Blessed with an abundance of exquisite natural produce, Israel's most cosmopolitan city is in the midst of a revolution. Alex Mead explores its burgeoning food and drink scene
Tel Aviv is Israel’s second-largest city. Flights from the UK take about five hours and the time is two hours ahead of GMT. Currency is the shekel.
British Airways flies direct to Tel Aviv Ben Gurion International Airport from London Heathrow daily from £301 return. ba.com
Monarch Airlines operates year-round flights to Tel Aviv from London Luton and Manchester airports from £148 return. monarch.co.uk
Think Israel is the Israel Government Tourist Office. uk.thinkisrael.com
White City, Black City by Sharon Rotbard (Pluto Press, £16.99) is a revealing study in urban design and a beautifully written narrative history of what is now modern-day Tel Aviv.
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Tel Aviv – a place still young in city years – has always stood out from the rest of Israel. And, truth be told, the whole of the Middle East, too. More cosmopolitan with its medley of people, more outgoing in its nature, more driven with its population of entrepreneurs and, seemingly, it never really shuts up shop. To personify it, it would work hard and play hard and still manage to look good while doing it. But while all its neighbours remain resolutely defined by the food they’ve eaten for millennia, Tel Aviv has no such qualms; it’s open to ideas.
It’s finding its culinary feet. It has the talent, it has the produce, it has myriad cultural and geographical influences and, right now, restaurateurs seem to be fine-tuning the balance of style and substance. Food over furniture, concept over cuisine: is what’s on the plate more important than the plate it’s on?
Chef Haim Cohen has no such trouble. As he sits in his stylish restaurant, Yaffo Tel Aviv, he talks about how he hates music playing in restaurants before highlighting the lengths (and expense) he went to get the acoustics just right. He then tells us how the chef isn’t the hero anymore. ‘They ask who designed the interior,’ he laughs. ‘You don’t cook, you host. And every customer is a photographer; every person is a food critic.’
Clearly self-deprecating, Cohen is known for his flavours. He’s been ahead of the game since opening a French diner in the city in 1985. ‘I didn’t know how to cook French food,’ he admits, before adding, ‘but it was OK, the people didn’t know how to eat it.
‘People ate because it made you healthy, made you grow and made you strong – nobody actually asked you how it tasted or if you enjoyed it. And, besides, if you ate out, what were you saying? That your mother couldn’t cook?’
As you’d expect, Cohen’s plates are photogenic but he has the confidence to be fuss-free. Sashimi is little more than fresh grouper bathing in Israeli olive oil with peppers and tomato for company; the carpaccio – hand-cut, a little aubergine, salt, olive oil and a few onions – makes it look pretty for the cameras. Calamari is seared on a plancha and bedded in mashed lima beans. He relies on the Mediterranean Sea to supply the best seafood and the Israeli soil does the rest. Every mouthful is uncomplicated bliss. ‘I use fresh produce but few herbs, no pastes, no soya and no sugar – I’m not selling drugs here. You don’t need tweezers to plate up and you don’t have too many ingredients.’
Perhaps unintentionally, Cohen’s style is reflected across the Israeli capital. If people ‘didn’t know how to eat’ in the Eighties, they’re learning fast. Open kitchens are de rigueur, people dine side by side at a bar as often as at a table, and simplicity is fast becoming king. Sharing here isn’t a concept requiring explanation from a tattooed, bow-tied, moustachioed waiter, it’s just what people do. Having your own plate isn’t a necessity.
Not everyone is following suit in this beach-fringed capital; some toy with the complex frivolity of molecular gastronomy and you’ll bear witness to foams and dry ice here and there.
A long-term cohort of Cohen, Tomer Agai has an ever-growing reputation at his relaxed Santa Katarina eatery in the shadow of Tel Aviv’s Great Synagogue. A well-employed taboon (clay oven) gives many of the plates that deliciously charred finishing touch. A dish to try? Crab bruschetta or an ‘Arab’ pizza of ground lamb, rocket, pine nuts, yoghurt and spinach on a bubbled base. Tomer doesn’t muddle his flavours together. Like a great football side, yes, they win as a team but that doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate the individual skills they display in doing so.
