Acre (‘Akko’ in Arabic) doesn’t sit in Western Galilee, it rests. Feet up. It is one of the oldest inhabited sites in Israel and appears on the tribute-lists of Pharaoh Thutmose III (c. 16th century BC). In the Bible it’s referenced as one of the places from which the Israelites did not drive out the Canaanites. In 1191 it was captured by Richard I and his crusader army, later falling to the Mameluks of Egypt in a bloody siege in 1291.
Today it sleeps, bone-weary after centuries of battle, a picturesque harbour with large, arm-like walls wrapping around the Haifa coast. The muscular fortifications are so resolute that Napoleon failed to conquer the city after a two-month siege in 1799 AD.
Witnessing the landmarks you can sense past events, standing on a stairwell peeking through a fortress nook that Richard the Lionheart may have (but probably didn’t) while egotistically applauding his eminence, and viewing the Knights Halls and the holy places of the Bahá’í Faith.
A landmark with a shorter narrative dating back to the recent year of 1989 is Uri Buri. The restaurant moved from the coast of Nahariyah in 1997 to re-open in the lighthouse square in the old city of Acre. Since relocating it has transcended from a cheerful, local fish outlet to one of the most respected and sort after reservations in Israel.
As I entered, I passed an exiting American couple who stopped me and said: “You’ll have a wonderful time. That was the best food we’ve ever tasted.” Admittedly they’re from the land of fast-food and peanut butter, but it’s a glowing sentiment and they left genuinely stupefied by their experience.
Uri Jeremais stepped out from behind a small bar and shook my hand. He’s a man whose appearance cannot pass without comment: a well-formed chef who has clearly indulged in his repertoire. Through exuberant facial hair and a long silver beard, a childlike smile beamed from his face. He’s a man with presence. A Tolkien character.
Uri was a deep-sea diver (when it was an economically worthwhile endeavour) as well as spending ten-years as a buyer for the UN. He’s spent much of his life traveling Europe and Asia. At 16 he sailed to Italy, and then hitchhiked to Germany, from there he covered East Asia via Turkey, Persia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nepal. At 24 he backpacked South America where he acquired further cookery talents. These journeys are represented in his plates. Trial and error recipes eventually created success and confidence in a trimmed list of expressive seafood.
Sashimi salmon in soy sauce is served with a wasabi sorbet that triggers the tongue, injecting life into the raw salmon strips, and a bromidic named ‘fish soup’ combined shrimp and calamari in a coriander, basil, ginger and coconut base – a Thai-inspired chef-d’oeuvre.
This was followed by grilled amberjack with garlic and onion in olive oil. It’s a take on the Amberjack St. Augustine recipe in which the fish is simmered with spices, including ground marjoram and allspice. The fish marinades in the olive oil, absorbing the garlic and onion, and flakes from the fork.
With the restaurant positioned by the sea, inspiration is naturally taken from the doorstep, however Israeli cuisine has always adopted and it continues to adapt. A variety of African and Arabic spices are being used, reflecting other continental influences and a new rich tradition in the food of Israel. Uri is no exception to this and his developed methods incorporate ingredients from his own wide adventures, combining flavours to complement and flatter each other.
Pan-fried scallops in a cream sauce were plumb and faultless, nicely presented in the cast iron skillet they were prepared in. The plump molluscs were buttery and I wiped the sauce away with half a warm loaf. Uri then brought to the table some African yam matched with strawberries, olive oil and lemon juice to produce the perfect sweetness. African root has a perfume scent and is known to be difficult incorporating into cooking. Still, all useful artillery for his creative flair.
In earlier days, Uri would make and sell ice-cream from a campervan by the sea, his popularity as a bizarre, Willy Wonker creator presented him with a cult following and a welcome face with the children in summer. Today he still develops unusual, yet beautiful flavours, from the robust corn ice-cream with coriander seeds to the alluring rose ice-cream with a creamy, sticky marshmallow texture.
Uri informs me that there was such a demand after introducing corn ice-cream that for a month people were calling the restaurant to make sure it was still on the menu.
I’m shown the matchbox kitchen. Really, it’s the smallest kitchen I’ve seen. Work is in progress for the lunch-sitting and there’s no empty space. Ingredients are chopped and prepped, ready to share. It’s clear Uri runs a military-style operation.
Uri points to the ticket clips above a station: “Orders here. Placed here. Prep here. Plate here. Service here.” It’s his structure. His system. His kitchen. Organization is required amid chaos; it’s how the creative flourish. It’s how Picasso painted the Guernica and why Da Vinci kept notebooks.
It was food that found Uri. Almost by accident. His travels allowed the melding of cultures and ingredients. His skills were tested, be it in the shape of fish, flower or root. A technical brilliance was born and Uri returned home, ready to show the people what could be achieved.
Uri Buri, 93 Haganah Street, Akko, Israel. Tel: +972 (0)4 955 2212. Website.