A Gourmet Birthday

“Chicken tagine with root vegetables, cumin, and seasoning is placed before Shay, while I am served lamb cutlets in a sage, chili, and sweet-soy sauce. The cutlets are ‘chewy,’ rich in flavor, and the sauce wonderfully soaks into the surrounding rice. The chicken tagine reminds Shay of an Ossobuco he once ate, and he peels the meat of the bone with enjoyment…” Michal Zamrany was surprised with a private birthday meal at “HaTovim Shel Shifra” restaurant in Merom Golan.

“Where are we going?” I ask Shay. He smiles and doesn’t answer. “Well, where?” I insist. Shay mumbles something indiscernible. I try to conceal my concern. I love Shay with all my heart, but he has yet to prove himself as a particularly creative planner of birthday surprises. “Is it rafting? Horses? Rock-skiing?” I try to in vain to get an answer, and my only remaining option is to look through the window at the ever-changing at the landscape, slowly changing from the forest-mountains of the Galilee to the rocky terrain of the Golan Heights. The car climbs the even slope, and we are at once exposed to the paralyzing beauty of the Hula Valley, spread below us like a painting. Soon enough, we arrive at the entrance to Merom Golan. Shay is on the phone, navigating left, and left again, and driving down the road, at the end of which a pretty woman in a shawl awaits us. “We’re here,” Shay states with content.

Chef Shifra Michaelovich has hosted meals at her home in the Golan Heights for the past three years. The house is spacious, comfortable, and so beautifully decorated that it is enviable. Orange niches are set in the living room, the colors are warm and inviting, and the walls are adorned with pictures taken by Shifra herself, for various exhibitions. The heavy cloth-covered dining table, is already waiting for us with a pitcher of fresh lemonade, nut-bread, and mezze of roasted peppers with basil and capers, fresh champignon mushrooms baked in olive oil and herbs, beet baked with fresh sage, and eggplants in soy, honey, and sugar.

We nibble on the food, while having a chat with Shifra. This is a woman who has been cooking since the age of 9, and who has been a professional chef for the past 12 years. “I received my training in the Dan Hotel chain,” she tells us, “and I worked in Dan Eilat when it was opened.” Due to the family reasons, she was forced to leave Eilat and return to central Israel, as her father became ill. She settled herself in the new location and opened a confiture business, marketing jams through delicatessens and food bazaars. After her father passed away, she felt she had had enough of selling confitures and she decided to head up to the kibbutz of Merom Golan, where she had been a member during her school days. She joined the kibbutz’s tourism branch, and opened a dairy restaurant called “Bein HaShmashot” (“Between the Suns”), in which she personally created 90% of the products. Later, she met her other half, gave birth to her first child, and left for the city of Ramat Gan, resuming work on her confiture business. The Golan Heights, however, called to her, and after three years and the birth of her daughter, the family returned to Merom Golan. “I thought about what I wanted to do,” she tells us, “and I concluded that I would like to work from home, be independent, and be my own boss. So I came up with the concept of private meals. I host couples and groups of up to 16 people in my home, for meals of four courses, and I love it.”

Dining at Shira’s is by reservation only, and these should be made a few days in advance. There is no set menu, and when you call to reserve, Shifra will inquire in detail about your food preferences and those of the other customers (fresh onions, coriander, and so on). Shay, as it turns out, planned it all ahead of time, and told Shifra of his kosher restrictions, of my fear of fresh peppers, and of the fact that between us, I am more open to trying new things. And so, we are served a soup of orange-vegetables with fresh hyssop and a soup of apples with coconut milk - the former for him, the latter for me. My soup is sweet and sour, refreshing, and leads some vocal exclamations on my part. Shay is also quite pleased with his selection, and we both dip fresh pieces of nuts bread into the bowls, as Shifra smiled. She tells us that when customers don’t know what to request, she tells them not to worry, that she will surprise them, and “when t