It’s a little hard to refrain from likening the culinary wilderness of the south of the country with the arid climate there, especially in the Negev. Charging into this void is Suleiman Abu Abed, who has just opened the Al-Fakher (the name means “elegant” or “splendid”) chef restaurant in Rahat, of all places.
“I was born in Rahat and I live in the city,” says Abu Abed. “I saw that good restaurants were sorely lacking in our region, especially restaurants serving Arab cuisine, which you can hardly find anywhere in the south. There are lots of tourists and hikers in the area and not enough restaurants, certainly not the kind of places that could introduce people to all the different sides of Arab cuisine. Contrary to what people think, there is a big demand in this region and until now there wasn’t anything that could meet that demand.”
Abu Abed installed chef Ali Haj, who previously worked at the acclaimed Arabesque restaurant in Dusseldorf, Germany, as well as at a number of hotels in Israel, as head of the kitchen, and in consultation with chef Omar Elwan of Aleh Gefen restaurant, they put together a menu that contains nearly all the contemporary starring dishes of Arab cuisine. The large restaurant seats 120 and, living up to its name, is decorated in modern elegance, including a waterfall in the center.
The unconventional location for a chef restaurant also required that some adjustments be made on the menu for a local crowd that isn’t yet accustomed to restaurants of this type, as well as for travelers who may be seeking a more special meal. So the main courses also come with an array of 12 fresh salads that are brought to the table.
Al-Fakher restaurant in Rahat. Photo by Anatoly Michaelov
On the most basic part of the menu, you’ll find something for those looking for a meal here and now, without getting too tricky about it. A meal that includes the salads, two skewers or stuffed Cornish hen and a drink goes for NIS 65, or there’s a family meal for four that also includes the salads, skewers of Cornish hen, lamb kebab, entrecte, lamb ribs, drinks and dessert for NIS 295. The more adventurous side of the menu includes items like stuffed lamb’s neck (NIS 220) that serves two, or even stuffed lamb shoulder (NIS 440) that could easily serve four hungry people.
With the training he acquired abroad, Haj is also trying to introduce some more modern dishes, and some that are further from traditional Arab cuisine. “We’ve also put a sous-vide in the kitchen and prepare meat with it,” says Haj, “and we also have items on the menu such as tournedos Rossini made with beef fillet and goose liver, or shrimp with a butter, garlic and lemon sauce, for those who’d like to try it.”
One of the dishes on offer at the Al-Fakher restaurant in Rahat. Photo by Anatoly Michaelov
But at heart, Haj aims to maintain a menu based on Arab cuisine and to really do these dishes justice. “I also make a salad of green almonds and toasted almonds, a spicy salad with labaneh, and pumpkin stuffed with goat cheese. For now the demand for special dishes is not that big, but I expect it will grow as people get to know us better, and then we’ll add more things to the menu. I have much more to show people and bring out from my culinary training, and hope a lot of people will come so I can present it all.”
As part of the attempt to adapt the place to the various clienteles, the restaurant is divided into two seating areas, one of which has a barrier down the center so men and women can dine separately, as is the custom among some residents of the area.
“We’re aiming for every possible clientele in the region,” says Abu Abed. “We’re not just talking about coexistence, we’re doing it. Through food we can start to create harmony among all the varied parts of the population. It can really happen.”
It’s hard not to get carried away by his hope and optimism.
Al-Fakher, Salah al-Din Street, Rahat; 08-9109199.