"I think it's nice that there are all different kinds of lunches and breakfasts and dinners and snacks. I think eating is nice." – Albert from Bread and Jam for Frances, by Russell C. Hoban
Now I know what it means to ‘have a press pass,’ or feel like you do. For a future Honey, I wanted to interview Moshe Basson, the charismatic chef of the recently reopened Eucalyptus, in downtown Jerusalem. Basson, is the Steve Brill of Israel. If you don’t Wildman Brill, he’s the guy you’ll notice foraging in Central and Prospect Parks, bringing home delicacies such as burdock root, ginko berries (yes, I did this once but only had to go outside 409 Pacific to forage), sarsparilla bark, dandelion greens, etc. Basson, who is also a member of Chefs for Peace and is part of group of local chefs starting up a Slow Food chapter here in Israel, is someone who lives and breathes ancient cuisine as well as the importance of knowing, eating and ensuring the sustainability of local, indigenous plants.
I called the restaurant and in typical fashion, when I listened to the machine, got both the new phone number and Basson’s cellphone number – which I called. I told him that I was a writer for an internet based e-newsletter and I was curious to talk with him about reopening, his new menu, what he’s been doing, etc. He invited me to come to the restaurant with a ‘ben zug’/partner at 7:30. I informed Ira that we had a gig for some tastes of this and that, shouldn’t take long – he had a gig with Len Wasserman and a friend for a beer night downtown.
We arrived. Empty restaurant. Smiling staff. Nice space on Horkonos in the Russian Compound area. We sit, then move as we’re told we’ll need a bigger table for all the plates. Moshe, introduces himself to us shortly after we arrive and proceeds to wine, dine and educate us over the next 3 hours of eating. I haven’t spent this long at dinner since a meal many years ago with Ralph and Lisa at the De Puys Canal House, where we ate and ate and ate and then staggered back to the Thunderbolt (or something like that) Motel to sleep off the excess of delicious food. We started with a big fresh laffa style pita with some assorted salads. Essentially fresher, more sophisticated versions of the regular stuff. Next, a trio of soups – a fab lemony red lentil, tomato with min (refreshing and good) and Moshe’s specialty grain, ‘geresh ha’carmel’ in soup form – a young spring wheat, served in the spring as well as the following year, once it’s been dried (then it has a slightly smokey taste). We punctuated our eating with lengthy discussions of different herbs and grains and Ira and I sniffed and tasted and nibbled at the many things that Moshe showed us. Moshe was suitably impressed at our ability to recognize certain plants and recognized us for the foodies that we are. The meal continued with some different salads which we only nibbled at, knowing there was more ahead – particularly liked his take on taboule and this very creamy, whipped kind of potato salad. Everything is always beautifully seasoned with lots of fresh herbs.
When Moshe, or his talented sous chef, Sofyan, cook, people talk about food, it’s culinary and emotional history as well as the political history of this part of the wold. Moshe has cooked with Jews and Arabs alike and feels that knives should be used for chopping, not killing. That might sound simplistic but for a guy of his background (Iraqi), it’s revolutionary. He has friends on both sides of the fence and they are people who care about the land and its future and want to preserve the plants, grains and foods of the people of this part of the world – proper stewardship even in the face of war. Moshe said that he has contacts who show up at his kitchen bearing their unusual offerings – ancient grains and plants cultivated all over the country that Moshe enjoys using in his cuisine.
We kept eating through a lamb course – lamb and vegetables topped with a pastry, Moshe’s signature dish of figs stuffed with chicken in a tamarind (tamar hindi) sauce and some beef with eggplant that was meltingly tender and lovely. We tasted his Magluba – a one-dish casserole, served with great fanfare, of chicken, vegetables and rice. Sephardic hamin/cholent, but thankfully not as abused as the Ashkenazic variety. Eventually, too stuffed to take another bite, we finished with a simple semolina cake with tahini and honey decoratively arranged on the plate and Moshe’s homemade liquors. It was all wonderful, including the moment where Moshe went across the street to the parking lot to show me local caper berries and how they grow everywhere – I’ve since found them on my way to shul.
We took Barat Ellman and Jay Golan back there last week and they as well enjoyed a meal and the attendant food education. We didn’t eat as much but we let Sofyan (who was behind the stove that night), choose the menu and set the pace until we told him we’d had it and then finished with a sahlab pudding which was great and a bit of liqueur.
He’s only been reopened a couple of months but if you’re going to be in town, make time for Moshe and tell him that Beth sent you.