4 stops in Ashdod

For some, the smell of the first rain evokes detailed fantasies of down comforters and melancholy loves; others dream of seafood stews eaten by a gray, rolling sea. But our thoughts turned to Ashdod. We have a fondness for this dreary port city – still devoid of charm or glory despite a recent construction boom – and especially for the excellent workers’ restaurants there.

Ashdod is the place to find some of the best simple restaurants to serve up Jewish North-African cuisine. So when the first rains come, we think hungrily of the Maghreb, and those heavy dishes in wonderful hues of paprika and oil that we couldn’t find during the hot summer days; of asida – a thick semolina porridge mixed with a hot sauce of chuma pepper, herring and egg; of grilled organ meats; of Mediterranean celebrations with fig arak; salted buri fish eggs from Marseilles; and spicy sausages. The best time to visit Ashdod is Friday morning, when the selection at the small workers’ restaurants is largest, and the regular customers are there to cheerfully welcome the Sabbath.

In the car lot next to the garage (which could also be called a museum) hides a miniature aerodynamic model of a black Lamborghini, which has doors that open upward like those of the Batmobile. There are also fancy 1930s-style convertibles just waiting for flappers in long scarves to lean an elegant hand out the window while clutching a slim cigarette holder; cars from the 1950s waiting for a teen with slicked-back hair to take them to the nearest diner; professional race cars and other models that were reconstructed or built on the spot.

Fifty years of automotive romance have produced this unusual place, which is at once a garage, a workshop for restoring and fixing up old cars, and a show lot, and also has a small cafe for visitors. Rafi Gershkowich, who studied mechanical engineering in St. Petersburg and still speaks Hebrew with a heavy Russian accent 20 years after coming to this country, is the man behind this amusing place, which boasts an awe-inspiring collection of miniature cars and sculptures of devoted car collectors, and is guaranteed to put a smile on the face of just about anyone, big or small.

Ralex Autoservice and Car Museum, B’nai B’rith Boulevard (by the gas station at the entrance to Ashdod), 08-8522470; www.ralex.co.il

Every so often we find ourselves pondering why it is that alcohol consumed in the afternoon paints the world in different colors than alcohol sipped at night. Maybe it’s that by evening, the stomach, having been lined during the day with layers of food and fat, delays the punch of the alcohol a bit, so that it sneaks up on you and goes to your head more gradually. Whatever the case, there’s nothing like pastis, a drink made from aniseed, to produce a pleasant afternoon buzz.

Edmund and Lucien, two Ashdod residents originally from France, sit in Amram’s little place all day long, with a bottle of pastis on the table and a growing pile of nibbled artichoke leaves between them, enjoying spicy Moroccan dishes whose sauces are finished off with thick slices of fresh challah. “Bring them the brain,” stout Amram calls to Valentina, the Russian waitress, as soon as he spies satisfied customers, and the customers are indeed grateful.

It’s no longer that easy to find dishes made from certain organs: Brains, like spinal column and bone marrow, have long suffered from poor public relations, because the immediate association aroused by the grayish-pinkish matter under the skull cannot help but disturb the heart. But no other organ has such a delicate taste and texture, such soothing tenderness. The brains dish served by Amram and his wife is like soft clouds in a red sauce made of lemon, peppers and cilantro, and it’s one of the most delicious things we’ve eaten lately. It’s accompanied by small dishes of simple, fresh salads: carrot, hot green peppers, pickled beets, warm olives cooked in tomato sauce, and chickpeas with cumin.

You can also find roast beef, or chraimeh, a fish stew, made with tuna or lokus (grouper), and whatever you order, the food is simple and very tasty. Every once in a while, Amram also prepares a dish of calf’s foot jelly, sometimes with hummus. Despite the somewhat gloomy and uninviting look of the neighborhood and of this basic restaurant, the place is definitely worth a visit.

Ma’akhalim Mizrahiyim Etzel Amram, 7 Harav Herzog St. (Rova Bet), Ashdod, 08-8568632

This week, artists at the Ashdod Museum were busy taking down installations and pictures related to honey and putting up works having to do with olives and olive oil. The new exhibition, “Nes Pakh Hashemen” (The Miracle of the Oil Jug), is the second in a three-part project curated by Yael Wiesel. For Sukkot, there was an exhibition about honey and bees; for Hanukkah the theme is olive oil, and on Passover there will be an exhibition of art dealing with grapes and wine. These are three of the oldest raw ingredients in the region, which the Philistines, who are part of the museum’s permanent exhibition, with artifacts that include iron armor and beer jugs, cultivated and consumed. Each artist received a space of his or her own, and most also left a little something from the bees and honey exhibition to go along with the current one. Some of the works have a naive and kitschy look and others make use of some of the most frequently recycled images of these common ingredients. But there are also those that present less routine images. The catalog covering all three of the exhibitions presents the works together with favorite recipes of the participating artists.

Ashdod Museum, 16 Hashayatim St., Ashdod, 08-8543092

Shimon’s couscous – tiny, delicate semolina grains – is so good it can be eaten straight with a spoon, without anything added. But if you want to infuse the dish with rich flavor, you’ll have a tough choice to make among the brimming pots: a simple, splendid vegetable soup with mafrum (stuffed potatoes); stuffed vegetables; tbiha bil kamun – a red, spicy meat dish with cumin; or feka’la, a dish of squash and meat, simmered for hours in a thick green stock of beet leaves. All this is served with a special hot pepper sauce Shimon invented. There are also pickles and tershi – an excellent Tripoli-style pumpkin salad. For dessert and to soothe your full belly, regular customers get sweet tea with roasted peanuts floating near the bottom.

Mama Mafruma, 44 Ha’avoda St., Ashdod, 08-8567681


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