It began as a drizzle, but then came Rosh Hashanah and the drizzle became a downpour. Tel Aviv is full of tourists all of a sudden. Friends from Europe are asking to crash on the living room couch and conduct nighttime searches for cool apartments, with a preference for the area between Rothschild and the beach. They ask us to go with them to the Carmel Market and show them the secret alleyways, amazed at the rhythm – not to mention the excellent beer at every bar.
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There’s one common denominator: They want to get to know “Israeli cuisine.” While we argue over whether there really is such a thing, the tourists are very clear about it: anything that’s not the Far East, Italian or French, and no fusion or American either. They’re after recommendations for food stands, bars and restaurants, the ones that have this elusive Israeli X factor.
So here’s a list of eight places to turn a Tel Aviv visit into a stream of culinary conquest. It’s the work of a hungry group of East Europeans and I as we embarked on a tasting trip. We came back with a list that includes food stands, regular old restaurants, shish kebab joints and foodie bars.
Falafel Hakosem – Like it or not, your tourists will eat falafel, shawarma or hummus on their trip to Israel, so why not the best? Hakosem is a kind of shawarma/falafel joint but it’s much more, not least because the raw materials are of super-high quality. Owner Arik Rosenthal imports some of them himself. The menu offers excellent shawarma, wonderfully crispy falafel, hummus, tahini, great eggplants and fresh salads made on the spot every few hours (the sabich is great too). You’ll also find grilled chicken livers prepared on the griddle, and spicy fish in red sauce. Don’t forgo the surprising vegan malabi for dessert.
About 50 shekels a person. Shlomo Hamelech 1
Joz ve Loz – It’s true, the food here isn’t exactly Israeli, but it seems that Joz ve Loz, in its new iteration, offers a culinary experience that you’ll be proud to present to your foreign guests. You won’t find such raw materials in many places. The design is eclectic, the wine menu is now being created by the wine guru Shira Granot, and while we’ll be glad to see some Israeli wines, the imported selection is varied and a beautiful accompaniment to the food.
On the menu, which is seasonal and frequently changes, you’ll find jibneh (Arab-style cheese) with sage fried in olive oil, kibbeh nayeh (Arabic-style meat tartare), okra with spinach from East Jerusalem, dehydrated yoghurt, Arab cabbage in seared butter, octopus with vegetables in purple sauce, fine fresh fish and short ribs in sweet and spicy glaze. The food here is fresh, brimming with vegetables and original. Don’t leave without trying the malabi with a twist.
150 shekels and up per person. Gvulot 5
Basta – It’s near the Carmel Market and it’s certainly the first in a new wave. On the one hand, Basta is a shrine of decadent hedonism looking toward Europe in its grand wine menu and brandies. On the other hand, the menu features a good many innards and cooking “from the nose to the tail.” Either way, there’s an Arabic inspiration from Nazareth to Nablus. The menu constantly changes. Among Basta’s greatest hits are the half head of grouper, marrow on the griddle, lamb’s heart, lamb’s ribs, white tortellini and goat cheese.
About 200 shekels per person, before you start drinking. Hashomer 4.
Miznon – In Paris or Vienna, Melbourne or New York, Eyal Shani is the best ambassador of Israel’s latest cuisine. Each of his restaurants will introduce tourists to something of the Israeli character, but Miznon knows how to put it all together. The noise and chaos add to the atmosphere, while cheap Goldstar beer on tap completes the scene.
And before you really start digging in, there are plum pita pieces, excellent white tahini, and green spicy sauce overflowing with herbs and fresh pickles. Vegan and vegetarian tourists will fall in love with the roasted cauliflower, but also with the lima bean masabacha, and if it’s available, green Jericho beans. Between courses, try the chicken liver, lamb kebab and minute steak, and you’ll sigh with satisfaction.
40 shekels and up per person. Ibn Gabirol 23
Kitchen Market – It’s not only the best restaurant in the Tel Aviv Port, it’s among the best restaurants in the country, many people will tell you. Kitchen Market is also a beautiful place to take tourists. The western and southern sections reflect the waves. The service is excellent. The staff is knowledgeable, and the menu will surprise even experienced foodies.
Try appetizers like colorful tomato salad with labaneh, mint, olives and buffalo mozzarella, or lamb sirloin carpaccio, herb salad, raisins, lamb and rose vinaigrette. Among the main dishes, try lamb grilled sweetbreads, chestnuts, cabbage cream and lettuce or slow-cooked lamb, pea cream, chestnuts and broccoli. There's also grilled veal fillet, dried onion crumble, beef stock and Dijon mustard. Don’t miss the original desserts, chief among them the cheese cake, and don’t forget the business lunches in the afternoon.
About 200 shekels per person. Hangar 12, The Port Market
Dalida – If you’re hosting a tourist who loves food, it’s worth dedicating time to the Levinsky Market and then finishing at Dalida. The restaurant’s happy hour is one of the best deals in the city, when the menu is half price from 5 P.M. to 7 P.M. The servings represent the new Israeli cuisine that clings to mama’s apron while being influenced by the world. Dalida’s hits include spicy feta brulee, cured mullet with garlic and chili paste on toast, as well as beef fillet kubbaniya on toasted bread with aioli yoghurt. Among the cocktails, try the arak in almond milk. For dessert, don’t pass up on the oum ali – semolina cake and hot malabi.
About 150 shekels per person. Zvulun 7.
Onza – This restaurant at the Jaffa flea market has transformed over the past year into a beautiful Turkish star. They serve Ottoman food, with the music really rocking on Sundays. Onza offers fried cauliflower salad, salad with sumac and whipped tahini, shawarma doner, and yogurt-marinated chicken with black tahini. There’s also leaf salad, onion and potato, pizza and a variety of Turkish-style starters. Spiced Oriental cocktails and desserts like sutlac (a rice pudding) and malabi make the atmosphere complete.
About 150 shekels per person. Rav Hanina 3, Jaffa.
Carmel Market – If there’s one surprise that works with every tourist it’s Israel’s markets. And if you’re going to the market, why not go to the most touristy of them all? Everything excites tourists at the Carmel Market, from the fruits and vegetables to the clothes and toys. The hustle and bustle, the noise and the colors do half the job themselves.
A bonus: Yes, Basta is near the market, but also tiny cafes, cheap-but-good food joints and bars have opened in the tiny alleys next door. The most fun is simply getting lost there on a sunny day. Or taking a walk around the Yemenite quarter and the alleys extending from it, or stopping for a beer or hummus and fava beans. Those are experiences your tourist friends won’t stop thanking you for.