One man's street food is another's Asian temple
Zepra does not offer great cuisine. It's a place where food and ambience come together admirably in a somewhat unusual and pleasant dining-out experience.
The spectacular appearance of Avi Conforti's newly opened Asian restaurant Zepra is itself a core of attraction - a high-tech black temple that carries your eye from the artificial black marble of the bar and tables to the gentle weaving of wood covering the ceiling and the walls, as if to remind us, here East meets West.
Indeed, Zepra, offers a fine example of concept dining, as much an experience in ambience as in fine dining. Zepra may not be Israel's first Asian restaurant featuring what experienced diners know as Thai, Cambodian, Korean and Indonesian street food in a super-designed shell (following hard on the heels of Zozobra, also inspired by Conforti), Sushi Samba and Mina Tomei) but may well be the most physically attractive of these places to date.
Before settling down at our table we stopped at the bar for a cigarette, and there sampled the beer we wanted for our meal, the King Cobra Indian beer, subtle and double fermented, in a 750 ml. bottle, whose shape one usually associates more with wine than beer.
The large selection of exotic cocktails, many based on fruit juices and many unique to this establishment, is one of the main attractions in a restaurant that seeks to tempt and surprise its customers. However, when we looked beyond the bar, through the huge glass windows, we could see a small island of grass and beyond it office buildings and a highway; From this perspective the restaurant looked as if it was floating in a vacuum, or rather on another planet, much like the winged zebra Conforti chose to represent Zepra.
We were seated at a table for four, which was separated only barely from a very long table meant to be shared by many, as is often done in other restaurants of this sort. The notion of breaking bread with strangers is another aspect of the concept that enhances social interaction with dining.
Mix and match is also conveyed in the menu, which disregards the classical division of first and main courses in favor of departments, some defined by origin, as the sushi and sashimis, and some by food categories as in surf, turf, rice and tempura. The idea is that the customer will order what comes to mind and the dishes will come out of the kitchen when they are ready.
The kitchen, also state-of-the-art, is open to view and reflects the most modern facilities available.
The first thing to make its way to our table was a small plate of flavor-filled pickled vegetables, the daikon (white radish), Chinese cabbage and carrots having been gently pickled in cane sugar vinegar and then sprinkled with sesame seeds.
We sampled several of the more experimental of Conforti's sashimi offerings. The first of what the chef calls "Conforti's sashimi chops" contained tuna, yellow tail and salmon, chopped coarsely and tossed together to form a soft cake and topped with wassabi, soy sauce, chili peppers and the pale red eggs of flying fish. This delicious dish is supposed to be eaten with a soup spoon but we ate it with chopsticks to prolong our pleasure.
We continued with two other versions of sashimi, one of Seoul-style yellow tail and one of "New Style" salmon, these cut nearly as thin as one would slice carpaccio, and topped with sesame, chili, daikon and coriander sprouts. Each of the dishes was excellent and quite different from the regular offerings in Japanese restaurants - demonstrating Conforti's special gift.
We also sampled several salads. The calamari with grilled onions and a chili vinaigrette was a special treat, the sweetness of the onions serving as a fine contrast to the light heat of the spicy calamari. With these dishes, we managed to sample the good sticky rice that had been served, firm enough to be thought of as a cake.
My companion then opted for a tempura dish in which large shrimps had been cut into bite-sized pieces, tossed together with a creamy sauce of mayonnaise treated to togorashi, a piquant mixture of seven different spices. That dish proved pleasant but not truly exciting, my Mongolian lamb was out-and-out excellent: thin strips of the meat coated with honey and tossed with five kinds of onions and chili peppers, all served on crisp white rice. We sampled three desserts. A citrus mix (citrus fruits, citrus sorbet and citrus cream sauce) was overly acidic; the second, a semifreddo based on milk was more intriguing than tempting, and the third, a hot chocolate souffle made with fine Sumatra chocolate was good but did not rise above the ordinary.
Zepra does not offer great cuisine. It's a place where food and ambience come together admirably in a somewhat unusual and pleasant dining-out experience. Based on the dishes we sampled, that could easily feed three, the bill will come to NIS 525 and the King Cobra beer will add NIS 110 each.
I intend to return to sample more dishes from the vast menu, and to explore what seems to be as much a phenomenon as it is a restaurant.
Zepra: 96 Yigal Alon, Tel Aviv. Open daily 19:00 - 02:00. Tel: 03 6240044.