Meeting up for dinner with visitors from overseas celebrating their engagement called for a special restaurant, and a friend suggested we try Haj Kahil in Jaffa. As we were currently experiencing the heaviest heat wave of the year, my wife insisted that I first find out if this Arab style eatery had air conditioning. When I called to make a reservation, I asked this all-important question.
The man who answered the phone laughed for many seconds. “Do you think I could work in a restaurant in Jaffa in the summer months if there wasn’t air conditioning?” he asked me.
Haj Kahil indeed has air conditioning, and you can’t miss it due to its prominent location at the edge of the Clock Square in Jaffa. Well, you could be slightly mistaken if you turned towards either the Haj Kahil Express or the Haj Kahil Shwarma restaurants across the street. Apparently they all belong to the same Israeli Arab family which has a track record of four decades in the restaurant business. Taxi drivers and locals know the square as Haj Kahil Square.
The cauliflower with tahine sauce was excellent, as were the freshly made hummus, the labaneh with garlic and walnuts, and the eggplant salads. The outstanding dish was the homemade Iraqi pita, served straight out of the taboon oven. This pita, covered with a delicate blanket of spices, was so fresh and tasty that dipping it into the salads was almost sacrilegious.
Choosing a main dish was difficult as there were so many house specialties on the menu. We ended up selecting the most expensive item, which actually was quite reasonable as it was shared by four diners. The lamb shoulder stuffed with rice, ground entrecote, dried figs, pine nuts, and almonds had apparently been roasting in that same taboon for seven hours. The lamb was served on a huge platter and the amiable waiter cut it into portions and served each of us more than we could eat. This quantity of lamb would have been sufficient for a table of eight. The meat was cooked to perfection and melted in our mouths.
We simply had no room for dessert, although Haj Kahil is noted for its kanafeh, pistachio malabi pudding, and atayif filled with walnuts and cinnamon. Those will have to wait for our next visit.
On the tourists’ map
Haj Kahil is certainly finding its place on the visitors’ map of must-eat restaurants in Israel and many impressive reviews of the dining experience have appeared on the Internet.
Paris-based food blogger David Lebovitz ate lunch at Haj Kahil in June and declared that the experience had resulted in “the best day of my life.” One of his dining companions was almost lulled into a trance by the fried Halloumi cheese. Lebovitz, a former award-winning pastry chef, was intrigued by the pita as well. “I could not get enough of that bread, which they brought out to the table with nearly twenty different dishes for us, everything from miniature pickled eggplants to a salad heaped with fresh herbs and crispy nuts, whose name I can’t remember, but whose taste I will never forget.”
Joan Nathan, Tablet Magazine’s food columnist and the author of 10 cookbooks, included Haj Kahil in her 2010 tour of restaurants in the HolyLand. She, too, raved about the pita. “As good as it was, the prize there was the laffa, the thin flat bread slapped to the sides of the taboon,” she wrote.
Haj Kahil is a diner’s delight and vegetarians will not go away hungry. The prices are reasonable, the service is efficient and friendly, and above all, the food is delicious.