It was then that I realized the complexity of Israel. No, let me take that back — I realized that when I met my husband. But it was then that I realized the complexity of their cuisine, a Zionist melting pot of Old World European Jewish cooking, living in harmony with Arabic inspirations, like falafel, Israeli salad and hummus.
I never thought I would eat like that again, and truth be told, I probably never will. But I had a taste of it the other night at Kinneret Café. The menu had the “Israeli” basics — Falafel, Baba Ghanoush, Grape Leaves and Israeli Salad, but because it’s kosher there are also a few Old World surprises like Yemenite fried pancakes with spicy tomato sauce and a hard-boiled egg, something Sarah and Shlomo definitely would have rustled up one day for lunch, if not breakfast.
Karen Chriqui, owner of Kinneret with her Moroccan-born husband Avner, makes the restaurant authentic by seeking out ingredients from only the best Israeli bakeries and delis. The feta cheese for the Greek salad is flown in from Israel, and the buttery pita bread comes from an Israeli bakery in Boca Rotan.
“It was hard the first two-and-half years finding things,” she says.
But Karen seems to have ferreted out only the best, bringing them all to her modest restaurant in a strip center on Plainfield Road, with its bright lighting and mural of Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee) on the wall.
My friend Aaron and I were excited, although we weren’t sure what to expect. The restaurant was almost empty, but we’d come at 8 p.m. on a Thursday night. What we didn’t know was that the restaurant was already closed when we’d walked through the door, and Karen graciously said nothing until our server walked out after taking our order. We and the other table were wondering where she went. Karen cheerfully explained that the waitress had a date and she let her go early.
“We usually close at 8,” she said. I apologized profusely, but she would have none of it. She said it wasn’t a problem at all and cheerfully returned to the kitchen. (It’s worth a visit to Kinneret just to meet Karen.)
For appetizers, Aaron and I decided on the Falafel Balls ($3.95), the Grape Leaves ($3.95), the Matbucha ($3.95) and the Baba Ghanoush ($3.95). I love Baba Ghanoush. Unfortunately, they were out. When the appetizers came, I was leery of the falafel. It looked a little over-fried, small and dark. But never judge a falafel by its cover. After I took my first bite, I couldn’t help but notice that it tasted exactly like a falafel sandwich I’d had one afternoon in Tiberias. I’d bought it from a street vendor near the Sea of Galilee. It was the best falafel I’d ever had. Kinneret’s was no different. It was real; you could tell the chickpeas had been soaked, not cooked, the way my ex-husband used to make it. (I have a suspicion that not every restaurant does it this way.) The flavor was light, but not overwhelming. It had a freshness, lightness and crispness only enhanced by the fresh parsley and onions.
The matbucha was a green pepper dressed in cooked tomato. I was expecting something a bit more savory, but Aaron enjoyed it. I loved the fresh pita, with its thick, fluffy texture and buttery flavor. After I gushed over it, Karen told us that much of the pita you buy in stores is stale and no one realizes it. The grape leaves stuffed with rice were what you’d expect, but the leaves weren’t as soft and tender as I would have liked.
For my entrée, I had the Tilapia with Moroccan Couscous and Grilled Vegetables ($13.95). I’m glad I did. While tilapia is always tilapia, the dish had soul, with a lightness and depth I hadn’t expected. There was a mild cinnamon flavor that I discovered was only tarragon mixed with paprika, garlic and olive oil.
“People forget to use tarragon,” Karen said with a glow on her face. “It’s a wonderful spice.”
As we sat and ate our meal, we noticed people coming in at the last minute for takeout, one an Orthodox Jew. Karen says that she has developed Kinneret’s menu to be kosher, Israeli and mainly vegetarian, which makes it a unique mix for Cincinnati and appeals to a wide range of people. The menu even includes pasta dishes and no-cheese pizza for vegans.
I hope the restaurant, which opened more than two years ago, is still going strong 10 years from now. It’s well worth a night out, even though Kinneret does not have a liquor license and you can’t, by law, bring alcohol into the restaurant. I love wine with dinner, but was happy to forego it for a meal at Kinneret.
Go: 8316 Plainfield Road, Deer Park
Hours: 11:20 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Friday. Closed Saturday.
Payment: Most major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Mostly vegetarian menu with fish
Accessibility: Fully accessible