Once, Israel was the land that taste buds forgot.
It was a gastronomic wasteland so barren that Daniel Rogov, a food critic who moved to Tel Aviv in 1975 after living in Paris for 25 years, avoided domestically produced wine "like you'd avoid the bubonic plague."
Among the more celebrated national dishes was cholent, a meat-and-potato stew so famously leaden that it was disparaged as "the Jewish atom bomb."
Times are changing. Driven by growing prosperity, a craving for the good life and the gradual onset of peace, a quiet gourmet revolution is sweeping the Holy Land.
For a country founded from the ashes of the Holocaust, weaned on socialism and war, and imbued with notions of communal sacrifice, the flowering of a gourmet culture means more than crustier bread, pluckier wine and fruitier olive oil.
"It's not that one day we woke up and decided that good olive oil is better than regular olive oil," said Erez Komarovsky, a Tel Aviv restaurateur trained in France, Japan and California who bakes delicious sourdough bread for a fast-growing market. "It's part of growing up for the whole society. . . . Before, we had wars, and all you think in war is just to feed, not to enjoy. We didn't used to have the emotional space to enjoy. It was a shame to indulge."
No longer. Consider:
* In the rugged hills west of Jerusalem, an eccentric former botany professor is making goat cheeses so exquisite that his select clientele includes one of the very best restaurants in France;
* In Tel Aviv, epicenter of Israel's culinary temblor, a young chef trained in some of New York's hottest restaurants is opening a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week French-American bistro;
* In New York last week, the owner of one of Israel's dozens of new boutique wineries celebrated a triumph when the city's major retailers agreed to carry his highly regarded Bordeaux-style wine--for $38 a bottle.
"We want to make for ourselves an international reputation," said Eli Ben-Zaken, the vintner whose 1996 Grand Vin Castel was snapped up by New York wine stores. "We believe we have something good on our hands, and we've been proven correct in New York."
True, the average Israeli's hummus and falafel have not been displaced by foie gras--even though Israel exports tons of its top-quality goose liver pate to France every year. Gefilte fish is still very much in demand. So is chopped liver. And cholent remains a popular end-of-the-week meal in many Israeli households, despite its caloric punch.
Still, the dawn of a new gastronomic day is undeniable. Wine shops, practically nonexistent five years ago, are opening all over in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. So are small wineries, dairies, chocolate shops, bistros and espresso bars.
Even fresh produce stands are getting into the act. "You used to go into a greengrocer's and you'd find romaine lettuce, and if you didn't like romaine lettuce you could have romaine lettuce," said Rogov, restaurant critic for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. "Now five or six kinds of lettuce are typically available."
To some Israelis, eating well is the best revenge after decades of war and privations. "We have this hunger for new things," said Jana Gur, editor of the monthly food magazine On the Table. "It's not that they're so wealthy, but Israelis have this craving for a life of leisure and luxury and normality."
At the same time, Israelis have gotten richer and started to see the world. As their living standards approach those of some Western European countries, the travel bug has become an epidemic: Israelis make three times as many trips overseas today as they did a decade ago. The result is a taste for the good life--and the good meals--they've been finding on holiday in Europe and North America.
"Thank God for the snobs," said Ben-Zaken, the winemaker who got his start in 1992 using oak barrels and techniques imported from France. "Because when they grab a subject like wine, it's irreversible."
A few miles up the road from Ben-Zaken's winery, cheesemaker Shai Zeltzer keeps his herd of 100 specially bred goats on 600 acres of grazing land overlooking a magnificent valley.
With his foot-long white beard and digressions into Buddhism, Zeltzer conveys an impression that is part prophet, part aesthete. But when the talk turns to the science and artistry of cheesemaking, he is all business.
"Fifteen years ago, I'd go door-to-door and give more than a third of what I made to people to taste, to teach them about cheese," said Zeltzer, 56. "People would make a face and say, 'Oh, the smell.' Now they travel more and they start to understand that cheese is part of a culture, like music."
The flair among Israeli vintners, cheesemakers and olive oil producers is matched by Israel's young restaurateurs, many of whom had apprenticeships at cooking schools and restaurants overseas.
Michaela Sharon, 35, who receives rave reviews for her pan-Asian restaurant, Mika, in Tel Aviv, worked at New York's TriBeCa Grill and owned a well-regarded restaurant of her own in Manhattan. She came home to open Mika in 1995, and her next project is an all-day, all-night combination bistro-diner modeled after the trendy places she loved in New York.
"It's no longer about bringing in your mom or your aunt to make homemade schnitzels," said Sharon, who still makes quick trips to Manhattan to pick up new techniques.
Like the vast majority of new restaurants, Mika is emphatically non-kosher, and the menu defies kashrut rules by offering crab, shrimp, eel and pork. At least half of Israelis are believed to stick more or less to kosher guidelines in their homes, but many bend the rules when they go out to eat.
Many Israelis agree, though, that there was more to overcome than kosher food on the way to integrating gastronomy into Israeli culture. "The whole notion of good food was against the messianic or socialist way of thinking in the early days," said Komarovsky, the breadmaker. "The idea then was that we're tougher because of the Holocaust. The majority didn't spend money on food, and people ate very simple food--bread, a little egg and a little cheese. . . . The idea was to feed, not to enjoy food. Only now as part of a bigger change in the last 10 years have people started to behave like in a normal country."
CAPTION: Israeli cheesemaker Shai Zeltzer has one of the best restaurants in France as a client.
CAPTION: After owning a restaurant in Manhattan, Michaela Sharon opened the pan-Asian Mika in Tel Aviv. Her new project is a 24-hour French-American bistro.