Rich Israelis Spend a Fortune on This Food – and Don't Even Eat It

As Israel emerges from the pandemic, the desire to splurge together with the surreal mania of fundraising and buyouts in the high-tech sector have created a new gourmet craze

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The Israeli culinary scene is more expensive and glittering than it had been before the pandemic. “It’s as if something burst,” Koren exclaimed.
The Israeli culinary scene is more expensive and glittering than it had been before the pandemic. “It’s as if something burst,” Koren exclaimed.Credit: Asaf Karela, Doron Artzi, Moti Milrod
Michal Palti
Michal Palti

Asaf Koren, the CEO of Karat Caviar at Kibbutz Dan, had a lot of reasons to worry when the coronavirus pandemic erupted. The plant that he manages on the banks of the Dan River in Israel’s north has been raising female Russian sturgeon fish since 1992.

It takes seven years before the fish mature and begin producing caviar. In the midst of a pandemic, if restaurants in Israel or abroad are closed, years of effort and investment could go down the drain. But to his surprise, during the pandemic, as well as in recent months, when restrictions have been eased in the restaurant business, the plant’s revenues have grown fivefold compared to prior years.

“During the coronavirus, there were a lot of home chef meals with dishes that included our product. With the exit from the coronavirus, restaurants have returned to work and the demand is surprising us,” Koren said.

A kilogram (2.2 pounds) of Israeli caviar costs between 4,500 and 7,000 shekels ($1,300 and $2,050).Credit: Dror Artzi

The seven years that it takes for the fish to produce caviar for “our product,” as Koren calls it, is reflected in the price. A kilogram (2.2 pounds) of Israeli caviar costs between 4,500 and 7,000 shekels ($1,300 and $2,050). According to Koren, the company places a new group of female sturgeon into its fishponds every year, and judging from recent months, the company has reason for optimism.

The Israeli culinary scene is more expensive and glittering than it had been, and caviar is well received by these restaurants’ clientele. “It’s as if something burst,” Koren exclaimed, “and the age level of the customers is also going down.”

So, for example, at the Shila restaurant in Tel Aviv, a particularly popular appetizer of 30 grams of Karat caviar goes for 335 shekels (on blini pancakes with crème fraiche) and there’s also a smaller version of grams of caviar for 110 shekels.

The price doesn’t bother chef Sharon Cohen, whose restaurant was established 16 years ago and has been operating without interruption ever since. He says that the business is going strong, with high demand for premium products and many clients buying dishes for hundreds of shekels each. According to chef Yuval Ben-Nerya, his new upscale restaurant, called A, sells between three and four kilograms of locally produced caviar a month. “Such an amount surprises me,” he says.

A dish at A. The rising costs of raw materials and disruptions in global supply chains have made many restaurants raise their prices, but Israeli customers are undeterred.Credit: Asaf Karela

Barely touch the food

The demand for upscale food and restaurants in post-corona Israel is exploding, more striking given complaints by restaurateurs about the rising costs of raw materials, disruptions in global supply chains and in the labor market, which have driven away workers. This has made them raise their prices, but Israeli customers are undeterred.

Stylish restaurant's comeback may be attributed to several factors. Foremost is the surreal mania of fundraising, exits and public offerings in Israel's high-tech world. In tandem with the purchase of apartments and hefty tax payments to the state, people in high-tech have increased their entertainment budgets. “They sometimes come to the restaurant, ordering the entire menu, and barely touch the food. They leave behind entire dishes untouched on the table,” says a waiter at a local chef restaurant.

A further factor is the impact of the coronavirus. During the pandemic, many customers could not vacation in hotels or fly overseas, resulting in food deliveries from restaurants or invitations for chefs to cook in people’s homes. This involved large sums of money even when restaurants were closed. Now, with the country emerging from the pandemic, the upscale restaurant market is thriving, with the opening of numerous chef restaurants, in which the cost per diner can easily reach hundreds of shekels.

“We still haven’t increased our prices after corona, but we will soon, and we’re not worried,” says Avi Conforti, a chef and partner at the Topolopompo restaurant, where meat and fish dishes are sold for 120 shekels ($35) per 100 grams, with starters going for 60 to 90 shekels. “My crowd comes and orders. We tell customers a story. I have my photo taken with 10 diners every day. The experience here is not cheap, but the fact is that it works, and we’re not alone.”

According to Conforti, “We have suppliers who grow the meat and vegetables especially for us. I sign contracts with them for a year in advance, so that even if prices go up, I can raise my prices only once per period. Costs go up, among other reasons, due to a constant shortage in workers. Young people don’t want to deal with customers or work in a kitchen.”

Wouldn’t you pay 90 shekels for “a very general salad made from divine sparks of creation”?

“Food is a good illustration of living standards. Expensive food is a type of status performance. What’s ‘tasty’ about this food is mainly to report to myself that I eat expensive food,” says Dr. Yahil Zaban of Tel Aviv University, a researcher of literature and food, who has studied the phenomenon of upscale restaurants in Israel. He says that “There’s one Israel that eats very expensively, and there’s the complete opposite. It’s a very present illustration of economic and social disparities. There’s a dish that costs 300 shekels, and there’s a dish that costs 30 shekels – and both will serve the same purpose for the diner. But when you eat an expensive dish, you feel that you’re worth 10 people.”

