What Happens When a World Class Chef Moves Into a Tel Aviv Food Court?

Chef Nir Zook's eatery in Dizengoff Center transcends conventional mall food, with rotisserie chicken and superb French fries.

Eran Laor

There’s no place like Dizengoff Center, really. It’s a little hard to talk about a shopping center as having something magical about it, but even avowed anti-capitalists would have to admit that the complex in central Tel Aviv is unlike any other mall. Maybe it’s the spiral construction that always makes you wonder where you came from and where you’re going; maybe it’s the hidden corners tucked away there; maybe it’s just Eighties nostalgia – but “The Center” is one of a kind. Well, except when it comes to one thing: food.

From this standpoint, Dizengoff Center is just as dreary as all the other malls – McDonald’s, pizza, a few coffee shops, a cheap sushi place and crowded takeout stalls on the weekends. Not much more than that. And this is really quite natural and understandable – opening a restaurant or food stall that challenges the familiar and predictable is a risky venture, primarily because people have become so accustomed to the elementary fast food that malls offer. They’re not prepared to encounter any culinary boldness here.

Chef Nir Zook came striding into this wilderness and opened Garden, an eatery that arose on the ruins of the Burger Ranch branch that had operated there for the last thousand years or so. It’s hard to miss it: Not only is it located near one of the main entrances, but there is something else that immediately catches the eye: chickens turning on a spit. This is an unusual sight in a mall, and one that instantly sets mouths watering.

Besides the rotisserie chicken (Zook promises that they are locally bred and not fed antibiotics), the place also serves hamburgers and Wiener schnitzel, along with salads and desserts. Oh, and there are fries, too, but we’ll get to that in a moment, since they deserve special attention. There is upstairs seating, but Garden takes its name from the restaurant’s large outdoor space that extends beyond the walls of The Center, and is a lovely place to sit in good weather.

We started off with half a chicken (NIS 39; NIS 68 for a whole one). As noted, there’s something very tempting about rotisserie chicken, with its wonderful color and aroma. But this is where a problem often comes in: It can look great, but turn out to be a disappointment. After all, chicken doesn’t have much flavor on its own, and needs a lot of help to be really tasty. What often happens with rotisserie chicken is that you get one slice that’s perfectly browned, crisp on the outside and juicy on the inside; but the deeper you go, the dryer and blander everything becomes. The chicken at Garden almost managed to overcome this difficulty. Some of it was truly delectable, thanks to the grilling technique and the seasoning mixture, which was just right on the thighs, wings and legs. Rather predictably, though, the texture was drier and the flavor faded a bit around the breast.

Eran Laor

We also tried the veal schnitzel (NIS 62), which was thin, perfectly fried, with a crispy coating of breadcrumbs and – most importantly, given the price – it was very large, easily big enough for two people. Those who are used to eating schnitzel made from chicken breast tend to stay away from Wiener schnitzel, the veal version, but it’s definitely worth a try. At Garden, it was excellent.

Pure delight

What follows is warmly dedicated to the French fry addicts among us. When we walked into Garden we noticed that most of the customers were eating potato chips with ridges, the kind they sell by the bag in every supermarket. We were ready to be very disappointed. Bad enough that in most places in Tel Aviv, we have long been used to underwhelming fries from the frozen food section. But junk food from a bag? This was going too far.

However, a closer look at the menu and a quick inquiry with the (super-nice) girl at the cash register led to an astounding discovery. These were real fries, made with fresh potatoes, cut by a special machine and boiled prior to frying to make them extra crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. This kind was called “Peto” (NIS 22), and the good news is that they are not alone – Garden serves other types of fries, too – classic thin fries, thick Belgian-style fries and “Campfire” fries – all sliced and fried on the premises and served with various condiments. Pure delight.

And that pretty much sums up what’s going on at Garden. Zook could have served frozen fries and no one would have complained, since that’s what we’re used to by now, certainly at a shopping mall. He could have served the usual chicken schnitzel or other standard fast food items, and been another mall eatery that isn’t worth a second look. He chose a different way, and is doing it simply and well, with no distracting pretentiousness. Cheers!