I’ve never liked Nervous Nellies, so as I was packing for my umpteenth Israel trip the morning after the-restaurant attack in Tel Aviv in which Islamists-murdered four people and wounded 16, I was pleased to get a message from K, my favourite travelling companion: ‘What a perfect time for us to go!’
I knew that a lot of our trip would be spent in restaurants, too; we are always hyper-social in the Non-Stop City, as TLV calls itself, but this was Shavuot weekend and we were planning to meet up with lots of mates, both Israeli and Anglo-Jewish. To witness the watering holes of the Promised Land in all their excellent exuberance is to see a people who were used to scrabbling for crumbs now relishing their day in the sun solely through their own will, talent and effort. In other countries, restaurants can be receptacles of smuggery, snobbishness and status anxiety. Here, they are the bread of life itself.
Israel has made me many things over the years — hot, horny, happy — but it has also made me a vegetarian. I’ve always been an animal lover, but the sickly appearance of the sandal-wearing seat-sniffers on self-righteous cycles put me off, as did the food.
Then, more than ten years ago, I went to Israel where the — ahem — muscularity of the vegetarian options made meat seem not just murder but meh. Food has always been central to Jewish culture; their festivals have been somewhat glibly summed up as: ‘They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat!’ But the comfort food of the Jewish diaspora is the polar opposite of the sunshine superfood of the Jewish state. It’s the difference, generally speaking, between the two sorts of Jews. In the pre-Israel past, they were generally a bookish, harassed people, whereas now they surf and sprint from dawn till dusk and produce T-shirts which boast: ‘DON’T WORRY USA — ISRAEL STANDS BY YOU.’
There are several reasons why vegetarianism makes sense here. The heat of the country has a drastic impact on appetite, leaving even a glutton like me struggling to conquer more than one meal a day. With no meat involved, the laws of kosher eating can be dodged altogether. And the unique level of atrocity visited upon the Jewish people has, I think, made them more sensitive than most to the vileness of factory farming. In Cast A Giant Shadow, the Hollywood biopic of Mickey Marcus, the American colonel turned Israeli freedom fighter (a stern Yul Brynner) tells a bumptious Kirk Douglas: ‘Many of our people are vegetarian — they have seen too much slaughter.’ The Israeli Defence Force even offers vegetarian boots.
Whatever, each time I’ve been back I’ve eaten progressively less of anything with a face, except pumpkin-related stuff. Last time, on our first night at Jerusalem’s swanky David Citadel hotel, my companion and I both almost spat out our omelette/club sandwich because it was so meaty. But this was simply the virility of the-Israeli potato/aubergine in action, getting right up in your face and saying: ‘You want a piece of me, huh?’ At breakfast, the usual wallflower vegetarian option of mushrooms, beans and a bit of fried bread was superseded by shakshuka — poached eggs in a garlicky tomato sauce. On the rooftop of the super-lush Mamilla Hotel, at Shabbat sundown, we ate ‘tomatoes of all shapes and colours cooked in interesting ways’ and never missed meat for a moment.
Moving on to Tel Aviv, you can get an Optimistic Breakfast at Manta Ray — the eye-crossingly beautiful and eye-wateringly expensive restaurant on the beach — but we swerve it in favour of Benedict, a 24-hour breakfast restaurant with three branches in the city. There’s none of the grimness of the all-day Blighty breakfast joints here, and loads of vegetarian/vegan options which come with a gorgeous range of complimentary cocktails. The locals tend to avoid the booze at 8 a.m. so it’s easy to spot the gentile (‘You’re English, right?’) as we line up the lychee/pineapple champagne mimosas that make the table look so pretty. It draws an interesting crowd — models at the bar taking selfies, worn-out wanderers from the nearby gay beach and a single solitary Amy Winehouse lookalike chain-smoking.
