When Jewish Cuisine Gets Arab Inspiration: A Guide to the Best Chef Restaurants in Israel

When visiting contemporary Israeli restaurants, you’ll also be amazed by how many variations can be prepared with the same local ingredients.

Vered Guttman
Vered Guttman
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Vered Guttman
Vered Guttman

For anyone who's packing their suitcase and headed for Israel, here’s a brief account of modern Israeli food and dishes you don’t want to miss on your visit to the Holy Land.

If you’re a foodie visiting Israel, as is the case with any other country, you will want to try three types of cuisines: the street food (which I explained a little about last week); traditional or homemade food (which I will get around to soon) and modern cuisine.

What’s makes modern cuisine interesting is that it crosses geographical boundaries, but that also means that in different countries you’re likely to find similar trends. Take, for example, molecular food. It was all over the place a couple of years ago. You could find molecular food all over America, Europe and in Israel too. All chefs pointed to the same source: the legendary late El Bulli restaurant in Spain.

But at it its best, the modern Israeli kitchen is actually very local. It draws inspiration from dishes that were brought from the Jewish Diaspora and from the local Arab cuisine while adding a personal touch by mixing all these influences together. Inventive Israeli chefs use local vegetables, fruit, fish, lamb and dairy products to create their own interpretation of local food. Some of these creations are simply fabulous and if you have the time (and money), try to book a table at one of the following restaurants to taste for yourself.

You will notice many similarities between the chef restaurants in Israel, mostly because they all go back to local favorites; eggplant, tehina, date molasses, tomatoes, fresh and raw fish. You’ll also be amazed by how many variations can be prepared with the same modest ingredients. On the other hand, why so many restaurants serve gnocchi with chestnuts and truffles in the Israeli summer is beyond me, but I have to admit it’s pretty good.

A couple of years ago I managed to convince my dear friend Bonnie Benwick, an editor at the Washington Post’s food section, to visit and write about some of the best chef restaurants in the country. You can read about her impression of the food scene here.

As you've probably guessed (or may be surprised, depending on when the last time was that you visited), most of the restaurants on this list are in Tel Aviv, and they are not kosher. Not even a tiny bit.

Here are just a few of my favorites:

Mizlala, 57 Nahalat Binyamin St. Tel Aviv, 011-972-3-566-5505
At celebrity chef Meir Adoni’s bistro, he serves dishes like Palestinian tartar, chopped rump steak, crude tehina, pine nuts, yogurt, broad beans and cumin and goose shin confit, full-grain wheat “cholent” in date honey, alongside more traditional fare, such as Yemenite kubaneh or challah with ikra dip (a Romanian version of taramasalata, fish roe dip).

Toto, 4 Berkowitz St. Tel Aviv, 011-972-3-693-5151
Meals with a strong Italian influence, but many touches of Middle Eastern cuisines, all interpreted by chef Yaron Shalev. Try fabulous dishes like Turkish ravioli with sour cream, water cress, za’atar (hyssop) and hot pepper. Or Greek pizza with sardines, roasted eggplant, feta and egg.

Shila, 182 Ben Yehuda St. Tel Aviv, 011-972-3-522-1224
A Spanish style bar and restaurant that serves fun tapas as well as larger plates. Chef Yaron Cohen comes up with dishes like kingfish and eggplant tartar in almond tehina, which is an excellent example of the Israeli fusion and the use of local ingredients. Other dishes like citrus-scented tiger shrimp with fava beans, sweet peas, chili and sheep's milk labane and seared tuna salad in a miso marinade, with carrots, cucumbers, celery and hijiki seaweed show both Arab and Asian influence.

Mel & Michelle, 155 Ben Yehuda St. Tel Aviv, 011-972-3-529-3232
An Italian trattoria situated very much in the Middle East. Chefs Yogev Yehros and Nir Wayman’s now famed baby calamari are served over tabbouleh, with a tehina sauce. Not quite a classic Italian dish, but so local and delicious.

Raphael, 87 Hayarkon Street, Tel Aviv (King David Tower), 011-972-3-522-6464
For more than 10 years this restaurant has been one of the best in the country. Celebrity chef Raffi Cohen’s kitchen is strongly influenced by the Moroccan cuisine that was introduced to him by his grandmother. Try the Moroccan cigars, filled with veal offal and served with tehina, or the lamb shoulder couscous with whole chickpeas, market vegetables and spices from the Maghreb.

Machneyuda, 10 Beit Yaakov St., Jerusalem, 011-972-2--533-3442
A chef restaurant situated one minute away from Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market. The fun atmosphere of the market shows in every aspect of the place, from the language of the menu to the singing kitchen staff. The closeness to the market is also apparent in every dish: fish tartar in yogurt and dates, black risotto with cauliflower, artichokes, squid and parmesan, basbousa cake with tehina ice cream and fruit.

Chadar Ochel (The Dining Hall), 23 Shaul Hamelech Blvd, Tel Aviv 011-972-57-944-3036
Named after the kibbutz’s dining hall, chef Omer Miller plays with Israeli classics in dishes like the Dining Hall vegetable salad, white cheese, grissini and hardboiled egg. These are all the ingredients that make the classic Israeli dinner, especially that which is traditionally served on a kibbutz. The chef serves Israeli staples such as cheese burekas and veal kibbeh near calamari in tomato cream and tehina.

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