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Monday, December 26, 2011

Nazareth as an Eating Destination (Via NYtimes)

THE bartender at Misk, a new restaurant and concert space in Nazareth, Israel, hurriedly scrolled through YouTube videos. His search was projected on a large screen, a new addition to the Ottoman-era white stone building. At last, he found a dance remix of an Arabic birthday song, and as the frenetic opening chords filled the room, a waitress strode out holding a cake fizzing with 18 sparkler candles.

This stylish restaurant, opened in Israel’s largest Arab city last November, is deservedly popular with the younger generation of Nazarenes. In the last few years they have seen the dining scene in their city, which is known primarily for being the childhood home of Jesus, evolve from one offering mainly fast food, like falafel and shawarma, to one filled with creative Arabic fusion kitchens like Misk, where classic Palestinian dishes are given a worldly makeover.

In the middle of Nazareth’s Old City quarter, men and women order salmon with mint leaves, black tahini and okra; and toast with complicated cocktails and shots of tequila. This is a significant change for the city of 73,000, populated by a mix of Muslim and Christian Arabs: Until a few years ago, alcohol was rarely seen on menus and women didn’t often go out at night. The emerging restaurant scene is helping to change that, and turning Nazareth from a two-hour stop on religious tours into a bona fide culinary destination.

“We’ve been eating the same things forever, but in the last five years we have seen so many new restaurants,” said Raja Marjieh, 18, a party guest at Misk.

At the Galilee Mill, housed in a rustic stone building near Mary’s Well, employees operated multicolored metal sifting machines in an open courtyard that smelled strongly of caraway. Sunflower seeds dried in the sun. Farther down the hill, restaurants like Misk and Sudfeh, a fusion bistro in a beautifully restored 19th-century Russian seminary with white stone arches and 40-foot-high ceilings, are serving contemporary Arabic cuisine made with the mill’s 1,000-odd herbs and spices.

“This city is developing,” declared Maroun Maalouf, 17, another guest at Misk, as a Michael Jackson remix began to play. “Maybe we’ll change our minds about emigrating and stay here.”

Indeed, it wasn’t long ago that young Arabs would leave Nazareth for Tel Aviv or abroad. The city was so neglected that donkeys with saddlebags were sometimes used for garbage removal. But in March 2010, the Israeli cabinet backed a $214 million plan to encourage development in 13 Israeli Arab localities, including more than $3 million earmarked over four years for Nazareth’s tourism industry. Starting in January, 15 new businesses will receive start-up grants of up to 30 percent of their initial investments from the tourism ministry, and several years of reduced taxes.

The government investments will help, but the culinary flowering can be traced to a notion that Arabs here had better fend for themselves. This coincided with a worsening of political events, which some residents say encouraged them to stay in town rather than face antagonism elsewhere. Tensions between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs simmered from the start of the Second Intifada in 2000 until well after the 2006 Lebanon War.

Yet several new spots opened in Nazareth during those years, even as Israeli Jews stopped coming to Nazareth and Christian pilgrims canceled trips to Israel (both have since returned). The most celebrated nouvelle Arabic restaurant in Nazareth, Alreda — which is ranked No. 1 in the Middle East on TripAdvisor — opened in 2003.

“We understood we were not really welcome in Israeli places,” explained Tawfik Dawahri, a native Nazarene now living in Paris, as he dined at Alreda. “So the Arabs said, ‘Why should we go outside of the city?’ ”

Before the conflict, Nazarenes had driven to Haifa, the closest major city, to go to clubs, bars and restaurants. Now there were suspicious glances to endure, leaving traveling residents uncomfortable.

“Liberal young people needed good places to go out near their houses, not 40 kilometers away,” said Daher Zeidani, the owner of Alreda.

With its charming Old World décor and delightful garden terrace, Alreda must have seemed like a veritable oasis to the isolated Nazarenes. It could not have hurt that virtually every dish on the menu is a winner. A Moroccan-style chicken, almond and honey pastilla is a fantastic amalgam of savory and sweet. A salad of baby lettuce, soy sprouts, roasted onions, tomatoes, oranges and pistachios is as complexly flavored as it sounds, and pairs well with a refreshing Old Nazareth cocktail of arak, lemonade and mint. A magnificent Lebanese-inspired pistachio dessert took Mr. Zeidani 10 years to perfect.

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