And what skills. Every blossoming food nation shouts about the quality of its produce but many should really keep quiet. However, in Israel’s case, it’s worth lending an ear. The tomatoes alone are worthy of the kind of praise only their Italian counterparts collect.
Few escalate tomatoes to quite the same level as Abraxas North. Here, a plate of ‘butchered tomatoes’ are little more than the astonishingly sweet Israeli varietal Maggie that have been peeled, quartered and sprinkled with salt and a splash of olive oil. A cauliflower is finished in a furnace-like oven with a coating of olive oil to give it deliciously crispy florets. Served whole in a brown bag, it becomes irresistible finger food. Aubergines are burned under the grill, their innards laid to rest on a board of tahini.
‘A critic might ask: “Why am I paying $10 for a cauliflower?” but it takes time to prepare,’ manager Adva tells me. ‘And on some of our other dishes we don’t make any profit all.’
However, you only complain about food that you don’t like and what’s not to like about the food at Abraxas North? If you like the sound of what you order, you’re going to love the dish. Order green beans and you’ll get the best you have ever tasted.
Like Cohen, owner Eyal Shani is another stalwart of the Tel Aviv scene and his staff echo similar sentiments. ‘We don’t use spices. Just salt, pepper and olive oil,’ says head chef Tal Kawi who was a kitchen hand just three years ago. ‘I couldn’t even chop properly,’ he admits, ‘but they like chefs who are raw so they don’t have preconceived ideas about how things should be done.’ That ‘fresh look’ at things is very Israeli. Without doubt one of the most entrepreneurial countries in the world (it’s second only to Silicon Valley when it comes to start-ups), Israelis have a knack of taking a look at what’s happening in business and finding a better way of doing it. Plans get made, investment comes in and the world changes a little bit for the better.
Such a mindset is as evident in food and drink as it is in tech. Milk & Honey is Israel’s first whiskey distillery but its first batch is still roughly two years away from being bottled. Not that you would know it. The visitor centre is as good as any you’ll find by the big players in Scotland and Ireland and they’re busy running classes and giving tours to effectively build a customer base before the core product arrives. Such chutzpah must be applauded.
That said, Tel Aviv’s temperate climate does mean the ageing process looks set to produce some incredible alcohol. A single malt that’s effectively still in nappies, having been a cask resident for just eight months, has already started to get a good amber colouring with sweet notes of caramel, toffee and spice coming through. If it can do this in eight months, who knows what it can do in three years?
Others are already blazing trails. Alexander Brewery, a 15-minute drive north of the city but with beers in every good bar across the city, has an IPA so bursting with tropical flavours thanks to these sunnier climes that it should be a summer staple in every beer garden, not just the sun terraces of Tel Aviv.
Started by ex-pilot Ori Sagy in 2008, it has become so respected that the demi-god of craft beer, Copenhagen’s Mikkel Borg Bjergsø of Mikkeller brewery, agreed to a collaboration. ‘I emailed him with the idea,’ explains Ori. ‘He replied with just three words: “send some samples”. I did, he got in touch and we made a beer together.’ The drink in question is a delight for both beer and non-beer drinkers alike. It’s a milk stout that offers the richness of porter but with a natural honey sweetness that will convert even the most sceptical.
Artisans are popping up in various locations all over the city. Newer markets such as Shuk Tzafon and Tel-Aviv Port provide them with a natural home, and to the gourmet traveller they perfectly complement the more traditional markets that proffer the bounty of Israel’s plentiful sea and fertile soil.
You’ll never go hungry in Tel Aviv. Food is on offer on every corner and restaurants are dotted across the city. Some stand alone, such as beachside Manta Ray, which defies the rule of location restaurants spending their money on good windows rather than good food. While good at any time of day, a true mezze-style breakfast that brings together a medley of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavours is the best way to start a day.
