The purveyors of political correctness aren't going to like hearing it, but before the establishment of the State of Israel, when the nation's leaders were by and large of Ashkenazi descent, Jewish food meant one thing: Eastern European food. The phrase "Jewish kitchen" referred to the kitchens of poor, scrappy villagers who mined their meager resources to prepare food for Shabbat and festivals.
The Jewish kitchen came out of poverty, and was based on foods that non-Jews spurned: organs like intestines, liver and spleen, as well as the legumes and root vegetables sold on the cheap in local towns and villages. Since most Eastern European countries have long, bitter winters and harsh climates, the emphasis was less on flavor and more on the stick-to-your-ribs foods that warmed you up. Exhibit A: cholent.
But despite being the food of necessity, Ashkenazi cuisine is also the food of Jewish love. Its flavors are beloved, its textures are evocative. And while in Israel of late there are more gourmet bistros and chef restaurants than classic Jewish eateries, you can still find a few old-time gems, particularly in south Tel Aviv and its environs.
The old-timer: fish croquettes at Shmulik Cohen’s Restaurant
Shmulik Cohen’s Restaurant has the proud distinction of being the oldest restaurant in Tel Aviv, founded in 1936 by Rivka Cohen as a workers’ eatery. Its primary offerings were pickled herring and hard-boiled eggs. Rivka's son Shmulik worked in the kitchen together with his wife, Carmela, who later passed the reins to their daughter Tzipi. She, in turn, prepared the restaurant to be run by her son, Tomer.
Tastes like Bubbe used to make
This small café, where the fourth generation now mans the kitchen, has been a bastion of gefilte fish and cholent for Jewish-food lovers. It has been serving the same menu for 76 years, with not an ounce of difference in the recipes. If you’re looking for the latest food fashion, look elsewhere, but if you're looking for hearty, time-tested fare, take a seat.
The dish: Fish croquettes. Let us be precise: Gefilte fish is actually stuffed fish, but we have come to think of fish croquettes as gefilte fish. Nu, shoin. Here, we are talking about a round ball of carp, ground up together with the bones. It is just like a meatball – the texture is neither too smooth nor too coarse, but somewhere in the middle. Eggs, onions and bread crumbs are added to the ground fish, together with a healthy helping of sugar, making the fish ball sweet.
Price: NIS 24.
As long as you are here, make sure not to miss the egg salad. It is still among the best in Tel Aviv.
Shmulik Cohen’s Restaurant, 146 Herzl Street, Tel Aviv
The young generation: Knishes at Café Dalia
At the height of last winter, Ariel Remigolski decided that if frigid Germany could have outdoor beer gardens, then there was no reason why warmer Israel should not. So he opened one of the classic outdoor drinking parlors in a courtyard of the Nahalat Binyamin pedestrian mall. In his search for best foods to pair with his suds, he gravitated toward Eastern European grub. This means lots of pickled herring, pastries and unconventional meat entrées.
The dish: Knishes. The locals might call them pancakes, but they actually look more like a cross between a meatball and stuffed gnocchi. In any case, the knishes are made of potato dough with a bit of wheat flour and stuffed with chicken liver and fried onion. Sour cream is served on the side, and it all washes down nicely with a cold brew. Sit in Nahalat Binyamin, but dream of Europe.
The price: NIS 24.
As long as you are here, try the pretzel.
Café Dalia, 23 Nahalat Binyamin Street, Tel Aviv
The real thing: Calf’s-foot jelly at Mati Hamekalel
Mati Hamekalel is a vanishing world, hidden near the Levinsky Market and guarded by Mati (Matityahu) Landstein. This tiny eatery, with only three tables, was founded in 1935. In 1971 Mati came on board and gave the place his name, along with pickled herring and different varieties of beer. The neighborhood residents followed, and today you can find them sitting over pickled herring and beer starting in the early morning hours. This little gem is affordable, tasty and the perfect spot to find yourself having an oddball conversation with people you'd never rub elbows with elsewhere.
The dish: Calf’s-foot jelly. Thanks either to its texture or its squirm-inducing name, this dish has a troubled image, and it's a shame. Sure, the dish consists of the knee and leg of a cow cooked together with the bone, cartilage and marrow, but it's just delicious, with a strong aroma and taste of garlic and a little bit of bay leaf. A bit of sharp red horseradish, lemon and white bread with it will make your day.
