Dining Out / A Great Deal of Care Pays Off

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From the moment Jaffa's Cordelia opened nearly five years ago, it was apparent that a great deal of care and attention had gone into the decor and quality of the service. Located not far from Jaffa's flea market, with lighting provided by crystal chandeliers and candles ranging from the tiny to the huge, the restaurant is furnished with tables, chairs, candelabras and even plates and silverware that seem to have been selected from flea markets here and in Europe with great care.

This has always been a place in which kitsch has succeeded in attaining great charm, every table having a different candlestick. Flowers, potted plants, olive branches and the virtually dozens of pieces of bric-a-brac are to be found everywhere. Even naming the restaurant after the one daughter faithful to King Lear seems appropriate. This is a place simultaneously old-fashioned, lovely and welcoming in a late 19th or early 20th century fashion, with waitresses in formal black dresses.

What is most pleasing, however, is not the atmosphere but that from the moment the restaurant opened, the fare at Cordelia has been on the ascendant. A recent visit to sample chef Nir Tsuk's new degustation menu demonstrated very nicely that this is a place where fine dining is taken very seriously indeed.

With an opening glass of the sparkling Blanc de Blanc of Yarden, I was offered several excellent, freshly baked rolls, the simultaneously light and dense kind that Americans refer to as Parkerhouse rolls, served with a generous ball of butter containing olive oil and fresh thyme. The first of two opening courses that made their way to my table was a small black casserole holding a variety of mushrooms, finely chopped and sauteed with shallots, herbs and spices. The mushrooms themselves would have been a treat but what made the dish a marvel was that an egg yolk had been broken into the center and this, softly cooked, broke to the touch of a fork, adding an almost exquisite richness to the dish.

This was followed by a tomato cream that was not so much a soup as a dish, as no liquids other than those of the tomatoes had been added to the pulp, which was blended together with just sweet enough creamed peppers, the result being thick and bursting with natural flavor.

I continued with an intermediate course referred to on the menu as a "Celebration of Calamari" in which the bodies of young squid had been filled with finely chopped herbs and then, I believe, brushed with olive oil before being grilled. Made from perfectly fresh herbed calamaris and lightly charred from the grill, the dish delighted with the natural flavor of the sea. As a palate cleanser to make way for the main course, there was a delicate and delicious homemade sorbet of cassis, enriched with za'atar.

All that had come before was excellent. The main course, however, is best described as splendiferous. Slices of medium-rare fillet of beef and steamed grape leaves on a bed of jasmine rice were flavored with coarse salt and sumac - flavor and texture combinations that made one sigh with pleasure. I was grateful that the portion was moderate in size, for this was followed by a small but appropriate selection of perfectly ripe soft and medium-soft goat's milk cheeses from Meshek Tzuk (owned by the brother of the chef), served with toast and, in response to my request, butter.

I could not resist finding out what the dessert "guava schnitzel" might be like. My curiosity was rewarded by thick slices of guava coated with grated coconut and sour cream. Frying fully ripened guavas can be catastrophic, and I was glad that the chef had been wise enough to select only half-ripe fruits for the dish. I was also pleased with the single scoop of honey and saffron-flavored ice cream that accompanied the schnitzels.

Throughout my dinner the service was as responsive and attentive as might be hoped for. Equally important, at NIS 148 per person for the degustation dinner, this is a restaurant that deserves frequent return visits. The range of the wine list is good (I selected the 1993 Cotes de Nuits-Villages of Louis Jadot) and should one wish to bring a special bottle from home, corkage is NIS 40 per bottle.

With the great charm that it offers and with dishes at this level, Cordelia moves up to the ranks as one of the best 10 restaurants in the country.

Cordelia: Simtat Hazcochit, the corner of Yeffet, Jaffa. Open Monday-Saturday, 7 P.M.-midnight. Tel. (03) 518-4668.