Wait, They Have More Than Milk and Honey? — Eating Adventures in Israel, Pt. 1

It's pretty dorky, but I really loved seeing familiar products with Hebrew names.

It’s pretty dorky, but I really loved seeing familiar products with Hebrew names.

Sorry for the recent lapse in updates, but as implied by the title of this post, I just got back from a 2 week trip to Israel. I was on a Birthright trip, and though I wish I could be more original, I’m going to be like everyone else who has gone on those and say it was completely worth it. If you can scrounge up any molecule of Jewery in your DNA, I highly recommend trying Birthright. For someone who defines “pushing herself” as getting medium salsa instead of mild, it was an incredibly rewarding personal challenge. And of course I got to eat my body weight in hummus and pita, so no complaints here.

We criss-crossed the country at rocket ship speed, so there’s a ton to cover, even if I limit myself to just talking about food. I love traveling for many reasons, but I’m sure it’ll come as no surprise that exploring the everyday cuisine of someplace new is up at the top of my list. I’ve only really gotten into Middle Eastern/Mediterranean food in the past year, so I was pumped to move beyond falafel and tahini to see what other basic dishes I could try in Israel. I’m going to focus this post on some larger take-aways about the food on my trip, to provide some context for the more in-depth discussion of the more memorable dishes.

Everyone is provided with two meals a day on a Birthright trip, which are generally breakfast and dinner at whatever kibbutz or hotel you’re staying at. The meals were all cafeteria style buffets, and usually involved tons of vegetables and salads, some meat-stew dishes, and rice or couscous. Luckily, I was perfectly happy to take a shovel to the eggplants, tomatoes, and cucumbers.

By the end of the trip, however, I was really struggling with breakfast. Israeli breakfast is very different from the typical American, or even European meals I’ve had. Israelis tend to have very large breakfasts, which our guide explained is due to the schedule of working on a kibbutz (= farming commune) back when they were first established in the late 19th Century. You’d wake up early, go work the fields for a few hours, and then come in for breakfast before heading back out to work some more. To make up for all the hard labor, a traditional Israeli breakfast involves hardboiled eggs, salads of tomatoes, cucumbers, beets, and other fresh vegetables, yogurt-based dips and sauces, and some bread (generally pita). At the places we stayed there were also fried eggs, yogurt, cereal, and pudding for breakfast (no joke, both vanilla and chocolate were offered at nearly every hotel or kibbutz).

I suppose this really isn’t too different a notion than the big farmer’s breakfasts we have here — bacon, eggs, sausage, potatoes etc. — but the foundational tastes of the meal are pretty far apart. As an American I struggled with the idea of having vegetables for breakfast, and found myself craving some sort of fruit in the morning — some berries or citrus or even a banana. I also tend to eat smaller, blander breakfasts (oatmeal with bananas and cinnamon is a frequent occurrence), so I was slightly overwhelmed by the heaviness of the buffet. This is partially because like in Europe, low-fat products are rare in Israel — the basic milk offered was 3%, and the lowest yogurt fat content I saw was 1.5%, with the highest being up to 5%. Now this is not to say that America has it right with our obsession with all things low-carb, low-fat,  and diet-branded (such as diet milk, which is a real thing), but I won’t deny the fact that I’m used to having the option. By the end of the trip I was basically limiting myself to yogurt and granola or cereal, because I knew that my options for lunch or dinner were going to be much heavier, and I regrettably couldn’t jump on the veggie bandwagon in the morning.

A few other random observations about food and drink in Israel:

– I was told by multiple people that Starbucks’ efforts to expand into Israel failed because of the country’s obsession with coffee. The most prevalent chain coffee house is Aroma, which actually has a couple locations in New York. I thought their espresso was nothing to shake a stick at, but they do have an extensive food menu with far better offerings than Starbucks — actual sandwiches and salads served with warm fresh bread.

Aroma also serves the Israeli version of “iced coffee,” which is pretty much a frappucino. I found it tooth-achingly sweet (which says a lot coming from me), but it’s clearly very popular, since almost any store that sold coffee offered a version of iced coffee from a slushee-type machine. This includes both fancy espresso bars and more common snack stands at places like the Dead Sea.

– I only found one restaurant that gave you the option of combining milk and meat (which goes against keeping Kosher) — Black Burger (similar to Five Napkin Burger in NY), but it was a separate topping, not a standard menu item. Even at a sandwich shop, you had to choose between a cheese sandwich and a meat-based one — the cheese and meat were sitting near each other in the refrigerator, but the employees refused to make a turkey and cheese sandwich.

