An Italian restaurant with a Mediterranean aroma, a pub, and a wine cellar within an ancient archeological site, an intimate conference room and cylindrical accommodation overlooking the landscape.
In the beautiful village of Mi’iliya in the Western Galilee, an extraordinary complex was opened with a restaurant, pub, wine cellar and guest rooms.
The complex covers an area of 1000 square meters with internal and external courtyards, an ancient tunnel leading to the fortress, halls and archaeological site from the Roman Crusader period.
In the village of Mielya in the Western Galilee, a special culinary venture is being revived at private venue established by local residents, the late Laviv Assaf and his wife, Salma Assaf.
Chateau du roi is French for the King’s Castle, built in the mid-12th century during the Crusader period by King of Jerusalem Baldwin III.
Salma, now the owner of the venue, is a hospitable, pleasant, and charming woman, a sworn lover of antiquities, and graduate of the Department of History at the University of Haifa. Salma and her late husband, Laviv Assaf, a former police officer, worked shoulder to shoulder to realize their vision. They worked to revive the location’s cultural and physical heritage, from preservation and reconstruction of house of Laviv’s father, who lived there in his youth, and later the adjacent houses that they purchased. “My late husband reconnected to the place where he grew up. He personally planted thousands of azaleas to reconstruct the ceilings. After he died, my two sons and daughter have been supporting me to pursue this,” she says.
The groundbreaking woman proves that feminine intuition and vision, resourcefulness, and determination can convert something that was once a ruin and collection of hazardous buildings into an exciting culinary venue with different structural and archeological elements that uses an Italian kitchen to connect different historic period and the Middle Eastern culture of a Galilee village to the Western culture that existed here in the past. She describes her vision in these words, “I always looked at the houses and dreamed that, one day, the preservation and reconstruction would be completed and I could host people here. It is now happening, after 17 years of hard work and many ups and downs.”
The 250-year old buildings from the Ottoman period are built on the old core of the village, near the village church and an older Crusader castle. The buildings are built on part of the Crusader village, a few meters north of the 12-century Crusader castle. They face east to the awesome vista of the Galilee mountains, including Mount Meron, and Mount Hermon beyond it, and also face west toward the sea. The original buildings were built by the Assaf family, one of the first to settle in the village in the 18th century. The family owns the northeastern part of the Crusader castle, and its quarter developed around the northeast tower. The same site was used as homes for generations, as well as for raising livestock and businesses. Today, the culinary venue is located within. One of the forefathers, Khalil Assaf, who was literate, worked with Haim Farhi, the Jewish banker of Aljar, the governor of Acre in the late 18th century. His descendants followed in his footsteps. Today, 85% of his descendants are academics and owners of thriving businesses. Salma’s eldest son is named Khalil in honor of the great-grandfather.
The construction work uncovered wine presses, the largest discovered to date in Outremer (Latin East) (the Crusader period), and the site has been declared an archeological site. The wine presses are about 850 years old, from the second half of the 12th century, and the pit discovered dates from the Roman period about 2,000 years ago and which was used by the Crusader period residents.
According to Dr. Rabei Khamisy from he Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa, who oversaw the excavation, “These are the only remnants uncovered by the archeological excavations in the village from that period and from the Mamluke period. That is why they are scientifically very important.”
Salma and her children exclusively carried out the excavations at their own initiative and expense. The initiative and investment are private, without no assistance from any government entity or other official agency. Commenting on the pioneering effort of Salma and her children, Dr. Kjamisy said, “Archeological excavations on this scale were never carried out by personal initiative in Israel, which is why this venture is a precedent.”
The preservation and reconstruction work of the site’s buildings were carried out by Salma’s cousin, Keisar Farhan, a contractor by profession. Salma says, “Anyone who visited the worksite would have said that the stones loved his hands.” The construction applied traditional methods of local residents, using old stone and azalea wood to reconstruct the wood ceilings.
Salma vision and personal taste drove the interior design. The very complex building comprises numerous spaces, each of which has a different function. The passageways from one space to the next are through original openings with reconstructed doors, via a tunnel that runs beneath the ancient castle, through courtyards that, each time, reveal to us another part of the building, and take us back in time to a period when it was at its height of importance. The design attempts to preserve the essence of the place as much as possible and to intervene as little as possible. New elements are added using materials that were originally used at the site. Ancient objects that Salma collected over decades now delicately decorate the spaces in good taste. The rest of the furniture was chosen in the Art Povera style so as not to stand out from the building itself, such as the use of old style iron that fits in well with the local stone. Architect Marcello Murru and his wife, Limor Murru, an interior decorator, contributed to this realization. Gardening engineer Amer Makhoul is currently designing the garden.
Lighting designer Gabi Stern designed the lighting. The large, high spaces are lit from below to enhance the effect of the arches and height, ad by central lighting, which was used to light these spaces, with original lighting and presence. In order to show the antiquities area without foregoing seating in the restaurant, viewing openings were created in the floor through which it is possible to see, at any given moment, thelit-up excavations beneath.
The venue offers an Italian kitchen with a Middle Eastern aroma. Its culinary concept connects the European/Crusader past with the Eastern Galilee present. The connection gives the diners a rich experience that combines special dishes and the use of high-quality ingredients from Israel and Italy. Everything that is served to the restaurant’s guests, from bread to desert, is homemade. The kitchen used advanced vacuum and low temperature SoVide technology. The kitchen offers guests a large wine list. The pub serves alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages as well as pizza, focaccia, bruscetta, and special cocktails made from natural ingredients.
Chef Elian Layousse, a scion of the village and a friend of Salma and her children, runs the kitchen. He gained his rich experience in an Italian kitchen over 30 years, gaining a name for including eastern flavors into Italian cooking with dishes such as octopus with potato puree and sumac, and lamb ravioli (shish barak). His restaurant in Padova, Ristorante LaVit Rubano, has been praised many times over. Chef Layousse has a wine cellar with 850 kinds of wine and champagne. In 2008, his restaurant won fourth place for its wine list in the prestigious Vinitaly competition.
Chef Layousse’s passion for creating food encounters the passion of the venue’s owner to preserve cultural and physical heritage and for hosting. His motto, is, in his words, “For me, the creation of food is an art that expresses my strong passion for life and enables me to connect to any person just like in other fields of art such as painting and music.”
The guests will enjoy a culinary venue that offers a number of spaces and even overnight accommodations. The venue includes –
A restaurant with four spaces above and belowground: the three aboveground spaces are the restaurant’s main areas. It is an Ottoman period building that includes two indoor areas and a courtyard. The belowground space is an archeological site that reveals Roman, Crusader, and Mamluke periods and will serve as a wine cellar and part of the restaurant.
A pub comprising an indoor space, tunnel that, in the past, led into the castle’s interior, an adjacent covered balcony, and courtyard. The pub will be separated from the restaurant by a sound-proof door so that events can be held undisturbed simultaneously at the venue’s two areas.
A separate special conference room. This room was once used by the village mukhtar – the elected village elder who corresponds to the contemporary local council head. Meetings on the management of village affairs were held in this room, which will now be used as an intimate conference room.
Two spacious double bedrooms with an intoxicating vista (Salma and her children plan to provide additional accommodations services in other old houses that they are currently renovating/restoring).
The venue has a large parking lot for its guests.
The venue can accommodate up to 300 guests altogether. The restaurant’s central spaces can seat 45 diners, and the basement wine cellar can seat up to 30 more. The pub can seat up to 70 diners, and there are another 120 seats in the restaurant and pub’s common courtyards. The conference room can hold 20 people.