Even though Oro is tucked into a petrol station on the Rehovot-Yavne road, this restaurant is obviously striving to bring the sophistication of the big city to the provinces. From the point of view of design, this attempt succeeds well, the large physical space made intimate by the wise use of French drapes, an appealing array of whites, beiges and dark brown and well-thought-out lighting, providing an appealing dimness even during the daytime. In fact, from the physical point of view, with its attractive bar, attractively set and generously sized tables and service that while naive is friendly and responsive, this restaurant could fit as comfortably in Tel Aviv as it does on a country road.
From the culinary point of view, this is a restaurant best categorized as specializing in Mediterranean food with a distinct leaning toward the cookery of Morocco. My choice for a first course was slices of goose liver, sprinkled with coarsely ground black pepper and sea salt before being seared on the grill. The generous portion of liver lacked the richness one hopes for in this usually luxurious offering, perhaps because the goose liver was not best quality - the meat was grainy and not as smooth as it should have been and perhaps because of the exigencies of kashrut the liver was somewhat overdone, robbing it even further of its richness. The liver, garnished with a confit of shallots cooked in red wine, was set on a bed of thick eggplant slices, which had been fried with whole garlic cloves, coriander and a hint of chili pepper. The combination was more than a bit exaggerated, the palate being confused by sweet and bitter flavors that never seemed to come together as a coherent whole.
My companion's starter was figs filled with chopped lamb, pine nuts and mint, accompanied by a jam of red onions. The dish was spoiled only in that the combination of the figs and the sauteed onions made it a bit too sweet.
The first of the main courses we sampled was the tagine Casablanca that had been prepared by slowly stewing head meat in a lightly spicy red tomato sauce, tossing that with garlic cloves, chick peas and coriander and then spooning this over a generous bed of couscous. The couscous itself was excellent, but the meat left a great deal to be desired, some of the cubes being soft and full of flavor, others being undercooked and yet others with too much gristle. What dealt the death-knell to this dish, however, was that it was far, far too salty. The chicken Marrakesh we tried was far better, chicken breasts filled with ground lamb and pieces of pistachio, all being seasoned with cinnamon, cardamom and ginger before being coated with seasoned bread crumbs and fried. Crisp on the exterior, soft and moist on the interior, the chicken was full of flavor and served with a smooth, rich puree - this was a lovely dish.
We went on to try two desserts. The mahlabi, with raspberry syrup and rosewater, was quite good. Two ma'amul cookies served with the dish were lovely but a whole date that was also served with the dish, cooked in a sugar syrup proved far too sweet. The other dessert we tried, rather pretentiously named a "carpaccio of pineapple" was nothing more than disappointing slices of pineapple coated with a sugar syrup, and they tasted more lijked tinned fruit than fresh. The Calvados that was said to have been used in preparing the dish was unfelt.
Including espresso with which we closed our meal, our food bill for two came to NIS 240 to which a bottle of the good Shiraz-Cabernet Sauvignon of Galil Mountain added NIS 95. Despite its charm and good service, this restaurant, in terms of its culinary offerings, is not good enough to be worth a trip from the big city.
Oro:In the Alon Petrol Station, Moshav Galia, on the road between Rehovot and Yavne. Open Sunday-Thursday 12:00-24:00, Friday for lunch and Saturday after the close of Shabbat. Tel. (08) 931-6617. Kosher.
Quasi-bistro in Ramat Hahayal
Like the ever-increasing number of places billing themselves as bistro-bars, Ramat Hahayal's recently opened Avishag has an attractive setting with attractive dim lighting, an abundance of tints of brown, beige and maroon on the walls, dark wood tables and chairs and, of course, the indispensable bar. Avishag defines itself as representing the "Israeli kitchen." Precisely what that is eludes me, for as in many similar local restaurants the dishes presented have their source in North Africa, the eastern Mediterranean basin and even parts of southern France.
I opened with two first courses, the first of which was two pastilles, two miniature pastries in which phyllo dough had been wrapped around a filling of chicken, almonds and sweet herbs (all ground together) before being deep fried. Crisp, just peppery enough and full of flavor, these were actually quite good.
My next offering, supposedly crispy calamari rings, was not as successful, the tasty but not at all crisp calamari having too much the flavor of a freezer case, and the sauce, instead of being of aioli, as I was told it would be, was a too simple and not nearly garlicky enough mayonnaise, apparently given a bit of red color with paprika. The small, hot loaf of bread I was served called to mind Friday night challah, and the accompanying two dips that accompanied the bread, green techina and the other tasting of sweet red pepper sauce had not nearly enough flavor or charm.
My main course shrimps with asparagus came in a very generous portion and were crisp and full of flavor, enhanced by a white wine, butter and garlic sauce. Unfortunately, the asparagus served proved not the vegetable's valued tips but its thick stems, sliced and boiled and still hard and bitter.
Dessert, served on a huge plate as is the custom in many cafes these days, was a bitter chocolate marquise that despite any lack of sophistication was rich and dense enough to satisfy any chocolate lover.
Including a good closing espresso, my food bill came to NIS 140 to which a half liter of Tuborg draught beer added NIS 21. Perhaps good enough for lunch if you work in the area but not good enough to beckon one for dinner.
Avishag: 32 Habarzel, Ramat Hahayal. Open daily 11:30-24:00. Tel. (03) 647-4001.