– Fruit juice stands were everywhere, and they were amazing, partially making up for the lack of fruit at our accommodations. I discovered a new appreciation for pomegranate because of it, and I wish the fruit vendors in NY would occasionally bust out a blender or two.

But enough of the complaints, let’s dig into the times we had to buy ourselves food, because that’s where the more interesting dishes were. Given the frenetic pace of the tour, I didn’t have much time to jot down notes on food, so consider this a brief slideshow of some culinary exploration, rather than a detailed analysis of Israeli street food. I can’t say I was disappointed by anything I ate, from the strip mall shawarma to my first taste of Iraqi food.

I’ll get into the specifics of my various lunches and dinners next post, but for now I wanted to talk about the two markets or “shuks” that I went to in Israel, in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. I’ve been to various farmers’ markets in my life, including the famed Union Square Market, but I’ve never seen anything comparable to the markets they have in Israel. It was like someone had turned a supermarket inside out — you could find anything you wanted there, from fresh fruit and vegetables to desserts, condiments, spices, and even full fish and butcher shops.

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A typical stall in the Tel Aviv Market — you couldn’t help but hit a dried fruit vendor every twenty feet or so.

One of the most plentiful items on sale was dried fruit, with a wide variety in copious quantities. Aside from the obvious Middle Eastern staples of dried figs and dates, I also tried dried pineapple (not the overly sweetened chunks you see in the grocery store) and dried mango. Since the vendors charge based on weight, it was impossible only get a few pieces of anything. I was lucky enough to sample others’ hauls and avoid having to make my way through 5 pounds of figs. I was also excited to try fresh dates for the first time.  The fresh date reminded me of a mellower grape — it still had the sticky-sweetness of dried dates, but the juiciness helped to mitigate it a bit. I’ve only come across dried dates in the US, so if someone knows where I can get fresh ones, I’d be extremely grateful.

This may look like cheese, but it's actually piles and piles of halva.

This may look like cheese, but it’s actually piles and piles of halva.

Another shuk mainstay are the halva stalls. Halva is a overarching term referring to a number of different types of sweets that are found in the Arab and Jewish world, from the Middle East to Eastern Europe to North Africa and beyond. The word itself just means “sweet” in Arabic, and is generally divided into two categories: flour-based and nut-butter-based. The halva I encountered in Israel was mainly sesame (aka tahini) -based, so they were dense and crumbly. As you can see from the photo, there are at least as many varieties of halva as flavors at Baskin Robbins. In both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem the stalls had free samples available, and I got to try chocolate and coffee halva, respectively. The texture reminded me a little of dried out pate, which was off-putting, although they were both certainly very sweet. I personally prefer my tahini on its own, so I wasn’t tempted to buy any halva to bring back to the States.

Aside from raw ingredients, you could also find freshly made pastries, like rugelach and baklava.

Aside from raw ingredients, you could also find freshly made pastries, like rugelach and baklava.

I ate more rugelach than ever before during my trip to Israel, and it really changed my opinion on the treat. Most of the rugelach I’ve encountered in the US has been dry and stale, with the cinnamon or chocolate filling providing the slimmest amount of moisture to combat the crumbly crust. But the fresh rugelach in Israel was almost like a cinnamon roll in texture, the dough squishy and saturated by the buttery filling. More to come on the top rugelach contender in part two of my Israel posts, but the total ubiquity of  rugelach in the shuks points to the reasoning behind my fascination with these markets. One of my favorite things to do when I travel is ride the public transportation in a foreign city. It may seem odd to be so interested in a subway system, but I’m fascinated by how people from different regions have figured out urban design — with the same basic constraints of a light rail or subway system, how does someone outside of New York or the US tackle the conundrum of creating a convenient commute? It takes me out of the picturesque tourist attractions and gives me a tiny slice of everyday life in Paris or Rome or Amsterdam.

Because of safety issues, Birthright groups are pretty much restricted to the tour bus provided by the trip, which meant riding the light rail or public bus was not an option for me. But I did get to walk through the shuk in Tel Aviv on Friday afternoon, as average, everyday shoppers were getting their food and supplies for Shabbat. Unlike some of the more novelty stalls at the Union Square Market, these people were literally shopping for staples — peppers and onions, raisins and cinnamon and ketchup and mayo, and maybe even a little dessert for after Shabbat dinner. The markets were bustling, partially with awestruck tourists like me, but we were not the majority of people there. So while I dilly-dallied, taking in the sights of loaves of challah and being eyeballed by head-still-on herring, the rest of the world got on with its business. Mundane as it might be, I couldn’t help but be grateful for the chance to be an observer of uncurated life, similar to my own but just different enough to make me question when our paths diverged, and if there are any Super Shuk-and-Stops in Israel.

