The Malabi Masters of Tel Aviv

Many Tel Aviv restaurants serve the creamy Middle Eastern dessert, but only a handful of them have perfected it. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.

As with many Middle Eastern foods, Israelis have taken the dessert "muhalllabia" and made it their own, even changing the name to "malabi." Probably hailing from Turkey, malabi is a milky pudding thickened with rice – or more commonly in Israel, cornstarch – flavored with vanilla and rosewater and topped with sugary syrup – often containing more rosewater.

Love it or hate it, every Israelis is familiar with malabi. But in the 1970s, the dessert nearly went the way of other gelatinous treats, like the now rarely seen "savarina," aka "baba au rhum," and Bavarian cream. It was saved from the dessert cart of history by street vendors and mater chefs alike, who balanced the flavors and added their own flourishes. Here are the best versions of the creamy treat on offer in Tel Aviv.

The purist's pudding: dairy malabi at Malabi Dajani

The Jaffa area of south Tel Aviv is chock-full of malabi joints. There are at least half a dozen solid options on the main thoroughfare, Yefet Street, alone. But discerning dessert-lovers detour to the adjacent Jerusalem Boulevard. There, a small nameless establishment without a sign or fixed hours has been serving some of the best malabi in town for over 60 years. Although it's now a brick-and-mortar store, it started out as a street cart and still preserves the simple design and welcoming vibe that got it off the ground. In the winter, it serves excellent "sahlab," a hot beverage made of orchid flour.

Recommended: Of the three options, "pareve," or "dairy-free," dairy and chocolate, the dairy malabi stand out. Made with a secret recipe, it has just a hint of rosewater and is topped with the traditional chopped nuts, flaked coconut and sugary syrup, creating a perfect balance of creaminess and sweetness.

The bottom line: A classic malabi that has yet to be topped by fancier dessert chefs to the north.

Price: NIS 8 for a small, NIS 12 for a large.

As long as you're there: Skip the chocolate malabi and try the best sahlab in town.

Malabi Dajani, 96 Jerusalem Blvd. Jaffa

The authority: Danino progressive malabi at Shila

Shila has been offering good food alongside its drinks since before it was cool for bars to care – that is, for more than seven years. In addition to its mouthwatering meals, particularly of the seafood variety, it now offers delectable desserts.

Recommended: The malabi named for former Israel National Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino reports to no one. While the plating is a celebration of law and order, with every element in the right place, the taste is almost criminally opulent. The base is made with heavy cream and milk as well as rosewater, and instead of the traditional syrup, it's topped with rosewater-infused raspberry granita, raspberry coulis and a scoop of pistachio paste with a hint of orange-blossom water. The dish is completed with two scoops of fruity caviar – one raspberry and one coconut and three tiny Financier cakes with almonds and orange-blossom water.

The bottom line: The arresting interplay of sophisticated flavors puts this malabi at the top of Tel Aviv's most wanted list.

Price: NIS 43

As long as you're there: If you can handle another dessert, try "Sharon's Marquise" – chocolate on top of chocolate with a strong chocolate finish.

Shila, 182 Ben-Yehuda St., Tel Aviv

The family tradition: dairy malabi at Yakir's Malabi House

Old-timers in Tel Aviv's Shechunat Hatikva neighborhood remember when a wagon used to bounce through the streets filled with clinking aluminum bowls of cold malabi. It was so good, they say, that the man pushing the cart, David Ashkenazi, never made it more than a few steps before selling out his stock. His son, Yakir Ashkenazi later opened a store called Malabi House in the neighborhood using his father's recipe. Yakir's son Naor Ashkenazi has been running the place since his father died.

Recommended: The dairy malabi is the pinnacle of classic Israeli malabi. When Naor takes the plastic container out of the refrigerator and ladles on the syrup, coconut flakes and chopped peanuts, you could be forgiven for not expecting much. But it's the invisible details that set this malabi apart. The coconut flakes act as the perfect foil to the smooth, sensuous base and sugary rosewater syrup, making it hard to put down your spoon. Fortunately, given the rock-bottom price tag you can afford to buy another one.

The bottom line: Malabi that tastes like you made it at home, but better.

Price: NIS 7

As long as you're there: You're standing in an endangered-dessert preserve. If you've never heard of "sutlac"(pronounced "sootlatch"), "faloodeh" and "asure" (pronounced "ashura") you're part of the problem. Do your part, and eat everything you can.