Others live in clusters. On tree-lined Rothschild Boulevard you’ll find little coffee shops, artisan ice lollies, sushi and burger joints. It reflects everything about Tel Aviv: an eclectic mix of architecture, from the arches and domes of Mediterranean Europe to Bauhaus, colonial and art deco. Turn down one of its many paved tributaries and you’ll discover any number of places to eat. Stumble far enough and you’ll find yourself in Neve Tzedek. A bohemian district so busy with street art, boutique jewellers and designers and effortlessly casual diners, it’s only when you look up and see the skyscrapers that you realise you’re in a capital city. Look at the price of property, though, and the artsy nature seems a tad less effortless.
Keep strolling, through the original Tel Aviv train station, Hatachana – now home to restaurants and galleries (the last train passed through in 1948) – and before you know it you’re in the old port of Jaffa. It’s postcard-buying, tourist-trap territory but there’s a reason people keep going back to those places and getting caught.
In the case of shakshuka restaurant Dr Shakshuka, it’s because it’s simply very good. Owner Bino Gabso has been on the scene since 1991. His restaurant may seem at odds with the modern dining scene but the queues of people for his spicy tomato and egg meal suggest otherwise. Take a moment to think about the one-dish diners that are littering the food scene and, actually, he’s a pioneer.
‘My father taught me how to make it when I was ten and I’ve been making it ever since,’ he says, as he cooks up a batch with flames licking high around the bubbling broth of tomatoes, spices, lamb, beef, peppers and a dozen or so eggs. ‘I want shakshuka to be in the Israeli vocabulary.’ It’s no mean challenge given the dish’s origins in Libya, where Bino’s family hails from. However, he’s taken it on with gusto, shifting 600 of his famous dishes a day.
The giant pan is placed on a table and Bino rips loaves of bread, handing a chunk to each of us. The sauce is rich, thick and spiced enough to tingle but not torment. Its ingredients are balanced so every mouthful delivers a little bit of all the good stuff.
Bino is a big man, and with 13 of his 40 staff relatives, he’s also a big family man. He’s even taken his dish to serve Israeli troops in the field, hence so many drop by to shake his hand and get another ration. In short, sometimes in Tel Aviv, the all-important ‘hosting’ amounts to little more than home-cooked food and a friendly face.
Tel Aviv might still be on a journey to define its local cuisine but it’s a journey that might never end, given the naturally eclectic, ever-evolving mix of people in this vibrant city. And going by what’s already on offer, would they ever want it to end anyway?
Alex Mead and Sarah Coghill travelled to Tel Aviv courtesy of Israel Government Tourist Office and Monarch Airlines
Where to Stay
Hotel B Berdichévsky The rooms tick every box but the bar is a reason to visit alone. Bellboy, arguably the best spot for cocktails in the city, is decked out like an intimate cabaret club. The shelves are an apothecary of spirits and the drinks excellent. If you order one, make it a boulevardier: rye whiskey, cognac, amaro, antica formula, Campari, absinthe and chocolate ice. Doubles from £163.
14 Berdichévsky Street, 00 972 3744 8888, hotelbtlv.com
Brown Beach House Just off the main beach, this is a surf-style boutique that’s playful with its design (The B-52s could’ve been involved) but delivers where it matters. Spacious rooms, sundeck, spa, a part alfresco bar and cava are always on offer. Doubles from £128. 64 Ha’Yarkon Street, 00 972 3760 5000, brownhotels.com
Market House A modern, tasteful hotel in Jaffa, right in the midst of the tangle of market streets. Set in a 180-year-old building, the remains of a 7th-century Byzantine church were discovered while renovating so a glass floor was laid in order to view it. A happy ‘hour’ from 5-8pm includes free drinks and nibbles for guests. Doubles from £158. 5 Beit Eshel Street, 00 972 3 542 5555, atlas.co.il
Poli House Both futuristic and retro at the same time, it’s Austin Powers in the 22nd century, in a restored Bauhaus property. From the giant fluorescent egg chair in reception right up to the rooftop pool space, it’s basically what everyone in the Eighties thought a hotel would like in the future. Either way, it’s fun, quirky and certainly unique in these parts. Doubles from £189. 1 Nahalat Binyamin Street, 00 972 3710 500, thepolihouse.com
Where to Eat
Prices are per person for three courses, excluding wine, unless otherwise stated.
