Saturday, November 4, 2017

Touring Middle East 7: Runaway Dinner in Tiberias

I (not so) secretly kept a list of places (well, mainly restaurants as you can imagine) I would like to visit on our own in case our group tour itinerary allowed any free time. So on one evening we (with our partner in crime T) made a side trip to a restaurant called Magdalena, which happened to be just 10 minutes away by car from where we were staying in Tiberias.

The restaurant caught my attention as it's often mentioned as one of the best contemporary Arab restaurants in the region and one owned by an Arab Christian family. Call me ignorant, but both concepts of "contemporary Arab cuisine" and "Arab Christians" seem so foreign to me before this trip - that's why I was eager to find out more. Plus feeling a bit stuck with whatever food and itinerary included as part of our tour, I desperately needed to break free and do something on our own.

The restaurant is located in a small town of Migdal near the waterfront, thought to be the hometown of Mary Magdalene (as in the New Testament), which the restaurant was named after. A short (but pricey) cab ride later we arrived at the door of the restaurant, at the back of a strip mall filled with casual eateries and a supermarket.

The place was super spacious with private room and a patio overlooking the mountains behind the Sea of Galilee. D├ęcor was contemporary and fairly casual - not the one you walk in with flipflops but then you don't feel compelled to dress up. The restaurant seems to be popular - it was half full when we arrived and filled almost to capacity by the time we finished our meal, with an interesting mix of out-of-towners and locals (Jews and Arabs), families with babies and kids or couples on a date.

We were both amazed and a bit lost glancing through the menu. As I mentioned, we knew nothing about Arab/Palestinian cuisine so we didn't know what to expect. I was surprised enough that there's shellfish available on the menu (since the Jews don't eat them for religious reason I always assume it's not allowed in the country, but obviously I was wrong), and then there were much more names and descriptions that we had no clue about.

So we asked for recommendations from the staff who pointed us to a few of their signature dishes to start. For a few Arab meals we had so far we always started with a spread of appetizers on our table, but this time, it's served western style on a la carte basis. The bread and dip - both housemade - was outstanding, and the assorted mushrooms, served with truffle oil, parmesan, cauliflower cream and herbs, was sweet and earthy with good presentation that could rival any we had at an Italian restaurant. (and the cauliflower cream underneath was amazing)

But the one stood out was the shishbrak, with the minced lamb dumplings mixed with pine nuts cooked in goat milk yogurt. It's gamey, creamy and lots of exotic flavors with a hint of mint. The dumplings were much softer than that of the typical meatballs but with a bite. 

We chose our own main course. I was intrigued by the scallops dish on the menu so that's what I ordered. It was served in amazing portion with 8 giant scallops perfectly cooked mi cuit, with smoky eggplant puree, dehydrated beet chips and vegetables. On top was crayfish foam, mild in taste but did bring all the other flavor together.

We again asked for dessert recommendation from the girl who serviced our table. I probably wouldn't have picked the chocolate dome myself but turned out it's surprisingly good (and unique). Not the most creative presentation with hot chocolate syrup poured on top of a chocolate dome at our table, but the slightly bitter and smoky Arabic chocolate was delicious. Our second dessert is the homemade knafe, the indigenous dessert made with semolina pastry and soft Arab cheese. This version was served cold, glazed with syrup and topped with Shafa'amr icecream, named after the nearby Arab town famous for its icecream in pistachio flavor with the gluey texture similar to the Turkish icecream. I did enjoy trying this for the first time.

We were impressed by the service too, with friendly staff who tried hard to explain everything to us and we loved all the dishes she suggested. We haven't felt as welcomed in anywhere for the entire trip as we did this evening. As we chatted with her after our meal, turned out her father owns the restaurant and her uncle is the chef - so without knowing surely we picked the best person to ask for recommendations.

Out of curiosity, when I got home I researched further on the restaurant and its chef Yousef Hanna, and came to learn more of the new wave of modernization of Arab cuisine in the region by him and other young chefs combining traditional cooking that passed down from generations with modern techniques they acquired through formal kitchen training, often breaking away from ethnic and religious boundaries. (for example, Chef Yousef mentioned him being an Arab Christian meant he's free to cook with alcohol, something obviously not allowed in Muslim cooking)

Before we traveled to the region, I joked that all we were going to have were falafels and hummus, but as we found out from our dinner in Magdalena and others which we visited later on, local cuisine was much more than that (and even falafels and hummus weren't all that bad either!). As we looked back on our trip, dinner at Magdalena was definitely one of the highlights from a culinary point of view, and a good learning experience through knowing a bit more of the local cuisine and cooking.

When? October 6 2017
Where? Magdalena, 90 Migdal Junction, Tiberias, Israel
Menu Highlights? Scallops with eggplant cream and vegetables, asparagus, beet chips and crayfish foam
Drink? 2014 Yarden Merlot, Golan Heights Winery, Israel

(Touring Middle East - Part 7)

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