Driving south, it used to be that not even a single place was worth stopping at, even for coffee. In recent years, however, a growing number of fine restaurants have been popping up outside the kingdom of Tel Aviv. And the last few months have seen significant changes at some of them, including chef replacements at established restaurants. New eateries featuring excellent Arabic cuisine have also opened in the Nazareth vicinity, while in Mitzpeh Ramon a new restaurant recently opened next to a boutique hotel. Below is a list of both new and old restaurants, some of which were until now well-kept secrets, and to their loyal customers we apologize for the disclosure.
1. Aluma, Maalot-Tarshiha
Ilan and Alfa Perry moved from Tel Aviv to Maalot-Tarshiha, where they opened Aluma in 1999. Five years later, Ala Sawitat joined as a partner, after working there as a barman since the age of 17. He then moved on to a managerial position, eventually became a partner and finally bought the restaurant from the Perrys, who now operate a bed-and-breakfast nearby.
Sawitat, 27, says Aluma specializes in "Galilee cuisine with some touches of French cuisine"; the chef is Dari Ben Nevat. The meat is aged at the restaurant, where they also serve calamari with labaneh, and okra with seafood. The restaurant, which has a capacity of around 50, changes its menu every three months.
On the Kfar Vradim-Tarshiha road. Tel.: 04-957-4477
2. Habayit, Ein Hod
The Al-Hija family opened the Habayit restaurant in 2004 and since then it has served as a pit stop on the way north, between the Furadis Junction and Atlit. The restaurant serves home-style and seasonal Arab dishes, cooked by the women of the family, Sofia and Sarin. Brother Amar is in charge of salads. The dishes on the menu change, but the price is fixed: 90 shekels per adult, 50 shekels per child. Small plates are provided and many various dishes served, including walnut salad with saffron and tehina; sinaya (a baked dish with meat and tehina ); mujaddara and more.
The price also includes tamarind juice and water; the restaurant does not offer carbonated drinks. While the place has a capacity of 100, it's always advisable to make reservations because they cook food based on the number of diners at the next meal. Directions: Take Route 4 and travel between the Furadis Junction and Atlit until you reach the sign to Ein Hod. Go straight on that road until it ends, the entrance to Nir Etzion will be on the right and on the left, the Yemin Orde boarding school. At this junction, there is a wide gravel path that you walk (or drive ) along to reach Ein Hod.
The second house at the entrance to Ein Hod. Tel.: 052-839-7350; 04-460-6343
3. Al Tanur, Upper Nazareth
Al Tanur, the lesser-known sister of Al Babur in Umm al-Fahm, is located adjacent to the gas station at the Reina Junction in Upper Nazareth - and some diners swear that it is even better. The owner, Ziad Abbas, affirms that in the last year, authentic Arab cuisine has become very popular here, and the Jewish population understands that it is made up of more than hummus and tehina. This was, he says, a very good year for restaurants in the Nazareth area. The most popular dishes at Al Tanur are shoulder of lamb served on a platter for four, leg of lamb, stuffed ribs and a portion of stuffed neck for two.
Reina Junction, Upper Nazareth. Tel.: 04-601-4948
4. Rotenberg, Naharayim
In the five years it's been around, Rotenberg in Naharayim - not far from Kibbutz Gesher - has become known as a place that, if you happen to come across it, most likely will not have a table available. With just 45 seats, it is always packed with diners who reserved ahead of time.
A few months ago Ran Saguy, who had been Rotenberg's chef from the day it opened, left and was replaced by his sous chef, Lior Bahshian. Bahshian also bought the place with partners Shai Cahanowitz and Lior Sahar. The menu remains unchanged, with Bahshian preparing the dishes much the way Saguy did.
Some of the dishes the restaurant is known for include chicken livers and creme cafe, seafood filet in lemon creme with three strips of shrimp, and a semifreddo brulle with fruit. Still, some changes to the menu are expected soon.
Naharayim, next to Kibbutz Gesher. Tel. 04-675-2237
5. Benahala, Nahariya
Ran Friedman returned to Nahariya, where he grew up, over six years ago, saw the pecan orchard in the family estate in the Neve Rasco neighborhood and decided that was where he would open a restaurant. Benahala, in the heart of the estate, includes a large wooden deck, lawns and outdoor equipment, providing families with a place to let their kids run around after a long trip. The chef there is Omri Shahar, whose dishes include stews (in the winter ), liver pate, risotto and mozzarella balls, as well as chicken bottoms in hoisin sauce, and ravioli. The restaurant has seating for 60 inside, and 80 on the deck.
