The food at the first Taste of Israel Food & Wine Festival was marvelous and servings were generous, although it became hard to reach them because tasters jammed every bit of space in the Majestic Downtown as if this were going to be their last meal.
The bigger the crowd the better, because the money from their tickets goes to American Friends of Meir Panim, which helps the destitute and hungry in Israel. At $300 for a VIP ticket and $125 for general admission, the organizers should be celebrating a substantial haul.
All of the food was kosher--notice the sign on the side of the booth above. Rather than tureens of matzo ball soup (nothing wrong with that), it was light, flavorful, Mediterranean style food, salads and refined sauces, beautifully prepared.
I got in early enough to sample much of it before being swept away in the crush. And I was impressed. Here are my 10 top picks, with a few extras, prepared by chefs from Israel, chefs and caterers from the Los Angeles area, and an olive oil and vinegar company from New York.
But first, take a look at this tower of glasses provided by Psagot, which was one of 19 wineries that took part. Although the glasses on the barrel were stacked on top of each other precariously, I never heard a crash.
1. You can't have an Israeli food festival without an Israeli salad. Here it is, prepared by Bazilikum Signature Catering of Beverly Hills.
What I really liked at this booth was beet kobe (not Kobe, Japan but kubbah, as Faye Levy spells it in her Facebook report on the tasting.) These little cakes of semolina dough were stuffed with ground beef and simmered in beet sauce. I could happily have made a meal of them alone.
2. Except that I went crazy for the beet salad prepared by chef Shaul Ben Haderet of the Blue Rooster in Tel Aviv. The diced beets were barely cooked, if at all, then soaked along with sliced plums in a sweet dressing that included date molasses, pomegranate molasses, honey and balsamic vinegar. There were almonds too, and pistachios and Italian parsley. It was brilliant--if you like sweet fruity salads.
A big attention-getter was Haderet's North African brik--pastry stuffed with spinach and a whole raw egg, then fried and placed on eggplant puree. Above, he's adding the egg to the pastry. It's a trick to do this so that the egg comes out properly cooked and doesn't break through the pastry.
3. Another Tel-Aviv chef, Tzahi Bukshester of Black Bar 'n' Burger, made wonderful white bean hummus, which he decorated with whole beans and a green herb puree.
His other dish was spicy bulgur mixed with lentils and topped with short ribs (mujadara). This dish is typically made with rice and lentils, but, said Bukshester, "Rice is pretty new to the Middle East. This is the original version."
4. Back to salads with this delicious combination of cauliflower, quinoa and pomegranate arils fom Mama's Flavors, a salads and catering business established in the San Fernando Valley by two women from Israel.
5. Chef Malcolm Mitchell of the Blue Olive in Pawling, New York, an olive oil and vinegar tasting room, offered fried tilapia on date and fig jam.
Bottles of Blue Olive olive oil were set out for tasting too. I was blown away by the dill-infused olive oil on the left. The mushroom and sage oil on the right is so strongly flavored that you could add it to a salad and forget the mushrooms.
6. Chef-owner Alain Cohen of Got Kosher? Cafe in Los Angeles provided a feast of his specialties. You would never guess the secret ingredient in his Tunisian meatballs on cous cous (above). But I'll tell. It's rose petals.
The recipe was his mother's, he said. Another of her dishes was fricassee--stuffed buns made of leftover challah dough (above). For the festival, Cohen filled them with tuna belly and lively seasonings such as capers and harissa. He also set out little cups of baba ghanoush.
Got Kosher? is famous for its pretzel challah, and there were samples of that as well as chocolate and plain bread puddings made with challah. These were the only desserts I saw at the festival.
7. People from many lands have settled in Israel. This has resulted in a blend of cuisines that includes Middle Eastern dishes such as these rice-stuffed grape leaves from Darna Mediterranean Cuisine, a glatt kosher restaurant in Woodland Hills. Darna also offered soups and hummus.
8. Skuna Bay salmon belly pastrami from Savore Cuisine & Events, a catering and events company in downtown Los Angeles, is being sliced by chef Richard Lauter, whose chef partner Erez Levy also worked the booth.
9. Sushi. If you got in early, you could eat your fill at Sushiko's booth, where chef Kahn Chingis Byambasuren worked so hard he barely spoke. (Sushiko is a Kosher-Japanese restaurant in Los Angeles.) What you see above is only part of what he had prepared.
Other items included salmon salad and tuna ceviche in a spoon (above). When I asked the chef to make whatever he felt like, I got a nori-wrapped roll that included rice and tuna and was lined on top with tomato slices. Instead of arranging this on the counter, he gave me all four pieces.
10. Let's finish with a wine, the 2011 Secret Reserve Merlot from Shiloh winery in the Judean Hills in Israel. Made from hand-picked grapes, the wine is aged in new French oak. I don't know why it's a "secret" reserve, but it's not a secret that it's a lovely wine that would go beautifully with any dish at the tasting--and that includes Sushiko's sushi.