It happens every year, apparently the result of some kind of Pavlovian conditioning: With the coming of the first rain, all kinds of restaurants around Tel Aviv begin sprouting “hot soup” signs, with no real connection to the temperature. The past weeks have proven to us that the Israeli winter is nothing to be ashamed of, and it is, after all, rather difficult to make it through the cold nights without a bowl of hot soup.
The restaurant: Mizlala, 57 Nahlat Binyamin, Tel Aviv
About 18 months ago, chef Meir Adoni opened the restaurant Mizlala, in the Nahlat Binyamin pedestrian mall in Tel Aviv, as a casual, light spinoff of his other restaurant in the city, Catit. Described on the restaurant website as "Catit's whimsical younger sister," Mizlala is a happy and relaxed Mediterranean chef’s bistro that offers dishes that are plentiful in our region, but with the special Adoni touch.
The dish: Bouillabaisse, NIS 89
It's not too tough to find good bouillabaisse in Tel Aviv, but diners ought to plan in advance to prepare for this virtuoso rendition. In other words, don't eat anything beforehand, since this is a dish laden with so many fine ingredients that it is nearly an entire meal in its own right. The bouillabaisse is based on the classical broth of white sea fish simmered with root vegetables, sage, red pepper, fennel and a lot of garlic and fresh tomatoes. Touches of saffron and Pernod, along with the fennel, give the soup a delicate and refined taste of anise.
Alongside the froth and the blue crabs and mussels, the restaurant serves a bruschetta with rouille, a kind of confit of roasted red peppers and potato and an aioli of peppers on toasted bread, the way only Adoni knows how to do it.
Each spoonful brings a different flavor, with more of the sea or less of the sea; sharp alternates with delicate, garlic with pepper. Permit us to admit that Adoni not only makes the best bouillabaisse in Tel Aviv, but also one of the best soups anywhere.
(And if you're already here, you can also order an exotic dessert soup with coconut milk and pina colada sorbet. It's cheaper than taking a trip to the Far East to get exposed to the same flavors.)
The restaurant: Lilush, 73 Frishman St., Tel Aviv
Liat Balilti specializes in meat sandwiches at her small neighborhood bistro and delicatessen, but at the beginning of the winter the menu fills up with more than 11 different kinds of soup, which have, understandably, made Lilush a nighttime refuge for those in need of warmth.
The dish: Bianca Moskowitz’s goulash, NIS 36
Who is Bianca? It took us about an hour to understand the answer to this question, but all you really need to know is that she's a relative of Hungarian origins who donated her secret goulash soup recipe to Lilush. Those in the know say it's even better than the original. We aren’t familiar with the original, but we agree this is an extraordinarily delicious soup.
As befits a winter soup, the goulash is a lovely dark brown in color and comes with large, fresh cubes of meat in impressive quantities, but the secret of its magic comes from the seasoning. It is true that goulash must contain paprika, but in this case the addition of a pinch of cumin along with green and red peppers takes this goulash from delicious to excellent. The ingredients contain a broad range of flavors that come together to create a feeling of a European winter distinguish this goulash from any other. The bottom line: We understand why people come from far and wide for this soup.
If you are already here and you feel like trying a soup of an entirely different sort, go for the yoghurt soup. Chilled and tart, it will make you long for summer.
The restaurant: Falafel Gabai, 25 Bograshov St., Tel Aviv
If you're really hungry, you can fortify the soup with a small order of hummus for NIS 5. Worth it.
The dish: Dandush soup, NIS 22
If you're wondering why Falafal Gabai’s harira soup isn’t here, it’s a sign you haven’t yet tasted the dandush, a legume soup that will leave you breathless. This is a thick pottage, rich in flavors and fragrances built on the base of a vegetable broth with dried beans, chickpeas, lentils and barley, celery, onions and parsley. The white bread that comes on the side helps sop up all the flavors and is so good at doing so that we asked for more. The bottom line: Even more than being the king of falafel, Gabai is the king of soup.
The restaurant: Toto, 4 Berkowitz St., Tel Aviv
Chef Yaron Shalev’s kitchen is seasonal, Mediterranean, precise and fabulous. Without a lot of fuss or showiness, Toto has become many Israelis' pick of best restaurant in the country, never mind Tel Aviv.
And if you're already here, is there any chance you haven’t yet tasted the chestnut gnocchi or the pizza bianca? No, not a chance.
The dish: Onion soup with cheese tortellini, NIS 58
Anyone who has ever wondered what is left to do with onion soup that hasn’t already been done has to check out the version at Toto. Shalev takes a classic soup and gives it a personal interpretation. It begins with an increased presence of onions, which makes the soup sweetish in a pleasant way, balanced by mushrooms.
With all due respect to the onion, the headliner in the soup is the decision to replace the traditional crust with two tortellini filled with ricotta and Parmesan cheese, which will burst in your mouth delicately with a slightly smoky taste and constitute a precise counterbalance to the thick and slightly sweetish soup. The final result: a celebration of favors in the mouth and the thought that in a perfect world, this would be our national food.
