The brightly painted doors of a new restaurant with large windows, overlooking the Eilat lagoon, opened for the first time at seven one evening. Five minutes later, the first customer walked in, sat down at the bar and ordered a shrimp burger. When it was served, he picked up the hefty bun filled with a crispy, breaded shrimp patty, took a big bite and sighed with happiness.
A whole menu of new items to choose from, and the former regular at Hamasger 5, the previous restaurant run by Inbar Shapira and Lior Raphael, insists on ordering the shrimp burger, the only item that has migrated from the old place to the new one. “I just had to calm my craving for a shrimp burger,” he laughs with Shapira.
The place gradually fills with more diners, most of them locals. Hamasger 5, which operated for three years before closing about six months ago, is still legendary in this town. Shapira and Raphael, both from Eilat and a couple since high school, opened Hamasger 5 in 2012, after returning from culinary school in Canada and several years of apprenticeships in restaurants in London and New York. In its final year, Hamasger 5 had only 17 seats for customers. The two owners made everything themselves and worked practically alone. Raphael was the sole cook, and Shapira made the bread and desserts and served as manager and waitress. Their work day began in the pre-dawn hours with early preparations and ended late at night after the dinner service and the cleanup.
“We started out with 27 seats and we kept reducing it,” says Raphael. “As much as we loved the place, it was draining the life out of us. For the first year and a half, it was quite unsteady. The whole menu was trial and error, we didn’t know the local clientele, and we fluctuated between elaborate failures and blazing successes. All of a sudden, we found the language. We started getting customers who came down from the center of the country just for us, and customers from abroad, and we started to feel like maybe it was possible to grow.”
The couple offered an original menu that changed sometimes weekly, sometimes daily, drawing inspiration from the contemporary culinary scene overseas. It attracted big crowds, and after a while, the couple began looking for somewhere to open a larger restaurant.
Raphael wanted the north beach area, but Shapira wanted to stay in the industrial zone. Initially, she refused to even look at any potential spaces in the crowded tourist areas. “And then we hit rock bottom,” says Raphael. “An entire week, at the peak of the winter, when we had zero orders. We looked at each other and said – What are we doing? We’ve already shown that we can draw customers even to a remote location, but in this location we’ll never achieve stability.”
Time running out
A random encounter with the director of the Herods Hotel, who sat down at the bar one evening at Hamasger 5, led to an exploration of the empty space that formerly housed the Lawrence Restaurant, opposite the northern lagoon. “Inbar agreed to take a look and as soon as we walked in there she agreed to move. Time was running out for Hamasger.”
The original plan was to open the new restaurant a month after the old one closed. But shortly before the first restaurant was about to close, the couple saw that for bureaucratic reasons, the opening of the new place would be delayed by six months. “We were panicked,” recalls Raphael, “but we decided not to change the original closing date. It gave us time to properly say farewell to the first place and move on to the next chapter. On the last evening, all our regular customers came to bid the place goodbye. We had a feast of oysters, seafood on ice and especially, shrimp burgers, the item most associated with the restaurant. In a sense, the shrimp burger is the distillation of what we were trying to convey: good, uncompromising food that’s a pleasing blend of high and low. Though inspired by the world of junk food, the dish was made without any shortcuts whatsoever – including the buns Inbar baked on the premises, the special seasoning mixture, the homemade pickles and homemade tartar sauce with capers and cornichons. But we served it with potato chips from the supermarket. In restaurants, as in life, you need a little humor. It can’t all be so serious and solemn as with the Michelin restaurants.”
Conveying a message
The couple spent the first four months of their forced break taking it easy, and traveling around the country. “Growing up in Eilat, you’re cut off,” says Raphael. “Until I went into the army, I never heard anyone call me a Yemenite. In Eilat you hardly hear any Arabic, and I had never experienced any local Arab cuisine. Getting to know chef Duhul Safadi in Nazareth was practically a spiritual experience. Eating his food was to understand what it means for a local cuisine to express identity, heritage and history.”
For the past couple of months, Shapira and Raphael have been busy remodeling the new restaurant. As with the previous one, here too they are doing the work themselves and with the help of close relatives – from the plumbing and electricity to the interior design and selecting the dishes and furniture.
After some deliberation, they decided to dub their new restaurant Leviathan (Halivyatan in Hebrew, meaning "the whale").
The new place seats about 80 (though for a time, capacity will be limited to 30 to 40); Shapira and Raphael, who were an inseparable part of the open kitchen experience in the previous place, now work behind closed doors. It’s hard to know what character the new restaurant will take on, but the bright and minimalist space already beckons as a sane and pleasant refuge from the surrounding tumult. And above all, one is sure to find good food, such as the coarsely chopped mullet patties with pickled lemon and herbs on a bed of bulgur and labaneh (a dish that might sound a bit trite, but which is transformed into a local classic by this talented chef); corvina (mussar) with creamed cauliflower and fried cauliflower, black cabbage and baby shrimp; fried octopus salad with sour cream and leafy greens; a pan-roasted half-chicken on a bed of pearl barley, porcini mushrooms with Parmesan; and cold almond soup with toasted croutons. And these are just a few of the dishes on offer, in addition to Shapira’s luscious desserts like a fantastic cherry pie, lemon pavlova and crème brulee.
“I make food I like,” says Raphael. “Bistro food and brasserie food that has something elemental about it that explodes in your mouth and in your mind. I like simple dishes that aren’t overly fussy.” Raphael’s cuisine may be simple, but it is not simplistic, and draws on his wide knowledge and careful, complex preparations.
Leviathan, Derech Hayam, Herods Hotel boardwalk, Eilat (08) 920-9393