The price: NIS 20.
If you are here and craving something more mainstream, try the sausage plate with a bit of mustard and some pickles. An honest-to-goodness treat.
Mati Hamekalel, 41 Matalon Street, Tel Aviv
For the family: Miltz at Sender
Jewish restaurants were at their heyday during the early years of the state. Sender, on Jerusalem Boulevard in Jaffa, was founded at the same time as the State of Israel, with a modest Jewish kitchen paying tribute to the foods of rural Poland during World War II. David Schreiber and his partner, aptly named Sender, were in charge of the kitchen. In 1960, the restaurant moved to its current location on the outskirts of the Levinsky market, and David Schreiber’s son, Zami, continues to serve diners from the same menu that he grew up on. At the crowded tables here, you can hear customers arguing over whose chopped liver is more delicious – Sender’s or Bubbe’s.
The dish: Miltz (stuffed spleen). This dish is painstakingly prepared. A tip of the hat to Zami and his wife, Yael, who make it by the Polish book. The spleen is served as a thick ring filled with a mixture of flour, raw onion and fried onion, with chopped suet as the headliner. It is sautéed in a skillet until crispy and served with gravy so scrumptious that you will want to soak it up with the bread nearby. No matter what ethnic group you are from, this dish tastes like home.
The price: NIS 27.
As long as you are here, try their famous liver. You’ve never had anything like it.
Sender, 54 Levinsky Street, Tel Aviv
A dish of creativity: Kreplach in gravy with tzimmes at Keton
Keton's humble beginnings can be traced to a 1940s watermelon stand, run by Tzvi Rosenberg. Tzvi’s wife, Sara, would bring him lunch every day at noon, and when Tzvi started sharing his wife's chopped liver with his customers, soon he found lines forming not for his fruit but for the goods from Sara's kitchen. The Rosenbergs eventually had enough hungry customers to lease a small shop on Dizengoff Street. The shop was so small that the poet Alexander Pen gave it the name Keton – a literary name for a tiny bedroom.
The dish: Kreplach in gravy with tzimmes and mashed potatoes. Several ethic groups have stuffed dumplings in their cuisine, but kreplach are the ultimate, especially when they are fried, with soft centers and crispy onion on the side. Keton’s kreplach are filled with chopped meat and served with two side dishes. We chose the tzimmes – cubed carrots cooked with sugar and raisins, as well as a heap of excellent mashed potatoes.
The price: NIS 48.
As long as you are here, taste the noodle kugel, bursting with apples and raisins and cinnamon. A sweet delight.
Keton, 145 Dizengoff Street, Tel Aviv
More not-to-be-missed Jewish food
Café Ascot – A café at the northern end of Rothschild Boulevard, a stone's throw from Habima Theater, that puts a modern twist on Israeli and Jewish food. So it is no surprise to find a creative version of chopped liver (NIS 22) that breaks out of the classic definition. The liver is served hot from the plancha and is coarsely chopped, which is already a refreshing change. Add sweet dough, a little cinnamon and raisins, Yemenite lahuh instead of bread and see how surprised you will be.
Café Ascot – 142 Rothschild Boulevard, Tel Aviv
Vienna – Despite its name, this restaurant was founded by immigrants from Poland and the present-day Czech Republic. And although it's been a Tel Aviv fixture for more than 60 years, it's only been in it its current location for a sweet 16. Still, walking through the door is like going through a time tunnel. The schnitzel here is delicious and the prices are reasonable, but if you are already here, go with the lunchtime meal deal, also called business lunch. For less than NIS 60, you will get clear broth soup, gefilte fish and even calf’s-foot jelly as appetizers coupled with an entrée. For the main course, try the classic Jewish dish of tongue in gravy.
