In recent years, upscale Arabic restaurants have been popping up across Israel. The new hotspot is Magdalena, which overlooks the Sea of Galilee and the Roman-era ruins at Migdal. Migdal was the home town of Mary Magdalene, and the inspiration for the restaurant’s name, which likely also has something to do with the fact that Yousef Hanna—its owner and chef—is an Arab Christian.
Hanna, who also owns the fast-food restaurant K-Bab, which he opened near Kiryat Shmona in late 2012, has been hailed as one of the most important chefs in Israel at the moment. Magdalena has been dubbed “the first Arab-gourmet restaurant in the country,” and much has been said about its wild chicory served with goat yogurt, garlic confit, and caramelized onions, and its Shishbarak—dumplings stuffed with lamb and pine nuts and cooked in hot goat’s milk yogurt.
Hanna’s culinary studies started at home, where he learned from his parents. He went on to study at the Holiday Inn Hoteliery and Culinary College in Tiberias, as well as the Estella school for pastry making, and held several internships before opening the Lebanese restaurant Ktseh Hanahal (“River’s Edge”) in 2005 at the entrance of kibbutz Ginosar, on the western banks of the Sea of Galilee. “Ktseh Hanahal was based on tourists who looked for a place to eat on their way to or from the Kinneret,” Hanna explained. “The restaurant still exists, but it’s not mine anymore. Magdalena is very different since it’s a restaurant that people come to especially and you have to make reservations in advance.”
Unlike most Arabic restaurants in the country, a meal at Magdalena doesn’t start with a multitude of miniature-salads being brought to the table—everything is a la carte.
“Magdalena has a unique concept,” Hanna told me. “I make Galilee-style Arabic food, and am influenced by Lebanese and Mediterranean cuisine. I took traditional Galilee-style food and upgraded it in order to make it into contemporary gourmet food. I use mostly local ingredients and cook according to season, but with a fine twist.”
Hanna isn’t Israel’s only Arab Christian chef—there are several working in Nazareth, and in northern towns like Jish or Rameh, where Hanna is from. For Hanna, at least, his heritage definitely comes though in his food: “One of the differences between our cooking and Muslim cooking is that we can use alcohol. For instance I make Freekeh soup with Arak. I also serve the special holiday bread that Orthodox Christians eat at church. It’s a yellow kind of bread with anise and turmeric.”
Hanna is humble about his success, and insists there are many excellent Arabic restaurants in Israel: “People know about Haj Kahil in Jaffa and El-Babur, but there are also less well-known restaurants that are great, like El Marsa in Acre and Dante in Nazareth. More and more places are opening and I believe the public is starting to become more aware of this.”
Considering Magdalena’s popularity, that certainly seems likely.
Dana Kessler has written for Maariv, Haaretz, Yediot Aharonot, and other Israeli publications. She is based in Tel Aviv.