Dining Out / Near-magic Seafood

Eyal Lavi remains a chef whose ego dominates neither his personality nor his style of cooking, and who continues to respect his clients by not demanding outrageous sums for their dining experiences.

The first time I dined with chef Eyal Lavi, about 12 years ago, it was appropriate to describe him as a "young and exciting new chef on the culinary scene." Lavi is no longer quite as young, but from the time he made his first appearance on the local scene at Herzliya's Seafood Bar and later at Tel Aviv's Pastis, he has maintained his near-magical touch with seafood, consistently showing a steady and often inventive hand combining the tastes of the Mediterranean and French Provence. Lavi remains a chef whose ego dominates neither his personality nor his style of cooking, and who continues to respect his clients by not demanding outrageous sums for their dining experiences. Lavi continues to please at his new restaurant, Rokah 73, offering many of the dishes we have come to enjoy over the years.

The restaurant itself, with its white walls and ceilings, brown straw chairs outdoors, black leather sofas inside, eye-catching bar and outdoor courtyard, provides a pleasant atmosphere. Whether one enjoys the view of the tennis courts and the bright lights visible the evening hours is largely a matter of personal taste. However, my own strong feeling was that drapes on the large windows would add a sense of both warmth and greater intimacy.

We started our dinner with a portion of five raw Belon oysters. Imported from Holland, they were perfectly fresh, plump and delicious. The oysters were served with a delicious shallot vinegar without the lemon halves that usually appear with such offerings. We requested some, but by the time they arrived we had finished off the oysters. This, and our waitress' struggle to open our wine bottle, were the first signs the service, although responsive and warm, remains somewhat naive. Considering the newness of the restaurant and assuming further training will be taking place, that was forgivable. Served with the oysters was a glass of Cava, a simple but pleasant little Spanish sparkling wine, in this case from the Aliguer winery.

We continued with espresso-sized cups of crab bisque. As it always has been with Lavi, the soup was creamy and just peppery enough, enriched with cream and brandy, and as rich, light and full of flavor as one could have hoped. From here we made our way to an octopus risotto. The Italian Arborio rice had been cooked slowly in fish stock and red wine, and enriched with herbs and spices, and was bursting with flavor and just moist enough. The bodies and tentacles of the octopus were as firm as they should be, while avoiding being chewy. Sprinkled over with shavings of hard, well-matured Pecorino cheese, the dish was a treat.

From there it was on to a shared portion of bouillabaisse, which proved excellent in every way, and for me was the chef d'oeuvre of the entire menu. Whether you call bouillabaisse a stew or a soup, this one contained generous quantities of mussels, clams, shrimp, calamari, crabs and fish, all in a thick, concentrated soup made from a reduced fish and seafood stock tempered by tomatoes, garlic, white wine, Pastis, olive oil and the indispensable saffron. It is true that the soup did not contain the gurnard and racasse fish that the French consider essential to the dish (those fish are found only in the bay of Marseilles), but even the greatest of purists will agree that Lavi's bouillabaisse is a small masterpiece, although not entirely the classic French version. To add to the charm of the dish, it was served with a superb rouille and toasted croutons. The rouille, a thick Mediterranean sauce, contained garlic, sweet and hot red peppers, potatoes and herbs pounded into a smooth paste and then beaten, mayonnaise-like, with olive oil. This traditional accompaniment to fish and seafood soups was as thick, rich and spicy as I could have wanted.

The red wine we chose to accompany our meal, the 2005 Syrah of local winery Clos de Gat, proved an excellent match to the risotto and bouillabaisse, and also went very well with our main courses.

My own choice was a traditional boeuf bourguignon, with cubes of beef marinated with onions, carrots, herbs and red wine and then stewed with garlic, baby onions and mushrooms. The beef was perfectly tender, and the red wine and herbs were felt nicely. In short, this was one of the very best versions of this dish I have had in recent years. My companion's choice was for the catch of the day, a maigre fish (musar yam) filleted and pan fried until the skin was crisp and the flesh perfectly tender. Served on a bed of wheat bulgar tossed with sweet potatoes, onions, spinach and eggplant, all with a hint of tomato confit, the dish as a whole was in the spirit of Provence but the chef's personal imprint was well-noted.

We sampled two desserts, the first a thick and creamy tiramisu, with ladies' fingers dipped in espresso, mascarpone cheese and orange liqueur, which came together perfectly to highlight the flavors and textures of this truly excellent offering. The second dish we tried was a classic apple tarte tatin. The tarte itself was thick and delicious, the apples just soft and sweet enough and the crust crisp. One of the very few faults I found with the entire meal was that the whipped cream topping the tarte was neither thick nor rich enough, and the vanilla ice cream was not tempting. The espresso with which we finished our meal was strong and flavorful.

With the exception of several sparkling wines, the wine list includes only Israeli wines. Although this is a policy that I feel deprives diners of valuable options, the list is broad and the prices are notably reasonable. In order to make a broad tasting we sampled from far more dishes than would go into an average meal. A normal dinner for two will come to about NIS 350, to which a bottle of the Clos de Gat Syrah we had will add NIS 165. The business lunches, which include many of the dishes offered on the a la carte menu, cost between NIS 68 to 115 per person, depending on the main course of choice. I intend to return often.

Rokah 73, Sderot Rokah 73, Tel Aviv (behind the tennis courts). Open daily noon-1 A.M. Tel.: (03) 744-8844.