The restaurant: Zuppa, 138 Ibn Gabirol St., Tel Aviv
Six years ago a small seasonal restaurant that wakes up in the winter and goes dormant in the summer opened on Ibn Gabirol Street with an unfamiliar concept in this neck of the woods: The place serves nothing but soup. It began as a rotating collection of 40 different soups, with eight or 10 exotic soups at any given moment (have you ever heard of cauliflower cocoa?), so the likelihood of boredom is low to nil.
The dish: Indian lentil soup
After we had already tasted innumerable soups in this city and it seemed there was nothing more to get excited about, we found this soup that had everything we wanted. Coconut milk as the base for soup is an ingredient we love, and this took it many rungs higher. And it also contains all the best vegetables: tomatoes, celery and fresh coriander. Then there are the red lentils, curry, a pinch of tandoori spice and coriander seeds that give the whole thing the final Indian touch, delicate-sharp-sweetish and very fresh. The bottom line: Who said vegans don’t have anything tasty to eat?
And if you aren't vegan, try the lamb soup with root vegetables. Wintry is an understatement.
Other soups you shouldn't miss:
Social Club, 45 Rothschild Blvd., Tel Aviv
Sicilian fish soup (NIS 58), one of the finest soups you will find in the city, has been hiding for the winter season at Social Club. Chef Michael Gartofsky has created his own version of fish soup with sea bream and Sicilian orzo, and the final result is a velvety soup with a wonderful fragrance and a dominant flavor of garlic (as testified by the wealth of heads of garlic in the soup).
Shimon Melekh Hamarakim, 28 Yihye Kapah St., Tel Aviv
There are a lot of small restaurants in the Kerem Hateimanim neighborhood and its outskirts that serve large bowls of soup at fairly low prices, like the calf’s foot soup at Zechariah’s. One of our favorites is the veteran Shimon Melekh Hamarakim, where we have tasted two excellent soups: a bean soup that reminded us of a homemade soup rich in tomatoes and onions, and even better, the meat soup which serves as a base for adding various components. In this case we mixed in gizzards and received an order of clear soup, yellow-orange in color, with long-cooked legumes, bones and meat at its base. With it you will be served the traditional Yemenite accompaniments of lahouh, a kind of pale, spongy round pita; saluf, a more free-form rustic pita; and hilbeh, a fenugreek condiment. And don’t forget to order some of the establishment’s excellent s’hug, or hot pepper paste.
The best soups outside of Tel Aviv:
Little Prague, Lido Beach, Ashdod
This is the third branch of a restaurant born in Tel Aviv, and has become a magnet for the residents of Ashdod, especially the Russian immigrant population, since it opened in 2010. At Little Prague – as in the Czech Republic itself, one presumes – there are a quite a lot of dishes intended for a cold, snowy winter. Among the soups, our choice is the potato soup with cream and bacon (NIS 22). What says winter (and Czech) more than cream and bacon? Nothing, apparently. This is one of the best value-for-money items on this list, and equally important, the abundance of bacon together with the surprising fragrance of mustard in the soup makes this dish not only warm and satisfying but also one of the best soups we've tasted.
Shalev Baya'ar, 1 Hashomrim Street, Kiryat Tivon
One of the best restaurants in the north hides in a small pine forest that doesn't even seem like part of Israel. Shalev Baya'ar includes a small lunchtime soup place where the soup is the whole meal. From among the many options, including a crab bisque, a butternut squash and orange soup, and a garlic confit and whiskey soup, vegetarians can choose a minestrone (NIS 37) that is rich in vegetables like zucchini, carrots and celery, and contains a version of pasta that redefines this Italian vegetable soup.
Meshek Barzilay, Moshav Yarkona
Meshek Barzilay was ahead of its time when it opened a decade ago, offering fresh, organic and highly creative dishes. This might be the reason we weren’t surprised to find on the menu a soup based on mallow picked nearby, along with chickpeas and chard (NIS 28, including bread and tehina). In addition to the fact that this soup injected green nature straight into our veins, it was also lemony and fresh, tart and sharp, and at the same time homey and fun. We didn’t want the experience to end.
Azura, 4 Haeshkol St., Jerusalem
How can anyone choose just one good soup in Jerusalem when in the Mahane Yehuda market alone one can find at least 30 excellent ones? So after extensive tasting and much deliberation, the Azura house soup narrowly beat out the Moroccan kubbeh soup at Mordoch. Azura's bean soup has very few competitors, but it was the house soup, a combination of zucchini, celery, chard, chicken breast and potatoes, that brought us back again and again, for the simple reason that is no less than excellent. For advanced palates, there is the red kubbeh matfunia soup which gives you three kubbehs, or meat-stuffed bulghur dumplings, that could teach all the other kubbehs in the area a lesson.