Next post I’ll get into the nitty-gritty of some of my favorite meals in Israel. Let’s just say that I found a deeper bond with the Israeli people than our common religious heritage: an everlasting desire for ice cream in all its glory. Stay tuned for shawarma, falafel, shakshuka, and of course, lots of dessert.

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Review: Burger Joint @ Le Parker Meridien — Secretly Unsatisfying

I don’t really understand the appeal of “secret” restaurants and bars in New York. For the most part, if a not-so-trendy nobody like me has heard of them, they can’t be much of a secret at all. The speakeasy fad with places like PDT (aka “Please Don’t Tell”) and Proletariat, or the “restaurant within a restaurant” motif of the basement brasserie of La Esquina (beneath the taco stand), seem to me to be just cheap ploys to up the buzz about your establishment without killing your advertising budget.

A “secret” restaurant that had been on my radar for a while is Burger Joint in Le Parker Meridien Hotel. I’d actually been to the hotel several times for brunch at their other restaurant Norma’s (great hot chocolate and crunchy french toast), which is located just off the lobby and proudly displayed without an entryway or door to block the view of the bustling dining room. In direct contrast to that is the hidden Burger Joint, which I had heard about from several people but never actually been able to locate on my jaunts to Norma’s. So when a recent Zagat article named Burger Joint as having one of the top burgers in NYC, I thought it might finally be time to check it out. With a motley crew (aka my past culinary cohorts Jacob, Laura, and my boyfriend Shaun) of tasting support in tow, we met up in the lobby of Le Parker Meridien, and set about trying to tease apart the legend of the not-so-secret Burger Joint.

First Impressions:

Across from Norma's is a roped off area outside a velvet curtain -- could Burger Joint be inside?

Across from Norma’s is a roped off area outside a velvet curtain — could Burger Joint be inside?

My friend Diana, who had previously been to Burger Joint, had mentioned the restaurant being behind a velvet curtain, and sure enough, directly across from Norma’s there was a wall bedecked in red velvet. While this certainly fits the upscale tone of the hotel, the curtain would ultimately prove pretty incongruous (and probably intentionally so) with the style of Burger Joint. A helpful member of the hotel staff guided the way to a long line that was sectioned off by ropes next to the curtain’s edge. This would lead to the only entrance/exit for Burger Joint. As we made our way closer to the restaurant, the classical veneer of Le Parker Meridien gave way to a pseudo down-home, almost aggressively casual style. A burger neon sign indicates the shift as you turn into the actual restaurant, a tiny hole in the wall type shop decked out in wood paneling, hand drawn signs, and very limited seating.

The line snaked back all the way from the counter inside.

The line snaked back all the way from the counter inside.

Burgers, this way -->

Burgers, this way –>

The walls were covered in prefabricated writing, and everything felt like it had been purposefully aged to affect a weathered, rustic quality. I couldn’t help but be reminded of pre-torn designer jeans, carefully shredded for the ultimate haphazard casual style. The not-so-subtle aim seemed to be to shake us fancypants urbanites out of our skyscraper stupor for some old-fashioned roadside diner cookin’. Between that and the gruff service (although I’ll give them some leeway considering we were there at a peak time), I was left with the impression of overly calculated cuteness.

Wood paneling, pre-fab writing on the walls, and slapdash handwritten menus taped up, Burger Joint artfully aims for nonchalance.

Wood paneling, pre-fab writing on the walls, and slapdash handwritten menus taped up, Burger Joint artfully aims for nonchalance.

The Food:

I’m not sure if the restrictive menu and no-nonsense attitude of the staff was a nod to the simplicity of the semi-rustic aesthetic, or to the no-BS New Yorker stereotype. Either way, you don’t have a lot of choice at Burger Joint. You can get a hamburger or a cheeseburger, with any, all, or none of the handful of toppings (lettuce, tomato, onions, mayo, etc), a side of fries, and soda or a vanilla milkshake. No, they don’t have chocolate ice cream, nor any type of flavored syrup, and no, there is not more than one type of cheese to top your burger with. Better than McDonalds, though, they will cook your burger to order (from rare to well done).

My group decided that, considering the hassle of waiting on line and scrambling for seats that we’d already gone through, it was worth it to go whole-hog on our orders. Ever the model of restraint, I ordered a cheeseburger with tomato and ketchup (I like tomatoes, deal with it), french fries, and a milkshake. Astonishingly, my check came out to close to $18. The similarities with ready-shredded designer clothes continued to mount.