Vienna – 62 Ben Yehuda Street, Tel Aviv
Shtetl – An dinner date at Shtetl provides a fascinating glimpse into a vanishing generation. The restaurant has undergone several incarnations over the past few years in order to survive. Several popular café entrées have found their way onto the menu, but the restaurant’s heart remains Eastern European with dishes such as excellent gefilte fish, hot cabanos and maatjes (soused herring). Our choice is the ultimate Jewish penicillin: chicken soup with knaidlach and lokshen (a.k.a. matzoh balls and noodles). The soup (NIS 27) is velvety, refined and full of gentle flavors, and the knaidlach have just the right degree of softness. This is precisely the kind of food that should never become extinct.
Shtetl – 43 Ha'aliya Street, Tel Aviv
MeatBar – What does MeatBar, the swanky steak joint in central Tel Aviv, have to do with Jewish food? Not a thing, except for a single dish: the egg salad (NIS 26). Supposedly, one could find finely chopped hard-boiled eggs mixed with mayonnaise and onion anywhere. But the kitchen at MeatBar prepares egg salad with schmaltz, fried onion and a lot of tradition. It is delicious, unpre-tentious and good preparation for the heavier steaks to come.
MeatBar, 52 Chen Boulevard, Tel Aviv
In memoriam: Café Batya
It was only after we finished the gefilte fish at Café Batya as part of a taste test that we got the news from the kitchen that the restaurant was about to close. Café Batya, which was founded in 1941 by Batya Yom Tov with recipes from her mother’s kitchen, served mainly bus drivers from the Dan Cooperative’s garage nearby. For many years, the restaurant drew its clientele from the who’s who of Eastern Europe, who came to eat schnitzel, egg salad and kishke. Batya eventually retired, and her daughter Miri replaced her as the manager. As Tel Aviv modernizes all around, the building where Café Batya stands will be demolished, and a boutique hotel will crop up in its place. It will be sorely missed.
The best Jewish food outside Tel Aviv
Mifgash Rakefet – Another vanishing institution, this one in the heart of Ramat Gan. It was founded in 1962 by Yitzhak Chitayat, who immigrated from Iraq, and his wife Rivka, a Polish Jew. Since then, Mifgash Rakefet has been the place to eat cholent and kishke (NIS 42), calf’s-foot jelly (NIS 18), chopped liver and clear chicken soup with knaidlach (NIS 18) in the Ramat Gan area. Simple, affordable and tasty.
Mifgash Rakefet – 99 Jabotinsky Street, Ramat Gan
Maayan Habira – This tavern in Haifa (called “the beer fountain” in English), which was founded in 1962 by Nahum Meir and is run today by his grandson, is about two things: beer and song. In other words, it's a place to have a good time. And good times go well with the kreplach, which are filled with onion and fried. If you are craving some non-Jewish food, try the kostitza. Not exactly Jewish, but definitely Eastern European.
Maayan Habira, 4 Natansohn Street, Haifa
Shtibaleh – This little restaurant in Rishon Lezion will remind you of your grandmother’s living room. You will feel as if she is just about to pop out of the kitchen with a plate of giblets. Shtibaleh’s glory is its helzeleh (NIS 30). It resembles kishke and miltz, but is actually a stuffed chicken neck filled with flour and schmaltz. This one will have you licking your fingers.
Shtibaleh, 7 Mohaliver Street, Rishon Lezion
Hama’adania shel Goldstein – While this is the youngest spot on the list, this restaurant prepares traditional food just like the old days. Chef Elran Goldstein (who started out at the Keren restaurant) fulfilled his dream of opening his own restaurant, and the result is a combination res-taurant and delicatessen. On his menu are “Mama’s first courses” – all Jewish foods, from begin-ning to end. Don’t miss the gefilte fish with horseradish prepared by Goldstein (NIS 19), the calf’s-foot jelly or the ciorba – Romanian sour cabbage soup (NIS 24) – to keep you healthy.
Hama’adania shel Goldstein, 201 Levi Eshkol Street, Savyon
Heimishe Essen – The name alone tells you that this restaurant features Ashkenazi food rich with Yiddish flavors. For anyone who misses boiled chicken or just want some excellent, creamier-than-usual chopped liver, this is the place. For our taste, its flagship entrée is the hamin, which is best savored on a Friday at noon with kishke and an egg as a dreamy prelude to Shabbat.
Heimishe Essen, 19 Keren Kayemet Street, Jerusalem
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