If you only have time for one restaurant in Jerusalem….

Around about 15 years ago my mother was visiting me in Jerusalem. I’d heard about a restaurant which I thought would suit her tastes – mine too of course but I’m easier to please – as long as the menu has a decent steak (and which self respecting meat place doesn’t?) I’ve got something to fall back on although I probably wouldn’t pay it a second visit if that was all that tickled my fancy on the menu. Mum is not all that demanding but is less of an all out flesh consumer. She can happily make a meal out of salatim, soup, bread and salads so when we go out together we have to find a middle ground.

Our quest took us to Safra Square – next to Jerusalem city hall. A menu inspired by the bible, seasonal produce and locally foraged herbs back in the day when those were not overused buzz words. The chef was attentive and passionate, coming to the table to ask where we were from and to tell us about the delicious food that we were served, including, with appropriate, dramatic ceremony, a dish involving chicken, rice, herbs and vegetables called Makluba. The restaurant was of course Eucalyptus. I have been fortunate enough to enjoy it’s menu 5 times over the years, and although it did shut for a while, it’s most recent resurrection in the shadow of the old city walls is just as successful.

At my wife’s instigation, we arranged a table for 4 with some very close friends who we don’t see nearly enough. We were taking advantage of a groupon offer which meant a limited menu but based on the one that appears on the website we weren’t missing out on very much. We were able to order 6 starters but the kitchen decided to spoil us and we ended up splitting 8 between us. Fresh breads with dips were okay. Balls of crisp, hot fish “felafel” were a big hit as was the fire roasted eggplant with techina and pomegranate syrup. Eggplant with techina is somewhat standard on local menus but this carried a big hit of smokiness and the sweet / tart pomegranate together with the savouriness of the techina made this a standout. I had asked for hubeiza – a native green which can be found anywhere that there’s space for it to grow. During the seige of Jerusalem during and after the War of Independence this was a lifesaver. Simply served it was delicious and has the benefit of being exceedingly healthy. A vegetable salad was refreshing; a fried pastille, crisp and tasty with a wonderful pumpkin cream that defied the ubiquitous trend of trying to introduce pumpkin spices to anything possible. Another eggplant dish with beef and pine nuts was excellent. Dried figs, stuffed with chicken in a sweet and sour tamarind sauce were exceptional and I demanded that the remaining sauce be left on the table to swipe at with whatever implement was available – bread, spoon or finger (the latter would certainly be frowned upon by my mother!)

The chef-owner, Moshe Basson, always takes time to come and talk to his customers and he appeared table side as we were finishing our selection. All four of us love to talk food and he told stories and answered our questions about the composition of each dish. He mentioned that he had been working on a kosher “scallop” and when we expressed interest he immediately offered to send one out for us to try. A glistening white disc appeared bathed in a sauce, which we duly split into pieces and debated it’s composition – mushroom or meat? The advocates for fungus won out – we’d been eating the thick, fleshy stem of a mushroom. Having never tasted a real scallop I can’t comment on how close it is to the texture but it was certainly an interesting (in a very good sense) experience.

Eucalyptus meal

Couscous with Lamb and Roasted vegetables

I ordered Tanachic couscous for a main course which was served with braised lamb neck and roasted vegetables and was excellent. My wife had a grilled fish fillet with a medley of roasted vegetables and an unsuccessful potato puree. Our friends had a tasty piece of steak and a bruschetta topped with Schwarma both of which won high praise.

Desserts are a weak point more often than not in kosher meat restaurants. Eucalyptus has been sensible in limiting it’s offerings but based on what we tried, doing them exceedingly well – a chocolate souffle was decadently rich and gooey but surprisingly a semolina cake with techina and silan was better still. We enjoyed the mint tea that accompanied it.

Service was attentive. A mistake was quickly corrected and (overly) compensated for, the chef’s presence added to the experience and we walked out absolutely stuffed – the starters would have been an ample meal in their own right. Our groupon made this a relatively inexpensive meal but had we paid the full price I’d have been exceedingly satisfied.

The combination of generous quantities of well cooked, seasonal food, inspired by the native foods of the area (of the seven species attributed to the land in the bible I don’t recall barley being involved by the other 6: wheat, grapes, figs, pomegranate, dates and olives were all represented), location, atmosphere and company, made this a very special meal. Although there are lots of good places to eat in Jerusalem, I would suggest that if pushed, I’d say that this is the closest to the essence of local cuisine and were I have to choose one place to take a guest to in order to showcase Israeli food then this would be it.

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