Burger Joint does get points for efficiency, however. The entire food production operation takes place inside a tiny counter space, with one cashier and four or five other employees to prep and cook the orders and bus the restaurant. It probably took less than 10 minutes for all four of us to get our food, which isn’t half bad considering they cook the burgers to order on a small flat top.

A peek inside the small kitchen.

A peek inside the small kitchen.

Unfortunately, once we got our food, it became increasingly clear that Burger Joint is one of those places where there’s an unspoken surcharge for “the experience.” The only item that seemed to be equitable in the “bang-for-buck” category were the fries. The burgers and milkshakes were pretty small considering what I had paid for them. My cheeseburger was about the same size as what you’d get at a Burger King, and the milkshake was served in a 12 oz cup. Now this is probably the result of my American expectations of unreasonable portion size, but as Laura rightly pointed out, if I’m paying nearly $20 for not-so gourmet food, I would expect at least to get a fair amount of it. After all, I don’t think Mayor Bloomberg’s beverage ban applies to milkshakes.

My palm-size cheeseburger, pretty standard patty size, but small for the price.

My palm-size cheeseburger, pretty standard patty size, but small for the price.

The shake -- better for my health, but too small for my wallet. And the lone standout in price to portion ratio -- good ol' freedom fries.

The shake — better for my health, but too small for my wallet. And the lone standout in price to portion ratio — good ol’ freedom fries.

Okay, so if we not getting quantity for our money, are we getting quality? Yes and no. On the whole, everything was solid. I appreciated the fact that my burger was in fact cooked to medium rare — there was a nice pink center surrounded by a crispy cooked edge. And my toppings tasted fresh — I had a thick slice of tomato, and the cheese was a mild cheddar, so a step up from the hastily assembled toppings on the McDonald’s line. But there was nothing that really made the burger stand out. The meat had reasonable flavor, but no real depth to it, and I’m not sure I could articulate a real difference between some of the better bar burgers I’ve had in NY. Shaun, who is more of a hole-in-the-wall burger connoisseur, remarked that a really great “dive burger” carries with it the flavor of some of the seasoning from the surface it’s cooked on. And much like the prefabricated rustic-style walls, Burger Joint’s grill did not seem to have the caked-on-through-the-years grit and gristle that elevates a real down-and-dirty burger.

The same was largely true for the fries and the shake. The fries were crispy and well salted, but were just as much from a pre-cut frozen package as the ones you get at the drive-thru. And as someone with a rich history of milkshake drinking (doing well on a test in elementary school meant a trip to Baskin Robbins for a black and white shake), I found Burger Joint’s version to be about par for the course. The vanilla ice cream had good flavor, but nothing outstanding beyond what you’d get scooping out of a Breyer’s pint at home. This shake had no subtleties of vanilla bean richness, and because of its simplicity, no real contrasting tastes or textures. They do get credit for blending a thick shake, but man did I want some chocolate syrup to liven things up a bit.

Final Thoughts:

In the hierarchy of the dining scene, Burger Joint seems to sit in the “fast casual” category — offering a more unique experience than the average corporate-cut fast food franchise, but without table service or a wait staff. I accept that they’re not trying to compete with a gourmet burger like those at The Spotted Pig or The Little Owl, or even with a quality steakhouse burger like the one at the famed Peter Luger’s. Burger Joint is just trying to put out a straightforward, old-fashioned burger. Because of this, it seems fair to judge it against the other members of the fast casual burger club — places like Shake Shack or Bobby’s Burger Palace. And disappointingly, Burger Joint just doesn’t measure up to the standards of those contenders. You end up paying more for a sub-par meal, with none of the variety of topping and seasoning combinations you would get at Danny Meyer’s or Bobby Flay’s casual ventures. Burger Joint doesn’t even offer a vegetarian option.

Now you could make the argument that Burger Joint is hearkening back to a simpler era, a time before black bean burgers and sweet potato fries. But if the intention is to provide a contrast with the high-falutin environs of Le Parker Meridien surrounding it, Burger Joint needs to go all the way. Either offer a limited menu in a small space for a high price and make some mindblowing food, or admit the standard quality of your offerings and cut the prices a bit. Because I for one feel gipped when I have to pay extra for “the experience,” when said experience means a long wait, a crowded closet of a restaurant, a cash only requirement, and then the same kind of food I could make at my own backyard barbecue. I guess I just have to disagree with Zagat on this one — perhaps the real secret of Burger Joint is that it’s not actually worth all of the hype.

Burger Joint @ Le Parker Meridien Hotel
57th St between 6th and 7th Aves
http://www.parkermeridien.com/eat4.php