The Cocktails at This Tel Aviv Bar Come With a Disclaimer

To understand the varied array of bitter flavors, take a tour with Oron Lerner, one of Israel's most talented mixologists Meet Popi, Tel Aviv's grill man with the golden hands.

Ronit Vered
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A cocktail on the menu at French 57. An education in unusual flavors.
A cocktail on the menu at French 57. An education in unusual flavors.Credit: Dan Peretz
Ronit Vered

The black menu is printed on mysterious-looking black paper and adorned with art nouveau ornaments. Ordering one of the many cocktails on its pages – Black Magic Julep, Prana Colada or Truffle Sazerac – required signing a waiver. “This waiver is of course an inside joke without any validity,” explains mixologist Oron Lerner, owner of the Tel Aviv cocktail bar French 57, with a smile. “But we wanted to emphasize the fact that the black menu contains drinks with complex flavors that will not necessarily appeal to everyone’s palate.”

The source of inspiration is of course the black menus of Chinese restaurants in the West. In many of them, in addition to the regular menu there is a “black” menu, sometimes written only in Chinese, which offers a variety of traditional Chinese foods that have not been adapted to the western palate. The black menus originated in the 20th century, and not necessarily in big cities where the Chinese had their own neighborhoods. On these black menus you can find dishes that offer more complex tastes and textures than are common in the West. The black menu of French 57 is devoted mainly to a study of bitter flavors.

“When we opened the place we had over 50 types of cocktails we wanted to put on the menu,” says Lerner. “You fly on the wings of creativity, but most of those cocktails can’t be kept on the regular menu. Some contain expensive alcoholic ingredients that make them expensive for the consumer, others have flavors that most people don’t understand or don’t like. People would order and return them, especially the bitter cocktails. We wanted to create a separate menu that opens up creative possibilities for us and isn’t limited due to considerations of budget or mainstream taste.”

The connotation of the word “bitter,” in Hebrew as well as other languages, is negative. “Bad-tasting is the definition for ‘bitter’ in the crossword puzzles,” continues Lerner. “Someone who’s unhappy is embittered, and a difficult truth is a bitter truth. But we’re surrounded by all kinds of foods and drinks – coffee, beer and various distillates and liqueurs – with various degrees of bitterness, and bitterness adds a layer of complexity. Human taste buds are sensitive to bitterness for evolutionary reasons – many of the poisons found in nature are bitter.

A cocktail on the menu at French 57. Credit: Dan Peretz

“Children hate bitterness; a relatively small quantity of poison can kill them, and grimacing and spitting the substance out are mechanisms designed to protect them. But as we get older the receptors on our tongues become duller, and the palate also matures and learns to like complex and interesting tastes.”

Plato spoke of six tastes known to the human tongue, Aristotle spoke of seven. During the Enlightenment period the number of tastes recognized by the scholars of the generation was reduced, until in the 19th century the western concept of only four tastes – sweet, sour, salty and bitter – became entrenched. It took another 100 years until western scientists recognized omami, which is now called the fifth taste, and today many scientists speak of additional tastes that the tongue can identify, including metallic, fatty and astringent.

Even the words used to describe the accepted tastes, for example, “bitter” or “sour,” are too limited to describe the varied array of tastes found in various raw ingredients and foods.

The French 57 black menu is divided into four categories: amaru (a family of bittersweet Italian liqueurs); prana (very dry and bitter Italian liqueurs); bitters (bitter herbal concentrates that are hard on the palate) and others (cocktails that are not necessarily bitter, but are unique and definitely expensive). Anyone who wants to understand how varied the array of bitter flavors is, can embark on a journey concocted by Lerner, one of the most talented and knowledgeable mixologists in Israel.

Popi on the grill at Jasmino.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Zen Grill Master

The Jasminoeatery opened by Shaul Tevet and Kuljit Singh is exactly the place that Tevet wanted to open 20 years ago.

One of the two buses that stop on Allenby Street exudes thick smoke. “It’s like India here,” laughs Popi (Singh) at the sight of the clouds of smoke and soot curling up into the air of the Tel Aviv street. Singh, whom everyone calls Popi, was born in the Punjab in India to a Sikh family, but barely got to know his native country. When he was 10 years old his family sent him to work in Russia – he speaks fluent Russian – from there he ended up in Israel, and here he got married and became an Israeli citizen.

For the past 17 years he’s been working with Shaul Tevet, the son of the late writer and journalist Nahum Tevet, and a celebrated restaurateur in the first Hebrew city. Twenty years ago he opened Stefan Braun, a grill and meat restaurant that was located in a lovely inner courtyard and bore the name of the Hungarian Jewish furrier who worked at the site in the early days of the city.

Two years later Popi joined the Stefan Braun kitchen and since then – and through all the various incarnations of the place (the Lucifer Bar opened in the courtyard, Stefan was closed after 18 years and replaced by Ramla) – there is no gourmand and drinker in the city who doesn’t know Popi, the grill man with the golden hands.

A month ago Shaul and Popi opened a fast grill eatery together in the façade facing the street. With sky-blue ceramic tiles on the wall, a large charcoal grill in the center of the space, there are four or five bar stools for passersby. “Twenty years ago, when I opened Stefan, this is exactly the place I wanted to open,” says Shaul, who comes to bring fresh pitas, “but they offered me the bigger place and things turned out differently.”

The menu at Jasmino the name of the modest place, offers a concentration of the most successful dishes served in Stefan Braun: fatty kebab that Popi grills to a perfect medium; wonderful spicy hotdogs; chicken breasts; and skewers of spicy calf hearts. Calf tonsils, lamb tonsils and a butcher’s cut don’t appear on the minimalist menu that is written on the wall, but sometimes they have them, and all the types of meat are grilled on a charcoal grill with onions and hot pepper.

Wonderful tahini – thick and full of a balanced flavor – and a salad of tomatoes, cucumbers and white cabbage that Popi chops on the spot are the only side dishes for the wonderful meat. Behind the simplest things there is sometimes great complexity, and behind the simple place of Shaul and Popi – a Zen grill master who does only one thing and does it superlatively – lie 40 years of combined experience.

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