Yakir's Malabi House, 52 Haetzel St., Tel Aviv

The exotic fling: pistachio malabi at Joz ve Loz

Joz ve Loz is an island of calm in the sea of soot and noise that is Yehua Halevy Street. Owners Orit Revivio and Alma Fogel have given the Mediterranean restaurant a warm, unfussy ambiance. Every table is adorned with flowers and more secluded seating is available in the tree-dotted backyard and upstairs balcony. Upbeat rock tunes fill the air. Thoroughly original when it opened eight years ago, many have tried to imitate it since. While the menu changes daily, the malabi is eternal.

Recommended: The pistachio ("fistook") malabi is the creamiest, softest and sweetest in malabi town. Whatever magic goes into making it, the chefs aren't telling. The syrup, rich and sugary with strong citrus flavors and a hint of pomegranate, is also made on the premises. A mound of whole roasted pistachio, raisins and dried apricots gives the heavenly dish some grit.

The bottom line: A Mediterranean retreat worth the voyage any day.

Price: NIS 32

As long as you're there: Try the ceviche. There's a reason that it's the only other constant on the menu.

Joz ve Loz, 51 Yehuda Halevy St., Tel Aviv

The naughty malabi: malabi cream with strawberries at Jajo

When Oved Zeitouni left Nina Café ten years ago, he intended to open a restaurant like it. But the tiny space he found in the heart of Tel Aviv's Neve Tzedek neighborhood cried out to be a bar instead. Jajo has since come into its culinary own and even has a fancier little brother named Jajo Vino. While both siblings have been successful, in the capable hands of Chef Adi Levy, Jajo has developed looser and slightly naughtier charm that's hard to resist.

Recommended: The malabi cream with fresh strawberries barely passes for a member of the malabi family. The thick porridge-like cream is decidedly un-gelatinous and the strawberry topping is a rather bold stand-in for rosewater. But no one is complaining. The addition of powdered sugar and salted granola brings salty and sweet together in a way that makes categorization seem unimportant.

The bottom line: You may need an extra napkin to wipe away the tears of joy.

Price: NIS 32

As long as you're there: Order a cocktail and a salade nicoise with sardines, potato confit, green beans and pickled lemon.

Jajo, 47 Shabazi St., Neve Tzedek, Tel Aviv

Five more must-try malabis

Bertie: This is the malabi of champions, with rose-petal jam, strands of shredded-wheat-like "kadaif" and crushed sugared pistachios. The further you dig into the heart of the dish, the closer you get to the flavor at its heart. The rose-petal jam replaces the traditional rosewater and lends a surprising tartness to the entire business. The sugared pistachios, together with the kadaif threads, provide some crunch along with a touch of sweetness. The end result: It looks like an ordinary malabi on the outside, but on the inside it's pure pleasure.

Price: NIS 38

Bertie, 88 King George St., Tel Aviv

Mutran: If you close your eyes and try a spoonful of this malabi, your mouth will explode with the flavor of roses. When you open your eyes you'll find an elegantly served dish with a creamy consistency and a well-balanced sweetness. The sauce is made from roses and is delicate and sophisticated. It's everything its commercially manufactured cousin is not.

Price: NIS 20

Mutran, 99 Yefet St., Jaffa

Cafe Kaimak: Yosef Cohen proved there's no such thing as a cursed location when he opened Kaimak a little over three years ago in a long-empty space in Tel Aviv's Levinsky Market. Word of its vegetarian menu has spread far and wide, as has that of its small and somewhat custardy malabi, which comes in two versions: standard with rosewater, and nonstandard with a pear-and-wine sauce. The slightly alcoholic pear sauce turns out to be an excellent substitute for rosewater. It's hard to say which version is better.

Price: NIS 16

Cafe Kaimak, 49 Levinsky St., Tel Aviv

Shabtai Hayafeh: Near the Jaffa clock tower and famous Abulafia bakery sits a jewel of a fish restaurant capable of satisfying any malabi craving. Take a seat and you'll be served up a mound of the creamy goodness on a plate, smothered with an almost garish red sauce. While the sauce is perhaps a bit excessive, can you really have too much of a good thing?

Price: NIS 20

Shabtai Hayafeh, 7 Hehalfanim St., Jaffa

Agadir: No self-respecting Israeli hamburger joint would leave malabi off its menu. A number of years ago, the restaurant chain established its own bakery to supply all its branches with desserts. The Malabi Nikos Galis (you'll understand if you're a basketball fan) is surprisingly delicious. Although it's made with heavy cream, the dominant taste is cornstarch. Topped with almonds, pistachios and more than a little pomegranate and berry grenadine sauce, which stands in for rosewater, it doesn’t try to be traditional. But with toasted coconut thrown into the mix, it shows just enough respect for its roots.

Price: NIS 29

Agadir, 2 Nahlat Binyamin St., Tel Aviv

Rotem Maimon