The restaurant, housed in a building pockmarked from mortar shells and once used for processing livestock into rail cars, is the very definition of unassuming.
It is located far from Tel Aviv’s foodie culture, along Route 90 in the Jordan Valley, where one passes only fields, greenhouses and flocks of Bedouin-tended goats.
Still, this is where Yizhar Sahar and Hila Ronen Sahar have created a farm-to-table border bistro called Rutenberg, right at the chain-link fence where Israel abuts Jordan and where a 25-year land-lease agreement between the two countries recently ended.
The restaurant is at Naharayim, a location that is the junction of two rivers, the Yarmouk and the Jordan (nahar means river in Hebrew; naharayim means two rivers). Reeds clog the banks, and catfish swim in the murky waters.
Located on the Syrian-African Rift, Naharayim has been a crucial location for centuries, marked with three bridges. The first was built by the Romans, followed by one the Ottomans built in 1904 for the train that ran from Haifa to Damascus, and a third built by the British in 1925 as part of a road serving the Haifa-Baghdad highway.
The middle of the Turkish-built bridge is technically the border, and the restaurant’s window are bulletproof, as a precaution. But the scene is pretty bucolic from inside the restaurant, with views of cormorants sitting on the branches of a nearby tree and the tinkling sound of bells from the herd of goats nearby.
Also known as the “Island of Peace,” the approximately 150 acres of land in this area belong to Jordan but have been used by Israelis for the last two and a half decades. Farmers and tourists were able to pass through the border gate with ease.
That is, until the past November, when Jordan abruptly refused to renew the agreement that allowed Israeli access to area, in a sign of the ongoing, low-grade friction between the two countries. Jordan is one of the two Arab countries Israel has a peace agreement with, along with Egypt.
Rutenberg, though located right on the border, is not affected by this alteration in land control, said Ronen Sahar.
“Nobody really thinks about it,” she said. “Everything is being quietly discussed.”
In 1927, Russian Jewish engineer Pinhas Rutenberg struck a deal with the emir Abdullah of Transjordan to build a power station for the area. The power station and its three dams supplied electricity to both sides of the border until it was blown up in the 1948 battle for Israel’s independence.
Kibbutz Gesher, built here in 1939, was the first settlement in the area to withstand an attack by the Arab Legion, as 120 members holed up in the bunker for many hours. That kibbutz was rebuilt nearby (the Sahars rent their land from the kibbutz).
A portrait of Rutenberg, the Russian immigrant who founded the precursor of the Israel Electric Corporation, hangs in the restaurant that bears his name. The decor is clean and simple: eight wooden tables with chairs, cloth napkins (“I’m a stickler for hefty napkins,” said Ronen Sahar) and plates for the delectable dishes prepared by Sahar and his kitchen staff in the very small back kitchen.
The breads — all homemade from flour ground from their own wheat — include a buttery focaccia and hearty slices served with local cheeses and a jam brought from France last summer. Roasted onions are filled with a tomato nut paste, and later, slices of fresh radish are topped with cubes of salty cheese and a ring of scallion.
The first course includes creamy Jerusalem artichoke sprinkled with salty artichoke chips, a wedge of roasted cabbage, and warm black lentils served with smoky eggplant and creme fraiche, all served on pottery made by a nearby ceramicist.
And that’s just the first course. Locally raised beef and fowl are also on the menu, along with chunks of fish (they are trying to find an organic supplier for their seafood) in a savory plateful of wild rice and grilled vegetables. They list every one of their suppliers — all located within a half-hour drive — on the last page of the typed menu, as all of them are part of the story of this bistro.
They’re not the only fine restaurant in the area; there are 19 restaurants in the Jordan Valley region, not counting the fast food chains located a short distance away at Tzemah Junction near the Sea of Galilee.
Their customers are visitors and foreign tourists who stop for lunch or dinner on their way up north (they also serve brunch on Fridays and Saturdays, and the restaurant is closed on Sunday).
“We keep learning new things,” said Ronen Sahar, who forages daily for the greens served during the winter months, as well as capers, saltbush and ice plant. “We didn’t have this particular vision. Every step just sort of brought along the next one.”
She forages all around the grounds, including inside the chain link border fence, opening the lock with a key borrowed from the lone Israeli soldier who does duty here.
There are signs in Chinese on the fence, for the Chinese workers who are living and working in the area on a new power plant being constructed by Israel.
“They walk around a lot, and borders don’t matter much to them,” said Ronen Sahar.
The border does not seem to perturb this culinary pair, either.
They were living in Tel Aviv, where he was working as a chef and she was a busy wine expert consulting and buying for different companies, when they realized that their lives as young parents of a daughter (they now have two) were just too complicated.
Within a few months they had made their move and were settling into life at Kibbutz Afikim, where Sahar was born and raised and where his parents still live, just a five-minute drive from the restaurant (she is from a kibbutz, too — Tzora near Jerusalem).
They bought the restaurant from Sahar’s brother-in-law, and Sahar, a self-taught chef who started cooking when he needed to earn money during a prolonged stay in Australia, spent the first couple of years figuring out life as a restaurant owner.
“It wasn’t as hard or as bad conditions as working in the fields, so I enjoyed it,” said Sahar, the eternal kibbutznik. “And yet fieldwork was the best thing I could have done for my cooking.”
He likes to experiment with ingredients in the kitchen, whether it’s pickling, fermenting or molecular cooking. The deep window sills of the restaurant are piled with cookbooks that examine the local Palestinian and Israeli tables, the wines of France and secrets of the foraged garden.
Outside, on the expansive grounds surrounding the restaurant, a biogas structure fed by all of their organic matter produces enough gas to cook six hours of the day, which takes care of their stocks and soups. Nearby, their extensive gardens are in development, including crops of fruit trees, greens, and they plan to refurbish an old water tower that will provide enough water for all of their grounds.
The Sahars have found that while they work hard to make their restaurant a success, they still have more time in their new life in the countryside than they used to have in the city.
“We’re not in Tel Aviv and we don’t have 10,000 people at our door every day,” said Sahar. “We’re not chasing our tails all the time.”
But they are bolstered by their kibbutz upbringing as they get up every morning and go to work foraging, picking wheat or preparing bread dough to rise during the day.
“We were raised to be very conscious of the work ethic,” he said, “and that’s part of our success.”
“It’s easier to do what we do because we’re kibbutznikim,” she said. “We understand how nature works, better than those who are from the city. We see the nature cycle.”