A Restaurant Guide’s Ethnocentric Take on Israeli Cuisine

Gault & Millau Israel is back after 15 years. Too bad the language is stilted, Arab restaurants are scarce, and kosher and Tel Aviv locales clog the pages

The 2018 Gault & Millau restaurant guide to Israel doesn't answer the bell.
Dan Perez; styling by Amit Farber

The 2018 Gault & Millau restaurant guide to Israel has chalked up a dubious achievement. It has laid bare the convoluted language that has become standard for the Israeli food world.

Hebrew has never sounded worse than in this volume’s description of 143 restaurants, replete with syntax and proofreading errors and laden with superfluous adjectives that ridiculously personify raw ingredients and foods. It’s a sad way to mark the book’s return in Israel after a 15-year absence. (The tome comes out in Hebrew, English, French and Russian. The quotations in this article are a translation from the Hebrew).

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It’s not just the references, for example, to obedient ribs. In the book’s Hebrew version (page 163), the presentation at Tel Aviv’s Ouzeria restaurant “shows effort, is pleasing to the eye and excites the silverware.” At Pronto, “there are at times entirely neutral dishes from a geographic perspective such as salmon steak charmingly lying on a bed of mangold leaves.”

Part of the problem is the translation effort from English or French, because, as the guidebook states, some of the reviewers are foreigners residing in Israel, “living a way of life based on a lot of touring and frequent visits to prestigious restaurants in Israel and abroad.” But much of the problem is the pompous talk that has taken root in conversation about food, mainly due to television reality shows.

Twelve critics, according to the guide’s introduction, provided the reviews and ratings. These anonymous critics – and anonymity is a linchpin of modern restaurant reviews – are described as people from with extensive culinary knowledge, not to mention training from Gault & Millau abroad.

But it’s hard to understand why anyone should accept their opinions. A restaurant review can say anything, positive or negative, as long as the assertions are backed up.

But the text of the Gault & Millau Israel guide is clichéd and vague in the best cases. (“We liked the place because it’s fun sitting there. There are no two ways about it. It’s the charm of Jaffa,” Onza restaurant, page 161). In a bad case, the book shows a lack of culinary knowledge (“a pan of rare and spicy mushrooms with a surprising magic ingredient!” Whiskey Bar, page 213).

In the worst case, it’s full of errors resulting from a lack of knowledge. (“The dishes were served the moment they were ready … and some were surprising for how they were served, such as the burrata wrapped in a ribbon of sorts, like a package of gifts,” Coco Bambino, page 55). Burrato, an Italian cheese, is traditionally tied with a green chive stem; the decision to serve it that way wasn’t taken by any restaurant committee deciding how to decorate their food.

The tone is also pretentious at times; for example, at the Montefiore in Tel Aviv, “we would recommend that the chef forgo the Italian touches on the menu and focus on the Asian aspect, which is carried out here with impressive perfection,” (page 141). One of the most generous compliments the reviewers bestow on Israeli establishments – and it’s repeated time and again – is the locales' resemblance to “genuine” French or Parisian establishments.

The reviewers may be anonymous for the sake of professional ethics, but they seem to be all from the same mold – ethnocentrism, a lack of diversity and an agenda.

Just five Arab restaurants

Gault & Millau, like most of the world’s restaurant guides, loves to dwell on dry numbers accompanied by diagrams highlighting the book’s wealth of information and the hard work of everybody involved. The introduction notes the 12 reviewers and the 215 restaurants that were surveyed (of which 143 made it into the book). Then there are the 1,200 dishes ordered and the 10 awards that Israeli restaurants have received.

Raz Rahav, the chef of the year, according to the 2018 Gault & Millau restaurant guide to Israel.
David Bachar

It’s actually more interesting to consider figures that the guidebook downplayed – the fact that of the 143 Israeli restaurants, only five are Arab. And that no fewer than 14 are in hotels, and that 106, meaning the vast majority, are in Tel Aviv. It’s hard to understand how only five Arab restaurants made it into the guide, considering the influence that local Arab cuisine has had on new Israeli cuisine – which Gault & Millau has lauded.

Only one of the restaurants reviewed is a hummus place – Abu Hassan in Jaffa – which appears in the “pop” category of “places offering a more accessible and simple atmosphere than typical restaurants.” Editors of restaurant guides can of course decide that hummus joints aren’t appropriate for inclusion, but why include Abu Hassan and exclude other hummus restaurants?

