only place meat was banished: the opening salads. There the choices were eggplant, beets, and more eggplant. We started – what we choice did we have, really? – with an eggplant dish called adzhachili which was surprising both in that the promised eggplant strips were actually outnumbered by grilled onions and in the strong spice – perhaps this was the “chili” in the adzaha? We were compelled to order some crusty shutespuri, the Georgian house bread (worth the money in any case), to counter the sting.

Our second starter, beets mixed with nuts and herbs, was if anything even stronger; it would have done a fine job impersonating Yeminite schug in a falafel. If it seems like I’m complaining, you’ve read me wrong: I like my food strong and the insertion of a little heat into these dishes kept them from straying too close to the standard Israeli starter selection.

The business lunch menu is divided into options by price: NIS 79, NIS 89 and NIS 118; each includes different dishes but always with an appetizer, main course, juice, tea and Georgian cookies at the end. For an extra NIS 15, you can get one of the fried meat pastries. On recommendation of both the waiter and David Brinn, who reviewed Racha recently for The Jerusalem Post, we ordered one portion of chibureki – David described it as “fried crescents filled with spicy ground beef.” The dish is reminiscent of the pastilles you can find at Darna, a Moroccan restaurant, nearby in Jerusalem’s Russian Compound neighborhood. The combination of sugary fried dough and more red meat was my favorite part of the meal, in fact.

For main courses, my wife went with the above-mentioned spring chicken, while I chose something called shechamadi which was akin to a beef stew, with fairly fatty cholent-style beef chunks mixed with a casserole of vegetables in a sour, tomato sauce. I added my side of rice into the bowl and came away with a dish that could have come from my mother’s table but had enough ethnic twists to be something else entirely. Ditto on the chicken: shipudim are standard Israeli fare, but the spices in the Racha version were just unusual enough to keep us interested.

Which brings me back to the mold. Racha doesn’t blast your taste buds with an utterly un-Israeli dining experience, as you might have if you went out for, say, Ethiopian food. The spices were subtle but hold your attention, which was important in pushing the building’s ever-present odor aside…at least until the final tea, which our waiter said sheepishly was somehow Georgian but, if I’d demanded entry to the kitchen, would probably have found a box of ordinary Wissotsky black tea hidden in a cupboard.

Still, the combination of olfactory stimulation and a playful turn with the interior design – a medley of antique furniture, old world carpets, chandeliers and, improbably, a collection of shofars – make Racha a place to be visited during an extended trip to Jerusalem.

Matza madness

March 24, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Food, Holidays, Israeliness, Religion 

My kids were very excited to eat matza at their kindergarten seders, mainly because the teachers slathered it with chocolate spread. I don’t mind matza but I can’t say I’m as eager as they are to crunch on this unleavened bread for the week of Passover.

Yet out there, across the oceans and on the other side of the world, it would seem matza consumption is on the rise.

Without million dollar advertisements and commercials espousing the crunchy blandness this product contains, matza exports from Israel in 2012 amounted to over $19 million. That’s a 21 percent increase from the previous year.

The Israel Export Institute reports that 53 countries import Israeli-made matza.

A whopping 60% (totaling $11 million) of the exported over-sized brittle cracker goes to the United States. While local matza production facilities once triumphed over the blue-and-white made matza varieties, today the trend has turned around. The Israel Export Institute says the US demand rose by 50% from the previous year.

Also asking for more Israeli matza was the European Union which recorded a 13% increase, totaling $4.5 million.

A few fun facts you should know: Each regular square of manufactured matza contains 800 holes and costs the eater 150 calories. On average, Israelis consume one kilogram of matza each – and we only celebrate seven days of the holiday!

The calorie count, of course, is before you slather liver/chocolate/jam/cream cheese/butter/honey on your matza. It’s before you turn your matza slice into matza pizza.

Passover is a holiday for gaining weight. Enjoy the good food!

Chag Sameach.

Supersol gets spooky online

March 20, 2013 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Food, Technology 
Supersol's logo in Israel

Supersol’s logo in Israel

I hate grocery shopping in Israel. I might hate it in the Old Country too, but I don’t remember it so well. But here, I have no problem recalling my recoil. The aisles are too narrow, the lines are ridiculously long and slow, the store (in winter) has no heating, and whoever heard of a bag boy (or girl).

