Big Russian Fish in Select Israeli Restaurants

Noon on a warm day in March. A large crane is positioned outside Beit Gibor on Herbert Samuel Street in Tel Aviv. A huge metal box, wrapped in cloth and cardboard, is placed on the crane's lifting platform. To get the object inside the building, the panes of the second-floor windows have to be removed and the columns between the first and second floors have to be reinforced.

The mysterious load that finally made its way into the Herbert Samuel restaurant (two months before the restaurant opening), was a French Molteni cooking station. This is the most extravagant piece of equipment that has ever landed in a restaurant in Israel: An entire kitchen in one piece, including burners, a refrigeration station, an area for grilling and steel water and gas pipes. A setup like this, which costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, was ordered for the set of chef Gordon Ramsay's television show, "Hell's Kitchen." And what is good for Ramsay is also good for Jonathan Roshfeld.

Not far from Herbert Samuel, down Montefiore Street, a restaurant will open in a few months that will likely be called RDB - the initials of chef Ronen Dovrat Bloch. The Mika restaurant's old furniture is still there, but Dovrat Bloch is planning to transform the restaurant entirely according to a design by architect Michael Azulai (who designed Orca): There will be a side entrance and sofas in the heart of the venue, which will look out on to the street.

What the two restaurants have in common is the source of their funding - Russian investors: Ilan Malkin in Roshfeld's case and Alexei Zacharenko in Dovrat Bloch's case. Thanks to the connection with Zacharenko, Dovrat Bloch, who desperately wanted to open a restaurant at this site, was able to offer a much larger sum than the owners were asking to close the deal immediately.

Zacharenko is a businessman and owner of the Aquarelle Restaurant in St. Petersburg, one of the first restaurants of international calibre to open in the city after the fall of Communism. He and Dovrat Bloch met at the Jolson Restaurant in Eilat, where Dovrat Bloch was the chef and Zacharenko came as a client. Zacharenko was looking for a way to do business in Israel, as well, and together with Dovrat Bloch he set up a consulting company several months ago to establish restaurants. Dovrat Bloch, equipped with an interpreter, has become a frequent flyer on the Israeli-Russia line.

The Herbert Samuel restaurant was established as a joint venture by Ilan Malkin and Yair Bakier. Malkin is the son of Vitaly Malkin, who on the MSNBC site is defined as one of the 12 individuals who hold most of the wealth in Russia, alongside Vladimir Gusinsky, Boris Berezovsky, Mikhail Khodorkovsky and others. Bakier is the son of Eduardo Bakier, the founder of the Tel Aviv meat restaurant, Eduardo. Vitaly Malkin, a physicist by profession who was close to former Russian president Boris Yeltsin, became a banker, and after the fall of the Communist regime, he headed the Rossiyskiy Kredit Bank. His son, 22, was named Lionid at birth and moved to Canada with his mother when he was four years old. In Canada, he attended a Jewish school, changed his name to Ilan and two years ago decided to immigrate to Israel for Zionist reasons.

"He really loves Israel," says a source close to Malkin, who refused, like other Russian investors, to be interviewed for this report, "but it is clear that he is above all a businessman."

Bakier met Malkin when the latter was a student of economics and political science at Bar-Ilan University. Malkin, who wanted to start a business in Israel, became a partner in the Karin Models agency (which is located directly above Herbert Samuels and very close to Malkin's apartment). According to associates, Malkin wanted to open a restaurant because he wanted "to eat well and had already exhausted the restaurants he liked."

Bakier and Malkin selected the location, Beit Gibor, and then turned their attention to selecting a chef, using an unusual method: They held interviews with dozens of chefs and asked them, among other things, which chef they most admired. The vast majority chose Jonathan Roshfeld, who was then cooking for private clients and writing cookbooks. They then made Roshfeld an offer he couldn't refuse.

"When Jonathan came, the place had already been chosen but they gave him a budget and a completely free reign," says Malkin's associate. "There isn't a chef who wouldn't have agreed to this, especially as Roshfeld had wanted to return to the field."

