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Jerusalem, a city of 1,001 mysteries, can thank Cuban dictator Fidel Castro for one of its contemporary secrets - chef Rodrigo Gonzales-Elias, the dynamo behind the ovens and grills at La Rôtisserie. The charmingly intimate 80-seat gourmet restaurant is located in the basement level of Notre Dame, the Christian guest house complex that is owned by the Vatican and operated by the Legionairies of Christ on Paratroopers Road. The site is officially known as the Pontifical Institute Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center. It's a key location in the Holy City, demarcating the line where from 1948 to 1967 Jordanian and Israeli troops faced off behind barbed wire and minefields in the divided metropolis, where today east and west, and Old City and New City meet.
Born in Levittown, Pennsylvania in 1964 to a family of Cuban exiles, Gonzales-Elias's family ended up immigrating to Spain. There he trained as a mechanical engineer working in Spanish nuclear power plants. On weekends he would indulge his passion for gastronomy. Finally he abandoned the world of isotopes for that of infusion, settling at Madrid's legendary Real Café Bernabeu where he served as head chef. Three years ago he was invited to take over La Rôtisserie, where he has created a cuisine that mixes the polyglot flavors of Cuba, Spain and France with a dash of the Levant.
Chef Gonzales-Elias at La Rotisserie, Photo credit; Gil Zohar for Travelujah
For Christmas, Gonzales-Elias has concocted a seven-course banquet that is divine. How else can one describe an establishment where Pope Benedict dined when he came on pilgrimage three years ago?
The prix fixe menu cost $110 per person with wine, or $10 less without vino. But a day without wine, or a delicious repast without merlot or chardonnay, is like a day without sunshine.
Our dinner began with an anchovy hors d'œuvre, delicately filleted to reveal its full flavor. This was followed by a fruit de mer cocktail of shrimps, mussels and clams laid out in a scooped out half pineapple.
By now it was clear this wasn't going to be a typical plastic cutlery and formica table Jerusalem dining experience.
Our ever-attentive waiter, filling up our wine glasses as if the Messiah's Second Coming depended on it, deftly replaced our cutlery between courses. The next delight was a scallop wrapped in bacon and served with caramelized sauteed onions.
But Gonzalez-Elias was apprehensive. "Some of the dishes we just invented last week," he confessed. "How will the market react ? You never know."
Watching Gonzalez-Elias concoct his magic in the kitchen theatrically situated in the heart of the restaurant, we were next surprised by a delicacy of vegetable mille feuille au gratin consisting of eggplant, tomato and basil cheese.
My wife at this point protested that she couldn't eat any more. But three more delicious courses lay ahead.
The halibut pastry came garnished with raisins and grapes. The pastry shell was decorated with a Christmas tree.
This was followed by the entrée of duck breast stuffed with prawns and champignon mushrooms, and drizzled with a prune and blueberry marmalade.
And finally to clear the palate our waiter delivered a mojito-like lemon sherbet. If Pope Benedict were here, he would no doubt find it infallible.
While the cuisine at La Rôtisserie is divine, the restaurant itself has some structural problems. How does one resolve the conflict between a gourmet eatery and a non-for-profit pilgrimage establishment? Presumably the lack of signage is related to this administrative detail.
Which is a shame. La Rôtisserie offers fine dining at price which is competitive with the finest of Jerusalem's gourmet restaurants - whether for Christmas or any other season.
The writer was a guest of the restaurant.
3 Paratroopers' Road, Jerusalem
Open daily for dinner from 6:30 p.m. - 11 p.m.
Friday and Saturday open for lunch from 12:30 p.m. - 4 p.m.
For Reservations -Tel: 02 6279114
Notre Dame is offering a special 7-course Christmas dinner at a prix fix menu for $120 per person. Call for reservations.
The restaurant will be closed on Christmas Day.
Gil Zohar is a frequent contributor to Travelujah and a licensed Israeli tour guide.