Tuesday, January 11, 2011

"...where everybody knows your name..." #4

Yom revi'i, 7 Shevat 5771.
7 HaMa'alot Street, Jerusalem   Tel: 02-5004334

 I was at a Sephardi Israeli wedding a few weeks ago.  Our table was a blend of native Israelis and Anglo immigrants from Neve Daniel.  I mentioned -- not complaining, mind you, just stating facts -- that I hadn't had good steak since I'd left Baltimore, but that this was a small sacrifice to be permitted to live in Israel.

One of the Israelis told me I was mistaken, that one could get good steak in Israel.  I assumed that he has been eating watered-down Argentinian beef with soy fillers for most of his adult life, and simply doesn't "get it."  But I don't like to be rude, so I asked for more and better particulars.  He gave the names and details of a couple of places in Jerusalem.  He made "Ma'alot Chef Restaurant and Tapas Bar" sound particularly succulent.

One day last week, the Dearly Beloved and I decided to see if we could find Ma'alot, for future reference.  It is tucked away in one of the small streets off of King George.  As we approached the door, just looking for a menu and kosher certification, a beautiful young woman came out into the cold night air to invite us in.  We chatted pleasantly, and were so taken by her clear affection for this little restaurant, we assumed she might own the place.  We promised to come back.  (Payday was still a thing of the future.)

On yom rishon (Sunday, to you landlubbers), we arrived at around 4:30 for a late lunch.  We were happy to see that the charming young woman was in "her" restaurant.  She remembered us, and was very pleased to see us.  We in turn praised her attitude, and told her that treating us so warmly made us anxious to return.
Our new friend, Miriam.  Can't wait to tell her mama what a good job she did raising her.
We arrived at a perfect time to avoid both a normal lunch-hour and dinner crowd; so we got plenty of individual attention -- as impressive to Mishpachat Mizrachi as a well-turned steak.  The owner-chef, Gadi Yaari, came out to translate the menu for us.  He is very fluent in English, having spent a few years in New York, perfecting his trade at fine French restaurants.  The selection was vast and varied.  It was easy to see that Gadi is very proud of his art.

As we waited a not-very-long time at all for our meal to be brought out to us, we had the chance to look around the warm and inviting room.

After a short time, filled with attentive conversation from our waitress, her brother arrived.  Just as warm and friendly as his sister, he turned out to be an old army buddy of our Soldier Boy.
Another old friend of our children, who we hope will become a new friend of ours.
Talking about your kids with people who know and like them, and have shared experiences with them, is a great appetizer.  But soon came the meal.

Dining is Israel is not just falafel and shwarma.  One of the treats of dining out here is being offered salatim -- small, interesting and varied salads -- as an appetizer.  Called variously meze, tapas, "small plates," this Middle Eastern offering seems to be of Spanish origin.  I have often made a meal of tapas, as I don't need huge portions of beef and potato and bread to feel that I've had a meal.  So I asked for something that would give me a sample of many different dishes.  For a very reasonable price (50 shekels, which translates today to  around $14), I tasted some of the most carefully-crafted mini-dining experiences I have ever encountered.  (Please keep in mind that I dined in my share of five-star restaurants, back in the mists of pre-kosher past, at much higher prices.  Kids:  you ain't missin' nothin'.  We've got it all.)

Here are a few of the choices I finally settled on, for my first "test drive" at Ma'alot.  Go ahead.  Feast your eyes.

The duck breast in a bed of tiny leaves and dried fruits in vinaigrette was "to die for."  Forget steak.  This time.

Even the Dearly Beloved had to admit that the earthy, robust eggplant soup was perfect.

Talk about beautiful "plating technique"!

Can you say "steamed to perfection"?  Why are they so crispy?  Gadi:  "The most important thing to me is 'fresh.' I prepare everything when you order it.  Even the asparagus, I don't blanch ahead of time."  The tangy tomato was the perfect addition to the medley.

The little "meat latkes" mixed with leek were a delicate foil to more spicy dishes.  
Since this was a celebration, the Dearly Beloved also sprang for a couple of Tuborg Reds.

Other noteworthy dishes were mushrooms stuffed with olives (perfect!), excellent beets, a homemade and very fresh matbuka, and a light French roll from a bakery called Teller.  Baltimore alert: if you are visiting in Israel and miss Rebbetzin Goldberger's babaganush (or if THAT'S the only thing keeping you from making aliyah), Gadi's homemade chatzilim will help to make you feel better.  Smoky, delectable...  just like Rebbetzin used to make.
And lest you think that Ma'alot can't fix "man-sized" portions of anything, the Dearly Beloved ordered a perfectly-prepared salmon steak, with roasted potatoes and sweet/crisp green beans on the side.  He was totally satisfied.  (This feast cost a mere 64 shekels, about $18.  Not bad for elegant dining.)
The Dearly Beloved isn't satisfied with wafer-thin slices of anything, no matter how much you charge for it.
But as readers of this blog probably know, you don't make the "...where everybody knows your name..." category by well-prepared food alone.  Care and feeding is nothing without the care.  Miriam, our waitress, is a delightful human being who cares very much about her job, her customers, and doing whatever she is doing as well as she can.  Gilad, the humble bartender, turned out to be the Gadi's brother, and couldn't sing his brother's praises enough.  (Brothers who admire each other mean the world to us.)

Gadi and Gilad seem to have learned to work and play well with others in their parents' home.
Ready for the check, we were weakened by so much delicious food, to a point that we could not fend off Miriam's offer of dessert.  Especially when Gadi, with a gift for description, gave over details of the warm chocolate cake and chocolate soufflé on offer.

And because this was a celebration -- I said that before, right? -- Gadi didn't have to twist our arms too much to get us to sample a very special, high-quality arak to top off the meal.

This excellent little restaurant has only been around for about five months.  I give Gadi and Co. a bracha that they will succeed in attracting the kind of clientele that will keep them in business until Gadi is a very old and wealthy restaurateur.  He certainly knows his art.  We plan to visit often.  Hope to see you there.


"Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
And they're always glad you came..."  
-- from the "Cheers" theme, by Judy Hart Angelo and Gary Portnoy
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