Israel has some of the best food in the world. Fresh, bold, colorful. A culinary light unto the nations. Israelis have known this for a long time and it seems like the world has finally realized it too, thanks to beautiful and popular cookbooks by chefs like Yotam Ottolenghi, Sami Tamimi, Michael Solomonov and Einat Admoni, and thanks to the many award winning Israeli restaurants springing up like mushrooms after the rain in American and European cities.
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Naturally, on your visit to Israel, you’ll want to try it all. But it’s hard to know where to start.
And since the variety is so big, and there are so many different cuisines to sample, especially if you want to dive into the ethnic Jewish cuisines, I’m dividing my restaurant recommendations into three categories: The first focuses on chefs’ restaurants, specifically those with unique interpretations of local, Israeli or diaspora cuisine.
In the last 20 or so years, Israeli chefs realized they don’t need to look far for inspiration. Instead, they started looking inside their home kitchens, or more accurately, the kitchens of their grandmothers, and learning the secrets to the foods they grew up with. Those grandmothers came from all across the Jewish diaspora, from Morocco to Kurdistan, Libya, Iran and Turkey (not many Ashkenazi grandmothers have ignited a spark of culinary curiosity in Israel just yet). Talented chefs added their touch to the traditional cuisines of the Middle East, particularly the Palestinian and Mediterranean cuisines (mostly Italian). In other words, the new Israeli cuisine, is, well, Israeli.
If only the term “Israeli cuisine” were easy to explain, like French, or American.
What Israelis grasp intuitively as their local kitchen, is, in fact, a mix of practices and dishes brought to Israel from thousands of years of Jewish existence all around the world. And then there’s the local cuisine, with its Mediterranean ingredients and Middle Eastern techniques, warmly embraced by Israelis, but criticized by some as appropriating the Palestinian kitchen. In response to those accusations, I’d say that by now there are sufficient unique characteristics to distinguish Israeli cuisine and differentiate it from other Levantine kitchens.
And now, even more than before, I feel that Israel’s best restaurants are those that have gone back even more to original recipes and refined them, not by making the dishes more complex, but by purifying and simplifying them.
There’s a lot to cover in such a short time.
It’s hard to choose from the long list of excellent restaurants, so I tried to focus on those that specialize in Israeli cuisine (interestingly, always with a touch of Italian influence), something that would be hard to find outside the country and would hopefully complement the Israeli trip experience. Here are several chef restaurants worth trying in Tel Aviv, and one in Jerusalem.
Mediterranean and local cuisine. The restaurant is centered around a charcoal grill, but offers plenty of wonderful vegetarian options to choose from, like their famous grilled kohlrabi in creamy Safed cheese and poppy seeds. Other highlights include roasted artichoke in labneh, safayech (grilled stuffed pita bread) of lamb or spinach and za’atar, and whole fish in herbs prepared on the grill. The weekend buffet brunch is a must. Food and alcohol prices are reasonable. Next door is Dok, a smaller experimental version of Ha’Achim that uses only local ingredients and techniques. Both are owned by the Doktor brothers, and both are worth trying.
8 and 12 Ibn Gvirol St., Tel Aviv. 03-691-7171
Chef Yossi Shitrit’s interpretation of his Moroccan mother’s cuisine and the street food he grew up with. Some menu highlights include the Jerusalem mixed grill of chicken and lamb offal, amba jello, pickled eggplants and tahini, cauliflower mafroom (meat-filled vegetables fried and cooked in tomato sauce, usually made with potato or eggplant) and an excellent version of the classic Arab kubeh nayeh of raw meat with bulgur, to which Shitrit adds peanuts and creme fraiche. The restaurant is not cheap, but the fixed-price lunch menu offers the same dishes and atmosphere for less.
5 Mendele St., Tel Aviv. 03-750-0999. http://www.mashya.co.il
Tables are set casually at this small restaurant, and Tel Aviv guys in their best T-shirts and jeans chat loudly and drink, but there’s nothing casual about the excellent small plates menu that focuses on Israeli, Arab and Mediterranean (particularly Italian) cuisines. Start with the Jerusalem-style bagel covered with sesame and served in a brown paper bag with dukkah (an Egyptian mix of spices and hazelnuts) and a bowl of musabaha, chickpeas in tahini. Try the chef’s version for another street food, the Tunisian sandwich. Here the classic fried fricasse bun is filled with tuna, preserved lemon, butternut squash salad and cooked tomato-pepper sauce. Other excellent dishes are the Arab-style tuna ceviche with tabbouleh and zucchini tzatziki; Arab pizza with yogurt, spinach and lamb, and lamb kebab with taboon-grilled vegetables and tahini. The Italian influence shows up in the pizzas, the spaghetti calamari, and tortellini with oxtail in red wine. It feels like a neighborhood party, but tastes much better.
Har Sinai St. 2, Tel Aviv. 058-782-0292
Located on the beach just between Tel Aviv and Jaffa, this establishment is an old favorite of locals, especially when they want to show off their city, its vistas, fresh fish and produce to their tourist friends. Ask to sit on the balcony and concentrate on the tapas tray. Try the always-fresh grey mullet ceviche with red onion and sumac; roasted eggplant with labneh; thick tzatziki and preserved sardines, all served with balkan flat bread, olive oil and sea salt.
703 Yehezkel Kaufman St., Tel Aviv. Near Charles Clore Park. 03-517-4773
A fun and loud Barcelona-style tapas place with an excellent bar and a tempting menu of fish, seafood, vegetables and herbs. Chef Sharon Cohen puts a local saltwater fish tartare with roasted eggplant and tahini with almonds next to Japanese-inspired tuna and soba salad with seaweed in tamarind sauce. Try the zucchini salad with bryndza (Eastern European cheese), walnut and smoked creme fraiche; the daily fish with preserved lemon, Moroccan paprika and calamari; and seafood lasagna with yuzu butter.
182 Ben Yehuda St., Tel Aviv. 03-522-1224. http://en.shila-rest.co.il
Fine cooking in a gorgeous space by celebrity chef Haim Cohen, the man responsible for the shape of modern Israeli cuisine over the past 20 years. Cohen was one of the first chefs who realized that after all the fine French and Italian cooking, the food he wanted the most was his mother’s, and started refining Jewish ethnic food. Some dishes to try are beef tartare lasagna with tomatoes and roasted eggplant; shishbarak dumplings with labneh, fresh za’atar and wild spinach; and lamb tortellini with lima beans and sweetbreads. The seven days a week lunch menu includes an appetizer included with the price of a main course.
98 Yigal Alon St, Tel Aviv. 03-624-9249. http://yaffotelaviv.com/?lang=en
In Jerusalem: MachneYuda
The restaurant is named after the market where it sits, Jerusalem’s central Machane Yehuda. It’s a market to table restaurant, with a dance-on-the-tables atmosphere because the food is so deliciously good. The menu includes some dishes that are strongly rooted in the Jerusalem and Israeli kitchen, such as the “Shakshukeet”, a dish of tahini and yogurt with ground lamb, harissa and preserved lemon; and a dish of North African-style offal, served in a pan with Jerusalem artichoke. Fattoush salad with labneh shows the Palestinian influence, while a pile of chicken liver served with mashed potato and sautéed onions is Ashkenazi inspired (with the addition of silan, date molasses, used by Iraqi Jews). There are plenty of Italian flavors too, and a must-try is the signature dish of polenta, mushroom ragu, truffle oil and Parmesan, served in a glass jar.
10 Beit Yaakov St., Jerusalem. 02-533-3442. https://www.machneyuda.co.il