An International Culinary Feast in Eilat

Far from Eilat's tourist strip, two adventurous chefs have created a new restaurant that draws its inspiration from the Mediterranean, London and New York.

It’s 9 P.M. in Eilat’s industrial zone. The doors of the adjacent nightclub, The Closed Ward, are still closed. Parked in front of Hamasger 5, a new bistro-restaurant, is an antique Land Rover Defender. Once the vehicle favored by British ranchers, writers and desert adventurers, it is now the preserve of romantics, car collectors and the owners of the new eatery, the chefs Inbar Shapira and Lior Raphael. On the balcony, brightly illuminated and adorned with tendril-rich plants, a group is sitting around a table, partaking of a meal and indulging in quiet conversation. The owner of a nearby garage strides into the restaurant; having worked late, he consoles himself with a frosty mug of draft beer. Perched on a bar stool, opposite the spacious open kitchen, is Bili Trovati.

The sun has etched a network of lines on the impressive face of this handsome woman. In the 1970s, she lived in the fishing village of Nuweiba, in Sinai, and made a living by diving to repair the nets of the palamida fishermen. Her shoulders, which are bare, have remained smooth and brown. She has known the young chef since he was a baby: His mother was a neighbor and friend from Sinai and later Eilat.

“Make something I will love to eat,” she requests. “Spicy, like your mother likes.”

While the chef prepares a steaming pot of seafood − mussels, shrimps and calamari − with the fresh tomatoes and chili peppers from the Arava Desert, the conversation turns to the legendary paella of Jerome, Bili’s partner. A sailor from Marseille, he is famed locally as a cook of some renown. In the meantime, the others at the bar and around the tables order the chef’s version of a nicoise salad: strips of pickled corvina fish, pinkish salmon eggs, semi-soft egg yolks, green beans, radishes and purple onion. Together they form a delicate symphony of sea and land.

The evening menu, which changes weekly, is written on a blackboard. Today it offers, among other dishes, a cold salad of rump strips with salsa verde, with black tehina and seafood; taquito with breast of duck and orange-pepper mayonnaise ‏(in the absence of proper corn tortillas, local pita fills in‏); and scrumptious desserts − rich cherry pie and a plum and pistachio tart.

The menu draws its inspiration from far and wide: the Mediterranean kitchen, the southern and eastern United States, and the traditional gastropubs of London. The clientele is equally colorful and diverse. For the first six months of its existence, the restaurant remained the sweet secret of Eilat natives and veteran residents. Like Trovati and Lior’s mother, some of them harbor vivid memories of the old Eilat of the 1960s and ’70s: a remote town in the sticks, full of hippies and others perceived as weird by the Israeli mainstream. Many of them made the northern shores of the Sinai Peninsula their home. And when Sinai was returned to Egypt, they wandered back to Eilat, a place where they could still take a dip in the waters of the Red Sea and gaze at the primeval desert hills. That combination − sea, hills, desert − seeps into the soul and clasps it tightly. It is not easy for anyone born into the vistas of this region, or has made his home there, to cut loose from it.

A vast gulf separates the old Eilat from the present-day city. “The boundary line, and probably the original sin, is the airport,” Raphael says. “To its east is the tourist city, in which the townsfolk venture only to work in the industry of manufacturing dreams. The real city exists to the west of the airport.” There is the tourists’ Las Vegas, made of plastic, with ceiling paintings of a false sky, and there is the local residents’ hardscrabble desert city. There is the tourists’ Venice, packed with people, and alongside it, distant quarters that belong to its few loving subjects. In Israel, we have Eilat of the cacophonous northern boardwalk, juxtaposed with a very different city. Longtime residents do not pine nostalgically for old times, but they live in a world that is hidden from the tourists in the city of glittering lights that stretches out on the other side of the airport boundary. They buy spices in a store that has been in business for more than 50 years, go for drinks to Gabi’s Bar, a small establishment off the beaten track, hold a weekly Friday “parliament” in a banal-looking beverage store in the commercial center, and are fighting to preserve the southern shoreline, the last haven of open beaches and low construction, free of hotels and big business.

Home again, and again‏

Inbar Shapira, 32, and Lior Raphael, 33, were born in Eilat. They acquired their love of food and the kitchen arts at home. Shapira grew up in a family that liked to travel. In Raphael’s family, the mother was the dominant figure − a free spirit who roamed between New York and the shores of Sinai and Eilat and made the family kitchen the center of the world. Shapira and Raphael first met as teenagers, on a bicycle trek from Be’er Sheva to Eilat ‏(Raphael: “I bugged her the whole way, until she was willing to acknowledge my existence, and we’ve been together ever since”‏).

After completing their army service, they held temporary jobs in local hotels. “The hotel business is hard on the soul,” Raphael says. “It almost always involves large systems in which it’s difficult to achieve excellence and easy to be worn down. Still, day follows day and you get addicted to the routine. Until Inbar said it was enough. From the beginning, we had intended to work in hotels only to save up money to study at a culinary institute abroad.”

