Dining Out / Forget Paris
Paris' Restaurant Le Procope opened its doors in 1686 and in the ensuing years was closed only once - the day on which Adolf Hitler wanted to dine there. The city's Restaurant Laperouse is also a relative newcomer, having served its first meal as recently as 1766. An even newer dining spot on the Paris scene is Brasserie Lipp, having opened as recently as 1880. Interestingly, some of the dishes served when those restaurants first opened remain on the menus today.
That Tel Aviv restaurants do not have the longevity of those in Paris is easily demonstrated by looking at the premises at 31 Montefiore Street - which over the past 14 years has been home first to Tarragon, then Shao Lin, later Barrio de Cuba, after that Kyoto Salsa and now Amici. The food has gone from a more-or-less French style, to dim sum, to the then "in" Nuevo Latino cuisine, then to fun hodgepodge in which Japanese, French and Caribbean cuisine came together.
After having dined at the recently opened Amici, I have hopes that this new venture may prove to outlast its predecessors.
The culinary modus operandi at Amici is Italian and the chef in charge is the talented Eran Shroitman, who began his culinary career working under Eyal Shani during the glory days of Oceanus.
Shroitman later studied at Paris' Cordon Bleu and then worked in Paris' Arpege before returning to Israel to delight us first at Tamuz, then at his funky but delightful Primus in Ramat Gan, and then at Orca - which he elevated to the ranks of the country's very best restaurants. He now seems to be on his way to demonstrating his very personal touch with Italian cuisine.
The physical setting of Amici itself is enchanting. One of the first things to catch the eye is the temperature and humidity controlled wine cellar, housed on well-arranged shelves behind a large glass window and visible from wherever one sits. Working with Yossi Busnach, one of the most knowledgeable wine consultants in the country, the concept is a menu of wines that represent each of the 35 wine regions of Italy.
The large space is comfortably divided into separate sections that give a comfortable feeling of intimacy while the wooden tables, with decorated tiles set into them and intentionally unadorned by tablecloths, give a sense of elegant informality. Even the sunken bar, below floor level, is eye-catching and on the wall opposite the entrance is a reconstruction in painted tiles of a painting - which, if I'm not mistaken, was by Caravaggio - in order to reinforce the concept that this is indeed an Italian restaurant.
Immediately preceding our first courses, a large, freshly baked focaccia was served, coated with olive oil and a sprinkling of rosemary. Thin and flat but puffy with air and full of flavor, the focaccia distinctly resembled super-thin Bedouin style pita bread. Flaky and full of flavor, it took willpower to say "No thank you" to the waitress when she offered us a second serving of the piping hot bread. We did, however, ask to sample several slices of another bread, enriched with tomatoes and oregano - a request we did not at all regret; spread generously with butter and sprinkled with a bit of coarse salt, the bread was delicious.
The more formal part of our meal began with three first courses, the first the hearts and soft, edible portion of the stems of fresh artichokes, lightly breaded and fried. Known as Carciofi alla Giudia (artichokes in the Jewish style), the dish has been popular in Rome since the first century, when the city was home to some 7,000 Jewish families. Shroitman's version, served with a generous dab of thick, garlic-rich aioli and a cherry tomato syrup, was a succulent delight.
The second first course was tortellini, ring-shaped pasta filled in this case with veal cheek meat, cooked until perfectly tender. The tortellinis melted in the mouth, made even more tempting by being served with a concentrated demi-glace sauce, rich with Madeira wine. The sauce was so good I even forgave the chef for using a traditional French sauce on this otherwise Italian offering.
The third first course we sampled was a barramundi fish carpaccio. Although this Australian saltwater fish has gained international popularity in recent years, I find it lacking in charm when grilled or baked. It was thus to my happy surprise to realize that if the barramundi has a future, it is in the form of carpaccio. The thin slices were sprinkled with lemon, tiny bits of hot red peppers, bits of pureed pistachio nuts, and a hint of coarse salt; the dish was full of a fresh salt-water flavor and a texture that sat comfortably on the palate.
In keeping with the general tone of the menu, we continued with two pasta dishes. I chose the pappardelle, broad noodles tossed together with oxtail meat, the meat slowly cooked and shredded before being tossed with a concentrated beef stock and an airy Parmesan cream. The pasta was cooked al dente, as it should be, and the meat was just salty enough and bursting with flavor.
My companion's choice as a main course was the fettuccini and seafood, in which the pasta was tossed with fresh, crisp shrimp and calamari tubes and heads, all in a bouillabaisse-like sauce, so concentrated and rich that one might have thought it was beef-based. The two dishes were exquisite, their rich flavors lingering nicely on the palate long after they were gone.
We went on to two desserts, both somewhat different than the original versions, boasting the special touches of pastry chef Shai Doblero. As in the traditional cassata siciliana, this one was based on rounds of sponge cake moistened with fruit juice and liqueur, layered with ricotta cheese and bits of candied orange peel. The dish varied from the traditional as it was somewhat more firm than usual and instead of being topped with the candied fruits of Sicily, it was topped with sugared pistachios, a pistachio-flavored meringue and finely diced fresh strawberries.
The tiramisu also varied from the norm by being somewhere between solid and liquid, so airy it literally melted in the mouth. Those playful variations did not disappoint, as both desserts were delicious and went very well indeed with coffee and small glasses of fine grappa.
I might agree with those who argue that the only true Western haute cuisine is French. That does not mean, however, that Italian cookery has to play second fiddle to French, especially in the hands of a chef like Shroitman. His touch combines the heavy and the light, the sweet and the bitter, and other contrasting flavors in a manner that demonstrates a hand that is both steady and innovative.
Portions are generous and prices are not at all exaggerated. Our food bill for two came to NIS 400, to which a bottle of the Barbera d'Asti Superiore of Michele Chiarlo added NIS 144. Truth be told, if I had any complaint whatsoever, it's that I'd prefer to see the paper napkins replaced with linen. Even if that doesn't happen, I intend to return often.
Amici: 31 Montefiore Street, Tel Aviv. Open 7 P.M.-1 A.M. Tel: (03) 566-6188.