Malkin, according to people close to him, is indeed the son of one of the wealthiest men in Russia, who came to Israel and looked for a good place to eat. Above all, he is interested in the restaurant making money and making up his large investment. "The claim that Russian billionaires want to invest only because they love to eat and want to see a restaurant of theirs on the scene, is not correct," says chef Rafi Cohen, whose restaurant Rafael is also popular with Russian clientele. "All of them also want to see the bottom line, the profit."

Oysters on ice

The entry of Russian money has been a noticeable phenomenon in the restaurant industry in Tel Aviv in the past year, both with respect to investments in business initiatives and the clientele seeking high-end restaurants. Chefs and restaurateurs say Russian investors and diners are bringing big money into the field and setting new standards. Along with Herbert Samuel, which has already opened and RDB, which is slated to open soon, Russian investors will invest millions of dollars in a Moscow branch of Yakimono.

Russian patrons have become important to a handful of high-end Israeli restaurants. Among them is Mul Yam in the Tel Aviv port. Nearly every afternoon, a table of Russian businessmen can be found dining there. They are Israeli residents and foreign residents who have no problem shelling out to dine at the costly restaurant, which numbers among the most expensive in Israel. The Russian diners are very fond of oysters, which are imported to Israel especially for the restaurants - be it a dish of oysters on ice at Mul Yam, which costs NIS 200 for a dozen oysters, or the dish of oysters and pink shrimp at Rafael, which costs NIS 135. At Yakimono, they will munch whole lobsters that cost NIS 200 and up per portion (by weight).

These diners, according to chefs and restaurant managers, also savor fine and costly wine, among them magnum wines (a rare series of wines sold in double-sized bottles) that cost between NIS 500 and NIS 3,000 per bottle; or Cristal Champagne at NIS 3,300 per bottle. They also enjoy Russki Standart, an imported Russian vodka and expensive Cognac of the XO grade and up.

Also among the restaurants favored by Russian clientele is Messa on Tel Aviv's Ha'arba'a Street. According to the restaurant's chef, Aviv Moshe, there is "a regular flow of Russian clients, mostly during the evening." Moshe defines then as "excellent patrons, generous, who appreciate good Champagne and bottles of wine that are among the most expensive on the menu. They are knowledgeable about food and the culture of food, they know what to ask for and it is evident that they have eaten at very good restaurants abroad."

A restaurateur whose venue is popular with this clientele relates that a Russian billionaire - who lived in the building where his restaurant is located - asked him to close down the restaurant for a private event this coming New Year's Eve. In return, he said he would pay the restaurant owner three times the sum the venue makes in a day: $120,000. "I didn't agree because I don't usually do that sort of thing. The refusal was greeted with astonishment, but also with understanding," he says. "In another case this year, a messenger from another billionaire came to me and suggested that he dine at my place four times a month on meals personally served and cooked by me. I said that this would interfere with my work and I would not be able to do that. I felt that there is a certain cultural gap that they still need to overcome - Israeli chefs at a restaurant don't really stop everything and spend their time beside a diner for an entire dinner or lunch. He came to terms with this, comes to the restaurant reasonably frequently and receives the attention suited for any good client."

$5,000 a table

Avi Cohen owns Yakimono, a sushi restaurant with branches in Tel Aviv, Eilat and Jerusalem. According to Cohen, the restaurant has become a favorite of the Russian clientele, so much so that "there are days when they come in and feel as though they are in Moscow: ambassadors, members of parliament, businessmen. All of them come here." On such days, the bill for a meal at a table of not many diners, four to six, can amount to $5,000.

Cohen says, "Russian clients have been coming to us for several years now and in recent years there has been a significant increase in the budgets. We already know what everyone likes and we serve them personally. True, it is important to them that the restaurant owner come out and talk to them, but this is a culture of hospitality that is acceptable to me and that suits me. In this way, I get to know the diners."

The connection between the Russian diners and the owner of Yakimono has also developed, as noted earlier, into a joint initiative. Cohen says a large Japanese restaurant will open in the Moscow, with four levels and a members' club, in March 2008. "We have been planning the opening for about a year now. We have found a suitable supplier to provide us in Moscow with fish from all over the world," he says. The restaurant investors are Russian Jews, who are putting down over $10 million. "They are longstanding clients of ours. This is one of their aims: to bring the Israeli know-how and the level that has been reached here to the place where the big money is - to Moscow," says Cohen.