On Thursday night Yael and I went out to dinner to celebrate our birthdays. We had been looking forward to a nice meal for a while and were thrilled with the experience at 1868. In the 8 years that I have lived in Israel, I have never had as nice meal as the one I had Thursday night. The service was excellent, the ambiance delightful and the food was excellent.
In my mind, 1868 has been around as long as I have lived in Jerusalem, though in a number of different locations. I also do not remember it being known as one of the better restaurants in Jerusalem until recently. One friend, who raves about it, said that it came under new ownership in recent years. Another friend claims the food is mediocre – just fancy. In any event, we had a great time.
Upon arrival we were quickly shown our table. The restaurant seems to be made up of a number of small dining rooms. In our room sat another couple and a group of four. It was cozy, intimate and the music playing was great. It was mostly Erica Badu though at the end we got a little Bill Withers and some School House Rocks. It was not too loud, just pleasant.
We were quickly visited by the sommelier and then our server. Yael ordered the evening’s cocktail made of fig liquor, vodka and pomegranate juice, while I waited to order wine until after making my meal choice. After ordering, we were brought a basket of three breads which included a slices of a country loaf with a bit of cinnamon, a small french baguette, and two small sour dough roles. These were served with a plate of olive oil and balsamic and a small dish of homemade aioli. Though Yael is gluten-free and I have adopted that minhag, I broke it because this bread was divine.
The first course was served quite quickly. Yael orderd the calf’s sweetbreads and I had the roasted foie gras. The sweetbreads were served “ras el hanout” which refers to a spice blend often mixed with cinnamon, cardamon, cumin, coriander, paprika and other North African flavors that means “top of the shop.” The sweetbreads were then grilled and served over an onion cream, roasted red pepper coulis and with fava beans. As this was both of our first time eating sweetbreads we can only compare it to other foods we have eaten. None the less, it was clear why these glands are such delicacies. They were literally bursting with flavor. They were salty and silky, chewy but in a good way. My difficulty in evaluating them is that I was eating foie gras, which is what I would probably eat everyday for the rest of my life if I a) had the money, b) wasn’t going to die an early death from cholesterol and c) had the money. This stuff is like meaty butter. It was so good. I literally wanted to take a bath in foie gras! By roasting the foie gras I ended up with a few pieces of caramelized ends and a milky center. It was a meat candy bar. It was served over a carrot vanilla veloute (one of those words I did not know of until I started watching Top Chef) with a frozen shallot mousse on the side. The veloute was thicker than most veloutes are supposed to be, it was more like a puree. That being said, the bite of foie gras with a helping of carrot and that cold spot of mousse was a symphony of flavor and texture. Like smooth jazz if smooth jazz was good. My meal was paired with a small glass of sweet dessert wine that was generously offered to me on the house. I had told the sommelier that I was a one-glass-a-night kind of guy but that I wanted something that would work well with both the foie gras and my main – the lamb. He responded by bringing me a small glass of the Yarden sweet dessert wine which was just the right addition to an already great beginning.
Between courses we had a light cranberry pomegranate cinnamon granita to cleanse the palate. It was lite with just a touch of cinnamon. It was the perfect in between ushering us from our first plate to our second. The granita was taken, my Syrah was poured and out came my lamb chops and Yael’s duck breast.
The duck was cooked quite rare, in fact our waiter pointed this out to us upon ordering. On a previous visit to La Guta I ordered the mallard and was rather disappointed. The breast had been over cooked and over sauced. Here though the breast was done perfectly. A nice layer of fat protecting the breast had been seared and caramelized while the meat itself stayed moist and juicy. It was served over a puree of pumpkin and sage and a side of caramelized endive hearts. Of the endive hearts, Yael’s exact words were, “they were the best thing ever.” Since she is easily sold on a sweet and savory mix, the duck was the right dish for her, but the endive hearts added the necessary sweetness to the duck.
My lamb chops were served bone in, resting on small disks of lamb shoulder. The dish highlighted the variety of flavor and texture naturally found in the lamb. In addition was a bit of roasted eggplant, a small tomato tart, and a cilantro sauce. The chop was perfectly broiled. The chop is what I think of when I think of lamb, gamy but also the taste of spring. The shoulder on the other hand had clearly been slow cooked, its flavor was lighter, more subtle. The shoulder was the one part of the meal that was not to perfection as it had dried out a little bit (this may be the nature of the shoulder, I have never had shoulder that I would call succulent). While the eggplant was smokey and flavorful, I am not one for plain eggplant so I cannot speak to its merits. However, I do know tomato tarts and I can speak highly of the smokey sweet tomato tart that accompanied my lamb chops. It was a small filo dough disk topped with a homemade smokey ketchup, though it was thicker, like a pate, and topped with sliced roasted cherry tomatoes. It was sweet, tangy and smokey. Absolutely lovely.
We ended our meals with dessert. As plums are in season they played a prominent role in both of our meals. I had a deconstructed mille feuille, a layered dessert of filo dough, pistachio cream and plums bathed in a liquor. While Yael had stewed plums and ice cream. With our check we were presented with two small cookies as a parting gift. They were chocolate cookies dusted with powdered sugar. The best part is that they were chocolate Kalamata olive cookies. The cookies were a fitting end to a meal that felt both old and new, classic and modern. 1868 took traditional French cooking and melded it with the local flavors of the Middle East served in updated form for the 21st century.