Jancis writes The picture here shows Nick and me, forever meddling with JancisRobinson.com, in the cloister of St Jerome in Bethlehem.
I make no apology for preceding an article about the restaurants of Tel Aviv that will appear in next Saturday's FT and on this website with one about three restaurants in and around Jerusalem.
The two cities may be in the same country but they are far more different than the one-hour car journey between the two of them would suggest. And in each of the three restaurants in and around Jerusalem, the food and service were as different as the people who recommended them.
First of all there is Machneyuda, where Layo Paskin, the charming director of Palomar in London's Soho, kindly booked us in. Unfortunately, we did not tell him how old we are as with three of us over 65 we were probably the oldest in the place by at least 25 years.
What a scene this place is! Extremely loud music; dancing waiters and the odd dancing chef; a waiter with green hair and another with long black hair and wearing the costume of a Russian Orthodox priest; a brace of hen parties on the balcony; and quite a lot of customer participation, particularly from two lively couples sitting at the bar. We were, fortunately, allocated a relatively quiet table (table 7) with a very good view across the restaurant and into the open kitchen.
The menu is typically Israeli. At the top it wishes a Good evening to all, and offerings included a fattoush salad, that Arabic combination of fried pitta, tomatoes, cucumbers, mint and parsley, 'like you never tried before' plus 'two of the best' – in this case their mashed potatoes and the waffle. These are statements that any kitchen would find hard to live up to.
There was a miscommunication over an order of a corned beef challah bun which, ordered as a main course, kept appearing at regular intervals throughout our meal. The best dish was undoubtedly my first course, a pan of offal that included everything left over, with burnt tomato juice, okra and a padron pepper that proved to be very, very hot. But a main course of chicken livers with the aforementioned mashed potatoes was disappointing.
Quite a lot was saved by the restaurant's manner of service of their desserts. I assumed control (for once!) and ordered one each of the five on offer – cheesecake in a jar, a dish of Bavarian cream from Ramlle, a lemon tart, a piece of Uri's Mom's famous semolina cake and the waffle – and watched with surprise as our table was initially covered in kitchen foil by a waitress. Then the invasion began as each of the dishes was brought over by several chefs and the table was covered in dessert (see below) and we were instructed to eat off its obviously very clean and new surface. It was, like the whole evening, an unforgettable experience but the cooking was nowhere near as precise as at Palomar – although I have to admit the singing and dancing were superior.
If there was one restaurant in the whole of Israel that I lost my heart to it was Majda in the small Arab village of Ein Rafa located in the Judean Hills just to the east of Jerusalem that belongs to a Muslim/Jewish couple, Yakub Barhum and Michal Baranes. This place is neatly summed up in the modest description 'the blue house up on the hill in the village of Ein Rafa'.
Although, having written this, I have to say that this description does not do justice either to the restaurant's interior nor to Baranes' cooking. At the back is the kitchen that hovers delightfully between the amateur and the professional. On the floor was a large box of pumpkins. Signs abound. One says To The Party, another more simply says Laugh; and a lot of the interior and exterior furniture has been simply painted over to provide another few years' service. Colourful shabby chic is the key.
The menu is quite traditional and a lot of the dishes seem to be inspired by Baranes' Jewish upbringing in Morocco but it is all extremely well cooked and with great feeling: spinach and labneh boreks; cauliflower in slightly sweet tahini; lovely, thin parcels of vine leaves stuffed with rice; dumplings filled with lamb and artichoke; meatballs stewed in Swiss chard and chickpeas; lamb, cooked for an awfully long time, on cous cous; and, most interestingly of all, a round metal dish in which Michal had prepared fillets of salmon along with tahini, sesame paste, alongside onions and pumpkin. The result was surprisingly delicious, the sesame flavour gradually infecting what could have been rather bland fish. The very Arabic dessert, consisting of walnuts, dates and a plum covered in wispy pastry was one of those that I am sure took far more time to make and prepare than to look at and devour.
Madja had one enormous advantage. It had opened just for our party of 12 who were there on a Wednesday lunch when normally it is open only from Thursday to Sunday and our hosts were the pioneers of the Judean Hills Quartet wineries, who often eat here (see below before our lunch are Eran Pick MW of Tzora and, seated, Eli Ben Zaken of Domaine du Castel). But for anyone driving from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on one of those days, Majda is too good, and too hopeful, a place to miss.
Our final stop was not in Israel but in the West Bank, in Bethlehem, where, thanks to the advice of John Reed, the FT's former correspondent in Jerusalem (he is now based in Bangkok) and the speed of the internet, we were able at very short notice to have lunch in the Hosh Al-Syrian Hostel's Fawda Café and meet its remarkable founder Fadi Kattan before catching our plane to London.
This involved a taxi ride with an East Jerusalem driver and a brief immersion in how those Arabs who live in this part of the world are forced to live. There was a checkpoint en route in an out of Jerusalem; we passed brutal-looking Israeli settlements built in the midst of Arab villages; and we saw the wall that was built at the beginning of this century to show precisely who was boss. And we were pulled over at the entrance to the airport. I should say at this point that I am Jewish, and that this was my first trip to Israel since my student days.
When we arrived in Bethlehem, as this was a Friday, the centre of the town was crowded with tourists and even more worshippers. We were dropped by the end of the narrow path to the hostel. A cup of mint tea and a non-stop account from Fadi followed: of how he had leased the building with help from an Italian NGO for 15 years as a way of raising the profile of hospitality within Bethlehem (prices for an overnight room had been $25 beforehand; today his comfortable rooms are $70 to 140); of how he had managed to circumnavigate the rules against LGBT couples staying overnight; of how he had created 11 smart bedrooms out of building originally constructed in 1789; and finally of how he had started working with local producers and farmers, and winegrowers (we drank a Mony Chardonnay 2015 and a Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 from Taybeh – both extremely respectable, see JR's notes) to create employment and as an added attraction for any of his visitors.
We ate from a four-course menu on a small blackboard by our table. Firstly, the colourful vegetarian dish above called a 'souk terrine' of tomatoes, goats cheese and aubergine enhanced by a lively dip to the side of lemon juice, sesame and coriander; then three small red mullet wrapped in vine leaves and steamed – their flesh well worth the effort; then three, very well cooked, lamb cutlets with okra; and, finally a poached peach topped with Arabic pastry and liberally sprinkled with pomegranate seeds.
Each of these three restaurants is a very special place in a very special place.
Hosh Al-Syrian Hostel www.hoshalsyrian.com