When walking through the gates of the Alegra boutique hotel, it is quite clear that you are walking into a very special and unique place. Formerly the setting for an impossible and provocative love story in the beginning of the 20th century between a wealthy Christian Arab boy and the daughter of a well-known Jerusalemite Rabbi, Alegra was her name. After understanding that their relationship was a source of tension and embarrassment to both families, Jaber and Alegra eloped and married in Beit Lehem. Several years later, they moved to the village of Ein Karem and built their dream home. For many years, the house was known to locals as the house of the Jewess who was also known for her cooking, and Jaber and Alegra Rahil lived there until the war of independence broke out in 1948. In 2011 Alegra was extensively renovated and reopened as a beautiful boutique hotel in the heart of Ein Karem. Each of the seven rooms is uniquely designed, the gardens are lush and well kept and the view from the roof is simply to die for.
The culinary aspect at Alegra was not left to chance and here the owners recruited Chef Yaron Winkler. After working as Ezra Kedem’s su-chef at Jerusalem’s renowned Arcadia restaurant for several years and serving as a culinary consultant for various restaurants, Chef Yaron Winkler joined the Alegra team and is in charge of the hotel’s culinary offerings. In a beautiful and generously equipped kitchen, Winkler serves breakfast and dinner to hotel guests and their guests alone (this may change in the future). One of the first things that met our eyes as we walked into Winkler’s kitchen was the custom made taboon (a Middle Eastern stone oven) in the corner of the kitchen. Almost all of the dishes at Alegra go through the taboon at one stage or another, from the freshly made baked goods through flavorful casseroles and baked fish dishes.
It is evident that Winkler believes in ‘simple cuisine’, changing the menu on a regular basis based on freshness and availability and preparing dishes that really highlight the flavors and textures of the raw ingredients. Presentation is clean and elegant yet still rustic enough to make one feel comfortable to eat with his hands and dip bread into the rich sauces (as did I). In this intimate open kitchen space, Winkler prepares and serves the various dishes, one at a time.
Our meal opened with an assortment of excellent fresh home made breads and rolls aside smoky grilled eggplant with feta cheese and a generous drizzle of fine olive oil. Fennel was slow cooked in white wine and spices and topped with a thin slice of potent hard cheese before entering the taboon for few minutes which melted the cheese and caramelized the fennel. This is another example of a very simple dish but when executed with Winkler’s precision and finesse, an ingredient that usually serves as a side dish or as part of a salad, becomes the centerpiece.
Ceviche with mango, shallots, chili and plenty of finely diced greens then followed. The difference between an excellent to a mediocre ceviche depends on more than just the raw ingredients comprising the dish. Ceviche is all about balance, seasoning and proportion – all three were spot on. Tasty and tangy cream of Swiss-chard soup was also quite enjoyable and the couple sitting beside me even asked Winkler for the recipe (which he gladly shared). Our main course comprised flavorful juicy slices of roasted red meat in beef stock with sautéed mushrooms and blanched greens. The dish was devoured in no time and after every bite the earthiness of the mushrooms and richness of the sauce lingered on in the palate.
Dessert at Alegra is also served in mini-portions. Orange ‘minestrone’ as it is titled at Alegra is a delicious citrus nectar reduction with peeled citrus sections and just a dash of sugar for some extra sweetness. Four minutes later Winkler arrived baring yet another dish – this time a white chocolate brioche which was decadent yet not overly sweet served with a complementary shot of a Cognac based dejastif - an excellent way to end a very tasty and pleasant meal.
Alegra in Ein Karem is much more than just another boutique hotel or just another restaurant, it is a story of many details - love, passion, good food, luxury and most importantly pleasure. If you are looking for a pampering place for a restful weekend, or a base for wine tours in the Judean Hills, Alegra would be an excellent option.