EXPLORING ISRAEL’S VIBRANT FOOD SCENE: EUCALYPTUS RESTAURANT, JERUSALEM
Jerusalem is, famously, a melting pot of cultures, of faiths and of traditions, with a thriving culinary scene spreading across the city. With food such an integral part of Israeli life, experiencing the city’s local cuisine serves as a fast-track into better understanding local customs, and with this in mind, we visited the Eucalyptus restaurant in central Jerusalem to sample the “biblical cuisine” on offer. By Ellie Day
Set back on the cobbled streets of the Artists’ Quarter, just a stone’s throw way from the ancient walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, Eucalyptus feels suitably steeped in both history and culture. Sitting in a 19th century stone building, surrounded with pots of highly-scented growing herbs and edible flowers growing in all corners, the exterior hints at the creative, agriculturally-focused cuisine cooked served inside. The restaurant’s internationally renowned chef, Moshe Basson, spotlights ingredients which feature in the Old Testament, mixing ancient references playfully with modern culinary techniques. In doing this, he creates a (very pleasantly) disorientating experience, which has echoes of the Heston Blumenthal approach to “surprising and delighting” guests. Basson has created the menu around ingredients sourced hyper-locally (including figs foraged in Jerusalem and a wide herb selection picked from the restaurant’s own garden) and seasonally – meaning that the menu changes regularly, and giving each visit a unique and ‘one-off’ feeling.
We ate from the restaurant’s “King Solomon” sampling menu, which we were told has no set number of dishes – the highly-attentive staff continued to serve us until we had to request that the dishes stop arriving after the fifteenth plate reached our table. It’s a sign of the quality of the food that our fear was we wouldn’t be able to stop indulging if the courses continued to arrive! Particular highlights were the restaurant’s signature figs stuffed with chicken and sweet and sour sauce, as well as the impressive neck of lamb pie, with a pitta crust, requiring a satisfying release when cutting open the crisp top of the pie to reveal a cloud of steam and the generously-filled slow-cooked meat within. Basson’s staff delight in introducing an exciting element of theatre into proceedings; when the makluba—a traditional Arabic chicken and rice stew – was brought out, gongs were banged and we were shown how to move our hands in circles over the pot, as we counted up to seven and made a wish. The pot was then lifted up to reveal a perfectly-formed mound of rice and vegetables topped with a generous serving of golden chicken.
All food on offer is kosher and diverse, making creative substitutes to enable the restaurant to adhere to the Jewish rule of not mixing meat and dairy in order to keep kosher – dessert was a lactose-free smorgasbord of basbusa (a dense semolina cake) a dark chocolate soufflé served with coconut ice cream, malabi (a custard made with almond milk and hibiscus syrup) and pears poached in red wine and spices, served with almond cream. The imaginative use of alternative ingredients meant that it wasn’t until the end of the meal that we realised it had been entirely dairy-free, and the dishes certainly didn’t lack anything for this.
The staff are charming and Basson is excellent as the restaurant’s frontman, circulating the restaurant, greeting each diner personally and regaling guests with stories – from sharing the provenance of each dish, to recounting the source of the restaurant’s name (a reference to the Eucalyptus tree he planted as a child after leaving his native Iraq). Guests are invited to get hands-on with the ingredients, being invited into the garden to pick and taste the abundance of herbs and edible wild plants growing from pots in all corners. When a restaurant deals in such high-quality cuisine as Eucalyptus, it’s easy for the atmosphere to feel stuffy, but here the restaurant’s laid-back spirit and openness puts diners to feel fully at ease. Haute cuisine with a relaxed, unpretentious spirit – it’s the true sense of eating for pleasure.
One word of warning from our own experience – while tempting, do your best not to overindulge on the freshly-baked focaccia which arrives at the outset of the meal. Save yourself for the abundance of dishes to come, which will take you on a journey of Israel’s own rich and varied history, dish by dish.
14 Hativat Jerusalem St.,