17a Yitzhak Sadeh, Rasco Nahariya. Open: Monday-Saturday. Tel.: 04-952-2074.
6. Balzac, Ashdod
Chef Nati Shafrir is an unconventional sort, and this carries over to his Ashdod eatery: He advertises on a blog; writes about food as well as chefs in the south in the local paper, Yedioth Hadarom; and hosts group singing events at his restaurant. Shafrir has been the chef and owner of the French bistro Balzac for over 11 years, though with a two-year interruption, during which time he sold his own homemade jams and breads. A purist chef unwilling to compromise, Shafrir acknowledges that the Ashdod crowd is highly suspicious of traditional French cuisine.
"We speak a different culinary language here," he says. "This is a city with 250,000 residents, but there is a lot of insularity when it comes to food that is not Algerian or Moroccan. It is a city of blue-collar workers, who often want kosher food."
Still, over the years Balzac has acquired a reputation as a fine restaurant with dishes specifically associated with it - for example, sirloin steak with cubes of Brie cheese from the Cornamel dairy, and goose-thigh confit with cherries and lemongrass.
11 Ha'eshel St., Ashdod. Hours: Daily (except Sunday ); Monday opening in the afternoon. Tel. 08-853-6336
7. Pescado, Ashdod
Yehiel (Yehi ) Zino and his partner Eran Jano purchased the Pescado restaurant in Ashdod around a year ago, in which time it has become known for its rich menu and excellent handling of seafood dishes. Jano himself selects the restaurant's catch each day. Zino, 27, who worked at the original Pescado, then moved on to restaurants in the central region including, Avi Conforti's Zepra. He decided to return to Ashdod and bought the restaurant in partnership with Jano. The two renovated the place, reworking it into a restaurant and bar with seating for around 80.
As kosher establishment, they do not serve shellfish or other non-kosher seafood. All the fish dishes are grilled in a stone oven. Certain dishes have become quite popular, such as the rock bass baked in the oven with tomato confit, and raw fish dishes like carpaccio and fresh amberjack sashimi on a bed of avocado slivers.
12/1 Martin Buber, Ashdod. Tel. 08-852-3063
8. Chez Eugene, Mitzpeh Ramon
Gille Amoyal, Arno Rodrig and Thierry Avimelekh along with Chef Yair Feinberg opened Chez Eugene not long ago, located near the Adama Hangar in Mitzpeh Ramon and adjacent to a boutique hotel. Rodrig manages both the restaurant and hotel, which currently has six rooms and this year will add another four.
Feinberg, who is responsible for the restaurant's menu as well as cooking, describes it as "unpretentious bistro, for 40 diners, with local raw materials. A dairy menu is served in the afternoons, and meat in the evenings. The restaurant is not kosher as it is open Friday and Saturday, but it does not serve pork or non-kosher seafood."
The menu, which changes frequently, also includes goat cheese from the Naot Farm, herbs from hothouses in the Negev, meat from Be'er Sheva and seafood from the fish ponds of Kibbutz Mashabei Sadeh and Kibbutz Revivim. Chez Eugene and the boutique hotel, a venture in which the partners invested five million shekels, is the realization of Rodrig's dream of opening a guest house and gourmet restaurant in the Negev.
8 Har Hardon, Mitzpeh Ramon. Hours: Daily, 09:00-17:00; 19:00-24:00. Tel. 08-653-9595
9. Ahuzat Smilansky, Be'er Sheva
The chef and owner of the Be'er Sheva tapas bar Ahuzat Smilansky, Yariv Eitani, previously worked at both Rafael and Beit Food Art in Tel Aviv, and even apprenticed in haute cuisine in Provence. Still, he chose to return to his hometown of Be'er Sheva to open his own establishment.
"I wanted to come back and do something in the city where I grew up, and today I see other advantages here," he says. "I'm helping to enhance the city. Young people from all over the country are coming here today and I believe it lacked a place like this."
Ahuzat Smilansky, located in a renovated Ottoman-era building in Be'er Sheva's Old City, can accommodate 100 diners and also boasts an outdoor balcony. "When we opened, we wanted to focus on French cuisine, but this didn't suit the climate and ambiance very well," Eitani says, adding that the change was welcomed. Visitors can now enjoy delicacies rarely found in the capital of the Negev, like beef skewers with date and onion chutney, truffle and wild berry risotto, and seafood chowder.
23 Smilansky St., Old City of Be'er Sheva. Hours: Daily, 12:00 until the last patron finishes. Tel. 08-665-4854