We had all our old favourites in Tel Aviv — posh pasta at Toto, metze and frozen margaritas at Manta Ray, arak cocktails at Suzanna, sabich sandwiches at LaLa Land — but were delighted to discover a new place: the amazing Nanuchka. Tucked away in Neve Tzedek — the first real neighbourhood of Tel Aviv and now a hipster magnet — it looks like something out of a dream: unreal, lovely and only slightly sinister. During the day it serves up the most exquisite Georgian-vegan food in surroundings of 1950s Soviet chintziness, and on our first visit K and I were delighted to finally find pirozhki — a sort of golden cheesy silk purse to the stodgy sow’s ear of the pasty. After dark, Nanuchka goes crazy, with dancing on tables presided over by staff of superhuman beauty and an owner who looks like a beautiful Bond villainess.
I go there again with Yashiv Cohen of the band Men Of North Country (probably the best band since The Smiths)and Dana Kessler, who’s in another band called Substitute Teacher. They are a typically cool young Tel Avivian-couple who seem surprised by nothing and delighted by everything — especially pop music from Manchester. I eat tofu without becoming verbally abusive, a first for me.
They drink very little — all the more for me! A restaurant visit without boozing is as alien an idea to me as a marriage without secrets and Israel has progressed pleasingly over the years in the alcohol department;-largely, one feels, due to the influx of Russians who came here during the tender mercies of Gorbachev. Israeli wine used to be vile. I’d knock it back like shots, grimacing, and then look around for more, bringing to mind that line about food in English public schools: ‘It’s horrible — and there’s not enough of it.’ Now it makes French splosh taste like Schloer. But the old raised-eyebrow attitude to copious carousing remains. At Moses Burger I was once asked by a waitress: ‘What are we celebrating? Mazel tov!’ A bit-surprising, considering I’d only ordered one bottle between four people. With hindsight, I should have answered: ‘I personally am celebrating the fact that I’m the only gentile at the table, and therefore I’ll be having at least three quarters of the booze. L’chaim!’
By the end of Shavuot weekend it was too darn hot even to swim, so we boarded a double-decker train going north along a coastline of sun-bleached modern beach resorts and ancient settlements — a journey so efficient, comfortable and cheap (the equivalent of £7 for a 90-minute train journey) that it makes rail travel in the country which invented it look like some Third World omni-shambles. We were on our way to Acre, a Unesco World Heritage Centre, which is the most fearfully beautiful and historic city outside of Jerusalem. The pleasure of travelling was made complete by the fact that our companions were mainly young soldiers, rifles strapped across their chests, going back to their barracks after the holiday. I was reminded once more of what my friend Joel said about Israel: ‘It’s the only country where the soldiers are better-looking than the models.’ And of what Robert Louis Stevenson almost said: ‘To travel hopefully between two IDF teenagers is a better thing than to arrive.’
Acre is beautiful, but feels weary under the weight of its own past, which has seen star turns by the Ottoman Empire, Saladin, Richard the Lionheart and Napoleon, among others. (Imagine the backstage rider for that little lot!) The handful of tourists are dwarfed by the enormity of the Gothic-arched halls of the Crusader City and spooked by the ghostliness of the Templare’s tunnel, a subterranean passageway between the port and the-fortress. I know Acre from my favourite film, Exodus, as the place where the Citadel served as a prison for Jewish freedom fighters, some of whom were executed in the-Gallows Room.
We happened across an unassuming restaurant near the lighthouse called Uri Buri, only to later find out it’s one of the country’s most celebrated places to eat. We ordered from the vegetarian menu — gnocchi, black rice noodles and artichokes, grilled red pepper terrine filled with feta, cashews and black olives — and it was the best lunch I’ve ever had. The charming owner and chef Uri-Jeremais came out to thank us for stopping by — tourists are in short supply here now. We wish we could stay and eat here twice a day for the rest of our lives but it’s time to go.
Back in Tel Aviv, checking out of the Hilton, the charming desk clerk does a triple-take at the size of my bar bills: ‘Madam… forgive me… there is some mistake?’
‘Nah,’ I say. ‘That’s all mine.’
As she stares at me, unwilling to fully comprehend the sweeping panoramic majesty of my dipsomania, there is a kerfuffle behind us. In the chill-box lobby, a woman has fainted clean away from the heat. The desk clerk smiles, shakes her head, and staples the many pages of my bill together: ‘Ah. Madam. You see, you drink, and you are standing here happy. This is why people keep fainting… they don’t drink enough!’
The Israelis! On top of every other virtue, such a delightfully practical people. Missing them already. We’ll be back.