Over the past few years, Ben Shetah St. in down town Jerusalem has gone through some major changes. Walking down Yaffo which has been transformed into a beautiful pedestrian street (watch out for the light rail car), passed the new Mashbir building and turning right onto Ben Shetah St. one might think that he or she is in Europe. The light fixtures, cobble stone pavement, dozens of tables with wine glasses only enhance this feeling.
It was a special occasion and special occasions require special restaurants – Lior Cheftzadi ‘s Lara was my companion’s choice. At the entrance to the restaurant we were greeted by the lovely hostess: “welcome”, she said with a smile, “my name is Lara, would you prefer to sit inside or outdoors where you can enjoy the nice breeze?” – "Indoors" I replied, "but what did you say your name was again?" - “Lara”, she said. At first I thought that she was kidding and that she may have changed her name to get the job, but it turns out that coincidences do happen.
Having gained experience at Ezra Kedem’s Arcadia and Michelin star restaurants in Italy, Lior Cheftzadi, I would dare say, is one of the most talented chefs I have met in recent years and one of Israel’s best kept culinary secrets. At a time when chefs and amateur cooks become celebrities virtually overnight, Cheftzadi prepares fine kosher food for the upper echelons of Israel’s political and business sectors (wouldn’t want to be accused of namedropping here), international celebrities who hire him for private events and of course the diners at Lara, where he is the owner and head Chef.
The menu is creative, includes a variety of dishes and changes from time to time based on the season and produce available in the market. Diners can either order a-la-carte, or if you are up for a culinary adventure, place yourself in Cheftzadi’s hands and ask for the tasting menu. A parade of dishes will be gradually brought to your table, some you might see on the menu while Cheftazdi and his team (talented sue chef - Itamar Choter and Yosef who recently joined after working at Rama’s Kitchen for a couple of years) also improvise and prepare others on the spot. We opted for the latter option and were in for a real treat.
We started off with a delicious fresh fish sashimi, comprising fresh fish (Choter mentioned that it changes based on the fish available), thin slices of cucumber, fresh fruit and a drizzle of soy sauce and a gentle wasabi cream – vivid colors, interesting contrasts and excellent balance of flavors. Our second dish was a cured beef fillet tartar with pickled mushrooms. It was coarsely diced with a chef’s knife to preserve the texture of the meat and served atop crunchy bruschetta – even my girlfriend who is not known for her love of raw meat, finished her portion in no time.
Turning it up a notch, veal sweetbreads a-la-Lara were served. Seared on a skillet and then grilled to perfection before arriving at our table, the sweetbreads were sautéed briefly with cherry tomatoes, garlic confit and warm chickpeas - “masabacha” style. A dash of pickled lemon cut through the fatness of the sweetbreads and really brought out the flavors – this dish appears on the regular menu and is highly recommended.
Another dish that is highly recommended, particularly for the carnivores among you, is the Butcher’s Cut which is grilled medium at the most and served with bone marrow and a concentrated beef stock glaze aside alternating vegetables. The butcher’s cut is called that because every cow only has 1-3 kilos of this prized cut and traditionally butchers would keep it for themselves. It has rich meaty flavors and texture, and with a dash of coarse salt, and another sip of red wine, needless to say, I was content.
Last but not least and no I am not kidding, are Amira’s stuffed grape leaves. When made properly, stuffed grape leaves (AKA Yaprach or Dolma) are a real treat. Amira, Cheftzadi’s mother, carefully rolls and stuffs each one, and the result is lemony and delicious. Probably more suitable as a starter but if you happen to forget like we did, order the dish any time.
As we were rather full, we couldn’t think of chocolate or cake based desserts and ordered a fresh fruit platter. Cheftzadi didn’t prepare or manipulate the fruit in anyway, but hey you have to know how to pick the right fruits as well. Lara also hosts private events and has an intimate VIP room that can seat 15-20 people.