That’s why I’m delighted that my wife Jody actually likes going shopping. She’s got it down to a science. She can do an entire week’s shop at once. She’s made a computer list in Microsoft Excel that includes every product we usually buy in the order in which they appear when doing a clockwise spin through our local Supersol Deal. If they move products around, Jody even adjusts the spreadsheet.

But every once in a while, if Jody is sick or out of town on shopping day, the job falls on me. And what Jody can do in an hour takes me two…or three. I always pick the wrong checkout counter, the one with the “I was here” person sneaking back in at the last moment, and the clerk who is either too talkative, too glum, or both at once.

But that’s all changed now. Supersol recently released a new version of its e-shopping website and this time, they’ve got it right. Mostly.

The site, which is being heavily promoted in the Hebrew press (and even in the English media in Israel, although with an ad all in Hebrew – go figure) lists every product in the store, neatly arranged according to category, with a special section for “deals.” If a product is out of stock, that’s indicated. You can choose a delivery time for the same day or a date in the future and, so far in our experience, Supersol has kept to it (they come in two-hour slots).

The website goes one step further, which will either delight you in its efficiency or horrify you in its sheer Big Brother-ness. When Jody first logged on, it asked for her credit card. The site then pre-populated its virtual shopping cart with all of the items Jody regularly buys.

Now, it’s no secret that e-commerce sites track what you buy – and that’s usually very helpful. If you want to view one of your past orders at Amazon, it’s right there. But there’s something spooky about discovering that a real world cash register is logging your purchases too, especially when that data migrates from one form to another (i.e., the printed receipt to your online basket).

Yes, it saved Jody a lot of time not having to go and re-select items she regularly buys. But you have to then wonder: what else does the supermarket know about you? Is it correlating your purchases with other demographic data in order to offer you deals you don’t need but won’t be able to refuse? Could it, if not now but perhaps some time in the future, track your estimated family calorie intake and deliver that to your HMO’s online system to deliver dietician recommendations?

The truth is, I’ve long since given up expecting privacy online. I try to keep my Facebook posts non-controversial, although last year’s photo of me in a dress for Purim might get me in hot water with a potential new client if taken out of context (I make a point of not friending clients, for that very reason).

Beyond the privacy issue, there’s another – even greater concern – with shopping online and it’s the exact opposite of the computer: it’s the people. No matter how careful you are making your list on the Supersol website, someone is still going through a physical store and picking products off an actual shelf. They’re not the highest paid employees and so sometimes they make mistakes. Actually, so far, every time.

In one case, it was no big deal: they delivered the wrong flavored yogurts. But the second time was more annoying: Jody ordered organic chicken but got ordinary cluckers, but for the organic price.

To their credit, the store admitted the error and hand delivered the correct chicken to our home a few days later. But the problem isn’t going to go away. It’s not like an operating system that over time learns your preferences and gets better. Minimum wage employees will always mess up. There’s just not enough incentive.

The question is: at what point does the annoyance outweigh the benefit. There are a number of tests around the world involving cars that drive themselves, for example. And they’re pretty accurate for the most part. But all there needs to be is one fatal accident and the entire endeavor will fail. No one will give up control when their life may depend on it.

Getting non-organic chicken isn’t in the same category, of course. But will online grocery shoppers waive perfect delivery for the convenience of ordering in their pajamas? Is there a magic balance point?

For Jody, the answer is she’ll probably keep going to the physical store. Remember, she likes it there. I, on the other hand, would probably eat that antibiotic-filled chicken and drink the peached-flavored yogurt instead of the vanilla we really wanted, in order to avoid stepping into that dreadful store.

How about you? Where’s your breaking point? Does this sound like a technology you’re ready to embrace? Leave a comment and let’s discuss.

Nostalgia Sunday – Cafe Batya moves

batia-signYou may not have felt the earth shake but Dizengoff Street experienced a seismic shift last month. Cafe Batya lost its lease and was forced to move from the corner of Dizengoff and Arlozorov that for 70 years had been an established meeting place for artist, poets, soldiers, politicians and, in general, anyone in need of European-Jewish comfort food.