In 2006, the couple spent a year at the Cordon Bleu Culinary Arts Institute in Ottawa. “There was no great fondness for Israelis in Paris at the time, and in London the curriculum focused on the local kitchen. In addition, the Canadian branch had an excellent reputation,” Shapira says. “It was a wonderful year. To Israelis, it doesn’t seem logical that life can be that good. They live in constant fear that one day someone will just shut the place down.”

Shapira majored in pastry making, Raphael in cooking – based on their personal inclinations and the desire to complement each other professionally. They returned to Israel after the year in Canada ‏(“We thought we knew everything, but of course we didn’t know anything”‏), only to leave again shortly afterward. This time they went to London for a series of short internships at leading restaurants. Shapira found herself in one of Gordon Ramsay’s places, Lior worked somewhere else, and in the end they worked together at Caprice, an acclaimed veteran establishment whose walls are lined with black-and-white portraits of famous clients − among them Mick Jagger, Rudolf Nureyev, Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate − captured by photographer David Bailey.

“We started at the lowest levels, like washing dishes and other dirty work, and worked our way up,” Raphael says. “People are willing to work in that restaurant 17 hours a day for a pittance because of its wild culinary line, the rotating seasonal menu and the possibility of trying your hand at an array of materials.”

After two years in London, they returned to Israel. “We thought that now we really did know everything, but of course we didn’t know anything.”

Three days after they landed at Ben-Gurion Airport, they got a call from Caprice asking if they could help with the opening of a branch in The Pierre, a luxury hotel in New York. Within days they were in the Big Apple. “I thought I loved London,” Raphael says, “but it’s nothing compared to New York. I get the chills when I think about that city, where everything happens so fast and so illogically. We spent two years there. We bought a big motorcycle and drove to Provincetown or Cape Cod whenever we had a free moment, in order to eat magnificent seafood in the street.”

The couple returned to Israel once more in October 2011. “We knew we would go back to Eilat. The landscape there is part of our soul and is a source of inspiration,” Raphael says. “In other parts of the country we feel like outsiders. I love Tel Aviv but I feel like a stranger there, and in the end I yearn to return to a small town. On our second day back, we decided to look for a place. We knew there was no way we could go back to working in hotels, and we also knew that the small place we would open would not be on the boardwalk or in the touristy section.”

Discourse on food

It’s 2 P.M. in Eilat’s industrial zone. Local families are having lunch in Hamasger 5. Plaques bearing the names of friends who have become regulars or have a place of honor reserved for them are attached to the bar stools. Sitting in a corner of the restaurant is one of Raphael’s sisters, cradling in her arms Raphael and Shapira’s six-week-old son, Zur. The baby has frequented the restaurant since his fourth day of life. ‏(“I tried to persuade her not to go back to work four days after the birth,” Raphael whispers, “but it’s hard to get her to let go.”‏) The pièce de résistance is the shrimpburger, a divine shrimp patty ensconced, in the best southern tradition, in the folds of a soft roll.

The lunch menu also offers boudin blanc sausage, which Raphael makes himself, served on a bed of mashed potatoes and fried onion, or fish on a bed of black risotto. All the dishes, whether lunch or dinner specials or the Friday tapas menu, are treats for anyone tired of the all-too-familiar taste of the dishes that emerge from the kitchens of well-known Israeli chefs and their students.

The large industrial space, formerly a branch of Domino’s Pizza, is largely given over to the open kitchen − there are few places to sit. The couple, though, tries to turn disadvantages into advantages. “The large, open kitchen makes direct communication possible with the diners. We are out to recreate a discourse on food in Eilat,” Shapira explains. She and Raphael proffer their opinion of the local restaurant scene gingerly, not wishing to trigger antagonism or be critical.

“There used to be good food in Eilat,” Raphael says. “We remember a town of picnics, sumptuous meals and classic European dishes being served in homes and restaurants. Religion is growing stronger in Eilat, just as in the rest of the country, but people here will never forgo the [nonkosher] seafood tradition. This is a maritime town, even if the shore is a nature preserve where fishing is prohibited. The major problem is that good food hasn’t been renewed since the 1970s and 1980s. The city has lacked a basic culinary language in recent years. Eilat has become a hotel city, and the hotel business is different from the restaurant business. By its nature it strives for stability and cost-benefit prices, whereas the restaurant business exists more on the edge.”

Initially, Inbar and Lior changed the menu every day, following the custom in London and New York. More recently, they have compromised on a new menu once a week. “We opened the place with an ideology of buying locally − we wanted to leave the money here. But some of the raw materials weren’t good enough, so there was no choice: we had to start working with materials that come from the center of the country. The pomodoro is still made exclusively with tomatoes from the Arava, but even that is logistically complicated. Every time we need tomatoes and peppers, we have to drive to Ein Yahav [a cooperative farm about 133 kilometers north of Eilat]. Their tomatoes can’t be bought in Tel Aviv or Eilat − they go straight to export. It was easier to buy them when we lived in New York. Still, for us Eilat is the one and only place. It’s a city in which everything is in bold: the people, the flavors, life itself. Everything is extreme, the opposite of middling.”

Hamasger 5, Eilat Industrial Zone, telephone: 08-6349788