Dining out / Top-notch tapas
The food at Jonathan Roshfeld's new tapas bar, Tapas Ahad Ha'am, is good, often especially good, but this is not the main focus here. Instead, it's a delightful blend of various components - food, design, music, the rapid appearance of the different tapas offerings, and the energy of a nonstop fiesta. Roshfeld and his partners have succeeded in creating a Tel Avivian Tapas bar unlike any other, a large bustling space featuring a long bar at which one can munch on as many tapas as one likes while sipping a glass of Spanish wine or homemade Sangria. And if sitting at the bar, it is perfectly acceptable, even encouraged, to toss used paper napkins and leftover scraps onto the floor, as they do in Spain. A large knight's table stands opposite the bar, and there are also small, comfortable wooden tables lining the walls and facing the large plate-glass windows at which one can take a seat.
Everything catches the eye nicely - the old-fashioned painted tile floors, huge glass jars filled with pickles, large baskets of olives and plates with sausages and Spanish jamon - reminiscent of Roshfeld's Herbert Samuel restaurant, but done far more in the country style. The service is upfront, a bit aggressive and quick, and when the bell rings as new tapas come out of the kitchen, dishes are greeted with applause. In short, what we have here is a show, in which the chef and his food are just one ingredient and not necessarily the main one.
The waitresses in white t-shirts, jeans and orange aprons, who place the dishes before you and take them away as soon as you're done, are accompanied by loud Spanish music that rises toward the high ceiling, mixing with the noise of the clients and the bustle of the many cooks busy in the large open kitchen. After a glass or two of wine, you almost expect the staff to burst into song. As for the food, it is what one should expect from a traditional tapas Bar. Roshfeld does not go out of his way to impress, but duly supplies the merchandise - a large variety of tapas, all well-made and tempting.
The first item to make its way to our table was a platter of jamon iberico. Sometimes called pata negra, this cured ham must be made from Black Iberian pigs and, although some may compare it to Italy's proscuitto, it is somewhat fattier, saltier and more solid than that. The slices we received were as rich with flavor as one could want and - as is my habit when in Spain - they were devoured by spreading a bit of butter on the good bread served and then placing the ham on top, before popping it all into the mouth.
Quickly following that were more plates - one of lightly toasted bruschetta topped with grated tomatoes seasoned nicely with spices and fresh herbs, another of garlic rich and thoroughly spicy Spanish salami, and yet another of sweet and hot pickled peppers, whose melting taste stays with you for a long time.
Country-style Spanish wines, unidentified by name as is also the case in many Barcelona tapas bars, are offered here by the glass, carafe or bottle. We'd brought a bottle of Champagne from home and when I asked for Champagne glasses I was told that only one kind of glass was used in the restaurant - tall water glasses. Fair enough, I thought, as I threw myself into the spirit of the evening; despite the glasses, the Champagne was indeed a delicious match to the dishes we were served.
Next to make its way to our table were several seafood tapas. We started with two fresh oysters, served raw and on their shells in a spicy Bloody Mary sauce. From there we went on to enjoy a slice of tuna, with a silky-soft texture, and were delighted to also see on the table a skewer of small but plump and delicious scallops, grilled with onion and green pepper, as well as a plate of vongole, those tiny clams always so soft and rich, served in an appealing lemon and wine sauce. The best of the seafood dishes was yet to come, however, a seafood paella in which the rice was blackened by the addition of squid ink. The rice was just moist enough and had been spiced generously with saffron and hints of garlic - all in all absolutely bursting with flavor. Served with shrimp, calamari, mussels and a generous dab of aglio-olio sauce, the dish was delicious.
By now most human beings with normal appetites would have sat back, sighed with pleasure and had their dessert or asked for the bill but, because the restaurant is new and this was my first visit, we bravely continued but not, it should be noted, until after a cigarette break outdoors.
On return, our table had been laded with a variety of small dishes. The first of these consisted of artichoke hearts, steamed perfectly and coated with not Spanish but Turkish Tulum goat's milk cheese, a white, creamy, fat-rich cheese with just a hint of bitterness that went well with the artichoke hearts.
Another offering was a cold salad in which crisp, fresh shrimp had been tossed with chickpeas, spices and olive oil and was served in a sardine tin. Yet another was the patatas bravas, a tapas bar favorite, a dish made from fried potato cubes nicely browned on the exterior, perfectly soft inside, topped with a mildly spicy mayonnaise sauce, and which we ate with our fingers as is the custom in Spain. We also enjoyed a small plate of grilled bits of octopus that had been tossed with olives, fried potatoes and dried tomatoes. All of the tapas were good and fresh, without pretensions but with the expertise of Roshfeld - who knows very well that in a true tapas bar he must put on the costume of a cook and leave his chef's toque behind.
I next opted for several meat dishes. My first was a slice of goose liver, as perfect as a slice of goose liver can be, served quite appropriately on a thick slice of apple that had been poached in a white-wine sangria. To make the dish even better, it was served with small glasses of Port wine. Two more carnivore's dreams were yet to follow - the first of lamb chops, prepared a la plancha, and the second of huevos con carne, a dish that can be closely described as beef bourguignon with eggs. By any name this dish was a delight, the egg yolks in the casserole dish breaking and melding beautifully with the soft beef, crisp bacon and red-wine sauce.
Another cigarette break and it was time for dessert and coffee. We opted for two ice cream dishes, a rich vanilla ice cream topped in one case with a chocolate sauce and in the other with a sauce of red berries. The ice cream was scrumptious as were the sauces and no one objected when we asked for a bit more of the chocolate sauce. Here one must complement Roshfeld again, since he does not waste time on pretentious deserts, instead ending the festive meal with something soft and sweet (there is also chocolate cake), a perfect closure for a tapas meal, which is after all not gourmet food. Our espresso coffees were also strong and rich.
Based on the outrageous number of dishes we sampled, the bill for two comes to about NIS 600. Spending that much will not be difficult, but a more normal meal for two, including five to six dishes to be shared and a carafe of wine will come to anywhere from NIS 200-250, not inexpensive but not at all exaggerated for such an experience. One only hopes Tel Avivians will embrace the place not as a trend or fad, but as a sustainable base this Mediterranean city so deserves. As for me, I intend to return often.
Tapas Ahad Ha'am: 27 Ahad Ha'am Street, Tel Aviv. Tel (03) 566-6966.
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