Among the luxury restaurants that have opened recently is chef Yossi Shitrit’s Hiba (halo in Moroccan Arabic), which offers a tasting menu of 12 to 25 dishes.

A dish at A. I think that there’s an interesting and creative scene here that can’t be found in other places in the world, and the Israeli clientele takes advantage of it," says Ben Neriah.Credit: Asaf Karela

Diners dish out 450 shekels per tasting menu, not including alcohol, for dishes such as “brulee of Jerusalem artichoke,” “roast leg of lamb with a concentrate of beets, roses and pistachios,” and “salty rice pudding with smoked sweetbread.”

Using a business model of luxury restaurants, in a space in which several million shekels have been invested, seating only 40 diners, as in Hiba, is a very adventurous step. Naama Shitrit, Yossi’s partner, who is in charge of marketing at Hiba, stresses that not only will the restaurant seat only 40 diners, it will have no fewer than 17 staff members every evening, who will invest as much as possible in the customers. This is an attempt to create a local version of chef Rene Redzepi’s world-renowned Danish restaurant Noma. Yossi Shitrit has said in the past that he wants to be awarded Israel’s first Michelin star – and he seems to be challenging the economic model accordingly.

One person who has managed to leverage the corona crisis and to open another restaurant as the pandemic died down is Yuval Ben Neriah, who is mainly known for his work at Taizu. “Taizu has always operated at high volume, except during COVID-19, when we were forced to close. But we opened Café Taizu, a basic and somewhat cheaper version of Taizu, which is still operating --- and working well. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a gift we received from the virus,” says Ben Neriah.

Israeli chef Eyal Shani shocked New Yorkers with his "$24 tomato", and is gearing up to open 120 new restaurants in Europe.Credit: Moti Milrod

“At the beginning of the crisis, two years ago, there were difficult moments,” he says. “I didn’t know what to do with my employees. Whether or not we could get loans. Nobody was able to say what would happen. There was uncertainty, but now the restaurants have reopened and they’re working well – and it’s important to note that the clientele is mainly local.

“Many of our customers are still afraid to fly, and they come to us. Now we’ve been open for one consecutive year and I admit that’s it’s an outstanding period. What happened as a result of the coronavirus is that people realized that it’s possible to enjoy high-class restaurants and culinary excellence in Israel too. I think that there’s an interesting and creative scene here that can’t be found in other places in the world, and the Israeli clientele takes advantage of it.”

It seems that COVID-19 and the exit from it turned into a business lever for Chef Eyal Shani as well: His empire of restaurants, owned by Shani, his partner Shahar Segal and hotelier Liran Weizman, is planning to open 120 branches of the HaSalon and Miznon restaurant chains in Europe, and for that purpose the three have started a jointly-owned company.

When Shani’s HaSalon restaurant landed in New York before the coronavirus, it was the subject of a sensational cover story in the daily New York Post: “Restaurant Charges $24 for a Single Tomato”. But several closings later, as customers want to take a breather and dine out, the demand for Shani’s restaurants in the city has assumed renewed momentum.

In Israel, HaSalon is open two evenings a week, and an entire section of the menu is devoted entirely to that same tomato whose price horrified New Yorkers: For example, “a very general salad made from sparks of divine creation” for 90 shekels; “gazpacho made from desert tomatoes” for 69 shekels; “tomato bruschetta for 69 shekels,” alongside “farida scented with divine aromas roasted in sea salt” for 79 shekels.

You’d be surprised, in the world’s most expensive city you can also eat cheaply

As compared to the astronomic prices in Tel Aviv’s upscale restaurants, a short walk from them you can find well prepared meals at low prices, which can keep down expenses in the city recently named “the most expensive in the world.”

A sushi-inspired at A, a restaurant in Tel Aviv benefitting from the surge in demand for upscale dining by wealthier residents.

According to Dr. Zaban, “We know a lot about expensive dishes, we keep track and report on every new luxury ingredient or rising chef – we’re preoccupied with wealth rather than poverty – but we know very little about cheap dishes, about the food of immigrants.” The restaurants that offer the best buys are usually immigrant restaurants in south Tel Aviv. “The immigrants’ cuisine is of additional importance,” says Zaban. “It’s the immigrants’ way of blending in, becoming integrated, upgrading their status on the work ladder.”

John and Ann Ho opened the El Mano restaurant in Tel Aviv’s Neve Shaanan neighborhood with unfortunate timing, two weeks before the outbreak of the pandemic. They switched to preparing take-out food for those in the know, and the moment it was possible they reopened their restaurant. The food is a combination of Vietnamese and Filipino food, the dishes are well prepared and fresh, and on the weekend, from Friday to Sunday, the couple serve the entire menu, which is written on a board hanging on the wall, with prices ranging from 40 to 50 shekels per dish. For example, you can find bulalo soup here – a delicate vegetable soup with chunks of stir-fired meat, as well as spring roll, stir-fried shrimps with vegetables, and more.

Nearby, at the Chinese Bao Buns restaurant, you can find a plate of dumplings filled with vegetables, chicken or pork, stir-fried rice with vegetables and shrimps, fried eggroll and vegetable soup, for 40 to 50 shekels for a generous portion, with enough left over to take home.

And if you’re already taking something home: Anyone who wants to take home cartons with rice skewers, dumplings or eggrolls can visit the food market in Tel Aviv’s old Central Bus Station, and stock up with cartons containing the best immigrant cuisines, each of which costs no more than 20 shekels.

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