Thankfully, Tel Aviv hipsters can still get their fix of Batya’s chicken soup, chopped liver and cholent in the restaurant’s swanky new digs on Hashmonaim Street.

batia-food-today

Cafe Batya opened in 1941 by then new immigrant Batya Yom Tov and her husband Aryeh. The atmosphere was homey and the food home-made. Like many another Jewish balabusteh, Batya wrote down her recipes in a small notebook, many of which are simply named for the person who gave her the dish: “Hannah’s cake” or “Sarah’s kugel”.

batia-menu-1

Batya also saved the old menus, news clippings and photos of the restaurant and its patrons over the years.

batia-mural_lika-ramati_2

Today, the restaurant is run by her daughter and granddaughters who commissioned by artist Lika Ramati to create photo-collage wall art for the new location, based on Batya’s collection.

batia-mural_lika-ramati_3

The combination is a perfect fit: Ramati’s work is steeped in nostalgia with a modern twist. It complements the contemporary materials and clean lines of the new restaurant’s design while still paying homage to its domestic tradition.

batia-mural_lika-ramati_1

By the way, the old location at 197 Dizengoff will be turned into a boutique hotel. Doubtless it will be very nice but for chicken soup, gefilte fish or gribenes, patrons will have to get over to 95 Hashmonaim Street. Totally worth it.

The fattest holiday of them all?

February 27, 2013 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Food, Holidays 
Selection of gourmet hamentaschen from Roladin Bakery

Selection of gourmet hamentaschen from Roladin Bakery

Purim may now be behind us, but some of the sweets still remain. The holiday, which is officially about retelling the story of how the Jews were almost annihilated in ancient Persia, is perhaps best remembered going forward by one’s increased belly size after partaking of one too many hamentaschen – the classic triangular-shaped Purim cookie

Ah, if it were only hamentaschen, maybe we’d be OK. But this year, in the tradition of giving gifts to friends to celebrate the holiday, some of our friends went a bit overboard.

We received everything from foreign imports (Toblerone chocolate bars and pumpkin shaped Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups – left over from Halloween, I guess); homemade mulled wine (best served slightly warmed, the note said); cinnamon spiced muffins and a Bavarian coffee cake; sushi (!) complete with wasabi and soy sauce; walnut-stuffed dates; and…a plant. That one didn’t hit the sweet tooth but will probably have the longest impact.

After driving my sugar intake to absurd levels this year, I got to wondering about the candied ark of the Jewish year and which is the fattiest of our many holidays.

Purim, with its All Hallow’s Eve flourish of costumes and Snickers Bars, would seem the favorite, but there are clear contenders. Hanukah, of course, features sufganiyot – the ubiquitous winter donut – prominently in its culinary excesses and the bakeries are even more creative in December than at Purim time. You can also buy sufganiyot earlier – starting at some establishments as early as the day after Simchat Torah – whereas hamentaschen stick relatively close to the Megillah reading.

Shavuot is more of a concentrated eating day – while cheesecake is the preferred dessert, there aren’t weeks of decadent dairy tastings prior to this holiday, which marks the giving of the Torah – otherwise, it’s unlikely Moses would have had the stamina to stagger up Mount Sinai.

But the very worst, as I see it, is really the next to come: Passover. It’s not the overt sweets that will do you in (how many chocolate covered macaroons can one person eat, after all) but the hidden calories in all that matza, so deceptive in size, yet so dense in consistency.

Shmear a slab of butter on top and you’ve just downed a double sufganiyot-cheesecake-hamentaschen infusion while thinking you were just having a little nosh. And to that the fact that matza has this small side effect (how shall I put it delicately…you won’t be visiting the bathroom for the duration of the holiday, that’s the eleventh plague), and even if you don’t gain weight, you’ll feel like it.

Jewish dieters view the year as a cycle of cringe and binge. There’s exactly one month between Purim and Pesach – is that enough time to slim down before the next fat fest begins? And another seven weeks from Pesach until Shavuot – surely, you can get things under control by then. And if all else fails, there’s always Tisha B’av and the other three fast days on the Jewish calendar.

The cities of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv have come up with a better incentive towards keeping in shape. This year, both are holding their annual Marathons in the coming weeks (Jerusalem this Friday, Tel Aviv March 15). And with tens of thousands of runners from Israel and around the world descending on the Holy Land, at least some of our country’s collective carbs stand to be burned off.

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