Abraxas North Never have green beans tasted as good as they do here. Everything is stripped back, no spice or fancy herbage, just olive oil, salt and pepper used lightly with the best Israeli ingredients. It’s perhaps the only place a carnivore will find a cauliflower so irresistible. From £29. 40 Lilienblum Street, 00 972 3516 6660.
Benedict Rothschild Open 24 hours, this mini chain means you can eat a three-course breakfast at any time. The eggs Benedict on brioche with crispy bacon is a winner but so is everything else. From £24. 29 Rothschild Boulevard, 00 972 3686 8657, benedict.co.il Dr Shakshuka Apparently there are a couple of other dishes on the menu but you go here for the shakshuka (which won plaudits from Albert Roux) and sharwarma. The welcoming is the embodiment of owner Bino, who is sure to be there. Fun and tasty. Shakshuka £8.
3 Beit Eshel Street, 00 972 57944 4193, shakshuka.rest.co.il
EatWith The supper club-style initiative sees serious food folk welcome people into their homes. Yonatan and Maya’s cuisine was among the most fine dining we tried. Plus you get to meet local food lovers. Set evening cost, including drinks, £47. eatwith.com
Helena Elegant food in a spectacular coastal setting. Chef Arnos Sion has crafted a menu that brings out the best in the seafood on his doorstep. Meagre (drumfish) cured in beetroot and arrak served with smoked aubergine cream and mussels with apple and bacon are highlights. From £43. Caesarea, 00 972 4610 1018, hellena.co.il Manta Ray Set on Tel Aviv’s main beach drag, this is a veteran of the food scene. For breakfast you can get eggs every which way or a Middle Eastern-meets-Mediterranean mezze feast. From £40. Alma Beach, 00 972 3517 4773, mantaray.co.il
Santa Katarina Relaxed but with a seriously good chef behind the stoves, or rather taboon, in which most of the dishes are cooked. Small plates include mixed grills of sweetbreads, liver and steak, plus calamari salad and the best pizza in town. From £33.
2 Har Sinai Street, 00 972 5878 20292
Social Club The kind of spot you’ll want to pop back to. Food is non-fussy: think fish kebabs, burgers and grilled octopus rather than fiddly high-end dining. Quality cocktails to match. From £40.
45 Rothschild Boulevard, 00 972 3 560 1114, socialclub.co.il Yaffo Tel Aviv Chef Haim Cohen has been on the Tel Aviv scene for more than three decades but has moved with the times and here you see a menu full of confidence, both in the produce of the area and the chef’s ability to create beautiful simplicity. From £54.
98 Yigal Alon Street, 00 972 03 6249249, yaffotelaviv.com
Don't missPlaces to visit : Alexander Brewery A former Israeli Air Force pilot started the brewery in 2008. His signature IPA makes a journey to the cellar door, north of Tel Aviv, worth the trip. 19 Tzvi Hanahal Street, Emek Hefer, 00 74 703 4094, alexander-beer.co.il Milk & Honey Don’t be put off by the fact their first three-year-aged single malt is still two years off. Israel’s only whiskey distiller offers tours and the chance to try ‘new make’ – essentially moonshine straight from the stills. 16 HaThiya Street, 00 972 3 632 0491, mh-distillery.com North Market More than 5,000 people have their lunch here and for good reason. Wonderful ramen, the finest sushi pittas, gourmet salads, a whole world of halvas and chicken schnitzel good enough to rival anywhere. 20 Raoul Wallenberg, shuktzafon.co.il
- Arak: Aniseed-flavoured clear spirit that turns milky when water is added
- Doa: A mixture of ground herbs and spices such as coriander seeds,
- Halva: Can be both flour and nut-based but often using tahini which is mixed with sugar syrup and then cooked
- Kenafe: Dessert with goat’s cheese filling and a vermicelli-like pastry
- Kreplach: Ravioli-like dumplings that are often filled with meat and
- Shakshuka: Meaning ‘mixture’ in various dialects, this dish features
- Shawarma: Can be any meat, although commonly lamb and chicken,
- Sumac: A tart, lemony spice
- Tahini : A runny paste made from ground sesame seeds
- Za’atar: Hyssop but also used to describe a blend of herbs and spices
This article was published on 13th March 2017 so certain details may not be up to date.