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Israeli Restaurants Janna Gur's Top Picks
By Janna Gur
Israel is a tourist's Eden, but restaurants have not traditionally rated among its "bucket list" attractions. Now a foodie can make a special trip just to explore the local culinary landscape.
Here are a few of my top favorite Israeli restaurants, and I'm happy to say that the country has many more truly excellent choices these days.
Many tourists tend to regard Tel Aviv as a transit place, en route to somewhere more scenic or holy. But in terms of variety, quality and originality, Tel Aviv's restaurant scene is on par with that of European capitals and it may be a small version of New York.
I would start with The Dining Hall (23 Shaul Hamelech Boulevard, (0)5-79443036). It's inspired by a kibbutz dining hall, only the food is very unkibbutz. It's nouvelle Israeli cuisine with a lot of Jewish ethinic and Middle Eastern influences -- and with a chef's touch. It's huge and bustling with long communal tables. The restaurant is right across from the Performing Arts Center and the new wing of the Tel Aviv Museum. So it's great for a pre- or post-theater dinner or lunch. Plus it's affordable.
In Israel you can go out for great food very late, so if you´ve been to the opera and you're done at around 10:30 pm, you can cross the square and the kitchen will be open. You can have a proper starter, main course and dessert or a lot of small plates and share them. The chef is Omer Miller, and he's 30 years old. He´s very famous now in Israel now; he has his own show.
Another restaurant I really love has a funny name, Abraxis North (40 Lilenblum Street 0-5-46786560). Here I'll start with the chef because he's the real story: Eyal Shani. He was one of the forefathers of the Israeli culinary revolution. He started his first restaurant, Oceanus, in 1989 in Jerusalem and then moved to Tel Aviv.
Eyal is a very controversial figure, but he´s a genius. His menus read like modern poetry. His description of a dish might be something like, "Tomato salad made from tomatoes both for and from old women at the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem."
He is truly creative and, for me, one of two or three of the best chefs in Israel. Eyal studied cinema. Like many Israeli chefs he didn´t formally study cuisine; he's self-taught.
You have to experience his food to really understand his philosophy. Eyal Shani's style of cooking is taking simple, fresh ingredients and making them sing. One of his dishes is called "Baby Cabbage." You receive a whole purple cabbage on a plate. You don´t even know how to start attacking it. You take bites and it melts in your mouth.
He first braises it for hours and then sautes it with butter and I don't know what else, and it's absolutely amazing. He also does magical things with cauliflower and tomatoes, and he makes the best focaccia, which comes hot off the wood-burning stone oven, or tabun. His chocolate dessert served in a paper cone is unbelievable.
Another place Eyal Shani owns is called Miznon, which means "buffet" (21 Ibn Gvirol, (0)3-716 8977). It´s more of a kiosk, not a full-fledged restaurant, so it´s perfect for lunch. Everything is served in a pita. But what he puts in the pita is a different matter! He makes the best cauliflower in the world. He first cooks it and then bakes and roasts it, and serves it with sour cream. He also does a wonderful take on chicken livers with green onions. For dessert he cuts off the top of the pita and fills it with chocolate spread. It's such a funky place and really upbeat.
A quick word about dress codes in Israel: no matter how upscale the restaurant, you can wear what you want. Israel is still very casual. I always say you can only be overdressed.
Orna and Ella is a Tel Aviv classic (33 Shenkin Street, 03-6204753). It´s been around for almost 20 years and it´s still going strong. Neither Orna nor Ella studied cooking; they were university students when they started baking cakes to support themselves, and that progressed into a buffet and then a restaurant.
It's very women friendly -- we call it "girls food" -- with lots of vegetables. The bistro's signature dish is Sweet Potato Fritters, served with sour cream and chives. Another is simply Rice with Vegetables. It's very feminine cooking, devoid of ego and simple, but wonderful.
There's a lovely new farmers market at Tel Aviv's port. On the weekend it's an open market, and during the week it has an indoors market. Downstairs is a really good Spanish tapas restaurant called Tapas B'Shuk, or Tapas in the Market 03-7162757). The food is very tasty and the open kitchen adds to the ambiance.
In Jaffa the Haj Kahil family has opened up a new restaurant next to the clock tower in the square (18 Raziel Street, 05-79428347). This Haj Kahil establishment serves unique salads and authentic Galilean specialties, including stuffed leg or lamb, which is a symphony of Levantine flavors. The food is delicious and different. It´s not what Israelis perceive as Arab food, like humus and skewered meats -- it's much more and the first upscale Palestinian restaurant in Tel Aviv.
In Jerusalem there are more good kosher places than in Tel Aviv. I really like Angelica (7 Shatz Street, 05-79442884), which is an elegant kosher restaurant with lots of seasonal grilled dishes. The owners recently opened another kosher place, called Grand Café (70 Derech Bethlehem, 02-5702702) in Bakaa, a beautiful neighborhood in the German Colony. In addition to its impressive Israeli breakfast and delicious fare throughout the day, it's a magnet for foodies with a sweet tooth thanks to the fabulous cheese cakes, almond tarts and fruit pies.
There's a lovely kosher restaurant by the Machane Yehuda market called Topolino (62 Agrippas Street, 02-622 3466). It's vegetarian Italian, reasonably priced and it's really wonderful. In the market there's also a lot of what we call "Jewish soul food," which is mainly Kurdish or Iraqi or Morrocan with all kinds of soups and stuffed vegetables, and they're all kosher of course. These are very simple places -- any one of them would be a good bet. You´ll spot them by the long lines.
The reason there are so few good kosher restaurants in Israel is that you have to close down for shabbat and holidays, and this is where you make your money. So restauranteurs shy away from that. And many of them don't want a mashgiach (supervisor) meddling in their kitchen. It's a pity, since about 30 percent of the Israel population keeps kosher. So many people are completely cut off from this incredible food revolution we're having. Luckily, though, one of the things Israeli chefs do best is vegetables, so those who don't mix meat and milk can find many vegetarian options.
Around the Sea of Galilee, there's Kze Hanachal (Paz Gas station, Kibbutz Genossar entrance, 04-6717776), which looks deceptively like a tourist trap because it's huge and lots of tourist busses stop by. The food is inspired by Lebanese and Jordanian cuisine, and it's really interesting and different. It's jointly owned by an Arab and an Israeli.
The best restaurant in northern Israel is Muscat, in the Mitzpe Hayaim Hotel Spa, 04-699 4555), between Rosh Pina and Safed. Here you can taste excellent Galilean cooking in a luxurious setting, and they source all their produce from a huge organic farm that surrounds the hotel.
[Janna Gur is the bestselling author of The Book of Israeli Food and editor-in-chief of Israel’s celebrated food and wine magazine, Al Hashulchan (On the Table)]
The Dining Hall
23 Shaul Hamelech Boulevard
40 Lilenblum Street
21 Ibn Gvirol
Orna and Ella
33 Shenkin Street
Tel Aviv Port Market
18 Raziel Street
7 Shatz Street
70 Derech Bethlehem
62 Agrippas Street
Paz Gas station, Kibbutz Genossar entrance
Mitzpe Hayaim Hotel Spa
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