The first Gault & Millau guide was published in the 1970s in France. Unlike  Michelin's restaurant guides, it included less-fancy establishments. And Gault & Millau was written in an innovative and accessible style. But since then a lot of water has flown down the Seine; the Israeli guidebook includes nearly 50 restaurants where the average price per diner tops 200 shekels ($55).

Other than the one hummus establishment, the book has one restaurant specializing in the sabich eggplant-and-egg sandwich, one Yemenite restaurant, two restaurants serving Kurdish cuisine and two offering skewers of meat. Gault & Millau makes no mention of Persian or Russian restaurants, and of course this also goes for falafel and shawarma stands.

Kosher joints galore

Those 14 restaurants in hotels, 10 percent of all the establishments featured, is a lot when you consider that many of the restaurants were simply opened to boost the hotels’ ratings. The cooks at these places are usually from an antiquated hotel hierarchy, not from the new generation of chefs who have made a revolution in Israeli cuisine. The hotel restaurants are also subject to strict kashrut rules.

Particularly surprising is that 34 of the 143 restaurants are kosher. With all due respect to the progress in recent years to promote kosher cuisine in Israel, the guide’s number of kosher restaurants is disproportionate.

Then there’s the Tel Aviv problem. As Israel’s leading urban and cultural center, the city boasts a decent number of good restaurants. But what about all the good ones elsewhere around the country?

The guide excludes nearly the entire north, which is represented by one restaurant in Acre, two in Rameh and three in Haifa. And other than two restaurants in Eilat, the south is nonexistent. Also absent are entire cities that have become interesting culinary centers such as Nazareth and Ashdod.

And it gets even more bizarre. The guide’s distinction between restaurants and “pop” establishments is inconsistent. Classifications aren’t clear. And many of the purportedly objective data, such as prices, are full of obvious mistakes.

But the media, including this newspaper, has turned the return of the Gault & Millau Israel restaurant guide into a news sensation, giving credence to its reviews. So the restaurants in the volume, particularly those that have won awards including restaurant of the year and chef of the year (Raz Rahav), have been handed a quality seal of approval.

It’s true that the new Israeli cuisine has attracted major interest around the world, but the local restaurant scene isn’t stable, to say the least. It’s difficult to nearly impossible to keep a restaurant guide current when restaurants are constantly opening and closing and when the political and security situation has put off many global brands. It’s legitimate, of course, to publish a restaurant guide aimed mainly at kosher-seeking Jewish tourists, but it’s not clear that such a tome needs to be released as an international guide meeting standards of objectivity and quality.

It’s doubtful if Gault & Millau would have resumed its coverage of the Israeli scene after a 15-year absence were it not for local partners with a stated agenda – Israelis of French-Jewish origin.

“The 2018 Gault & Millau guide has set out to promote Israeli cuisines and raw ingredients around the world,” says Serge Sellem, the president of Gault & Millau Israel. Sellem, like the others leading the project, declined to be interviewed by Haaretz or to provide information on his professional background. In an email, the CEO of Gault & Millau Israel, James Nadjar, acknowledged some technical errors in the guide’s first edition.

On a global scale, traditional restaurant guides are particularly losing influence where they originally held sway, in Europe and the United States. People are opting for the wisdom of crowdsourcing. Websites including TripAdvisor, which for better or worse are based on the democratization of reviews, are taking their place, as are alternative restaurant guides.

Another factor that’s undermining the classic restaurant guides is the waning of haute cuisine; this is happening for both financial and cultural reasons. The aura of expensive dining experiences is on the decline, and a positive aspect of the revolution is the penetration of cuisines other than French and Italian into the international consciousness. (One reason Israeli cuisine is popular is that French food is no longer considered the only pinnacle around the world.)

One way guidebooks such as Michelin and Gault & Millau – commercial enterprises that have to turn a profit – compete is by finding new market segments, including those in Asia and the Middle East. The mark of quality that the old brands confer is still effective in these places.

The guide’s halo of prestige from the past is enough for many people to rely on this “cosmopolitan” stamp of approval. Just as in the colonial era, the guidebooks’ writers speak to the “client states” in an Old World language marred by a patronizing tone. But who cares when the reader sees restaurants rated with stars and chefs’ hats?