"…a dish of stuffed chestnut pumpkin, reduced in calories and vitamin filled, nutty and slightly sweet. Filled with beef, pine nuts and raisins in a balsamic vinegar reduction sauce on a bed of labane cheese enriched with, of course, sumac - wonderful…" Shirley Rahamim visits Sumac at Moshav Gaya

When speaking of groups of female friends it seems hard to surprise them. Thus is the case with my friend Natalie, with whom I have celebrated almost thirty birthdays. Natalie also, like me, is a sworn restaurant follower and feels there is nothing like a good restaurant to excite us both. Our choice of Sumac, located in Moshav Gaya near Ashkelon, was not accidental - just breezing over their menu offering such a special variety of dishes, convinced us.

An urbanite entering Moshav Gaya will certainly notice that the feeling of pressure from the city immediately dissolves and the atmosphere begins to feel a bit odd at its own special pace. The restaurant space has been on Moshav Gaya for some years with different names and menus, but for the last year and a half it has been Sumac, under the spectacular management of Uzi Na'im, a veteran of restaurants such as Kadita, Focaccia and Keremim. The name Sumac was a natural choice based on the Arabic name for a spice that Uzi loves to use generously in the dishes he prepares. Og HaBorskaim, as the spice was called in Hebrew in Talmudic times, was used as well in the preparation of leather, for both color and acidity. The relaxed and serene patio of Sumac, together with the warm decoration scheme, gave us no choice but to seat ourselves outside and imagine we are sitting on a huge homey porch.

Sumac's menu is unique and includes a vast selection of appetizers, pastas, meats, fish and more. Our decision was difficult because so many of the dishes look like interesting culinary experiences. If already we are celebrating, though, we went all the way and ordered three appetizers to start. The first was a dish of liver pate with eggplant jam and a few zwiebacks (crispy sweet toasts) on the side. The unique aspect of this dish was in the liver actually, prepared with beets, lending a slightly sweet taste to the paté. The eggplant jam was also not standard - after one bite I suddenly wondered if I had passed over the entire meal and arrived already to dessert. The second dish, no less surprising, was stuffed chestnut pumpkin, reduced in calories and vitamin filled. To all this they added a stuffing of beef, pine nuts and raisins in a balsamic vinegar reduction on a bed of labane cheese, of course enriched with sumac - a wonderful dish rich with flavor and strikingly creative. Our final choice, which we could not possibly pass up, was shrimp Carbonero, sautéed with smoked goose breast, cream and fresh herbs. The sauce was especially fine with just the right touch of saltiness, and the shrimp were perfectly juicy.

Just before Sumac's entrees arrived we gave ourselves a few minutes to rest our stomachs and let our eyes wander over the local scenery. At Sumac they are strict about using the finest raw materials for their dishes, especially concentrating on local ingredients from the area. The chickens, eggplants and a variety of other products come from the Moshavim in the area.

On to the entrees. We satisfied ourselves with two. The first was a Seafood Risotto with shrimp and calamari: an Italian-style risotto with cream and fresh herbs and shrimp so fresh we could not resist. The second we chose was Beef Strogonoff with strips of beef filet in a mushroom sauce with fresh herbs and cream - tender meat with accentuated flavors. We also could not resist dessert, so we ordered a lovely offering with passion fruit and white chocolate on a bed of nougat merengue with white chocolate and passion fruit puree.

Sumac is open every day from 9:00a.m. On weekdays they offer a variety of business meals for the price of the entree. The atmosphere is magical, the servers smile, the food is high quality and the serenity and relaxed feeling succeed in exciting visitors to want another taste. Natalie and I finished another birthday meal together smiling with a bit of sumac (blush in Hebrew) on our cheeks at the outset of another year.