Dining Out / Stunning Seafood

For more than 15 years chef Eyal Lavi has been demonstrating an excellent touch with seafood, and consistently showing a steady and often innovative hand combining the flavors of the Mediterranean with those of French Provence. Now ensconced at Rokah 73 for more than two years, Lavie has been wise enough to keep many of his old favorites on the menu while constantly adding new ones to tempt us. What made my current visit almost a necessity was hearing that a seafood platter royale had been added to his menu.

Being in a hedonistic mood, my companion and I started off with half a dozen oysters, which were fresh and plump, full of the rich sea flavor that typifies the best of these mollusks and with plenty of oyster liquor in the shells. The shallot vinegar served on the side was fine but as is my wont, I had my oysters with nothing more than a few drops of lemon juice. I will not deny that after finishing off the oysters, I enjoyed dipping some of the good bread that had been served into that shallot vinegar. Along with the Brut Cava of the Marques de Monistrol that we ordered, life was seeming quite good indeed.

The seafood platter starts with two appetizers. Our first was several asparagus spears wrapped in proscuitto and a thin strip of filo dough before being fried. This finger food was a delight and the accompanying green salad topped with bits of salty cheese was no less rewarding.

From there we moved on to a serving of firm and spicy merguez sausage. The accompanying salsa was good but truth be told, the sausage was best on its own, accompanied by nothing more than a sliver of bread generously spread with butter.

Here, a surprise awaited us - two espresso-sized cups of crab bisque. A Lavi classic, the soup was as it always has been, just peppery enough, enriched with cream and brandy, and rich, light and full of flavor.

Then came the main course. Most often found in the brasseries of Paris, Lyon and Marseilles, the platter royale consists of whatever seafood treats are in season. In its most classic form, this offering is served on a large metal platter filled with crushed ice topped with what can be a marvelous variety of fish and seafood, some eaten with the fingers, others with knife and fork, and yet others with crab/lobster utensils.

The dish offered no disappointment whatever. The baby scallops in their pinkish purple shells were lovely, as were the plump, flavorful New Zealand mussels. Also irresistible were two kinds of shrimp - peeled, medium-sized specimens with tails intact so they could easily be dipped into the various sauces, and Greek-style, with heads and shells intact, to be peeled and eaten with a bit of fresh lemon juice. All the shrimp were just firm and chewy enough, with pleasing flavor and texture. Not to be ignored were bits of calamari - breaded, crispy deep-fried baby calamari, and chewy, flavorful rings of more mature calamari. Nor did we complain about the several extra oysters on the plate.

As much as we had enjoyed ourselves until this point, the very best was yet to come - a generous serving of perfecly fresh Spanish mackerel, cut thicker than usual, which almost melted in the mouth, along with two whole blue crabs. Let it be clear that Lavi is one of Israel's few true masters of the blue crab, and these two, poached in fish stock, were lovely, worth every bit of the effort involved to extract the meat therein. The sauces accompanying the platter included a rich tartar sauce, a spicy, garlicky rouille and a soy sauce-garlic mix.

We shared a dessert, a most pleasant and refreshing mascarpone cream layered between slices of crisp kadaif noodles and topped with fresh raspberries and just the barest hint of balsamic vinaigrette.

The restaurant itself, with its white walls and ceilings, comfortable tables and chairs, eye-catching bar and outdoor courtyard, all provide a pleasant atmosphere, and the service is both warm and responsive. The platter royale for two, including the first courses we shared, came out to NIS 160 per person. An oyster appetizer will add NIS 18 each, and dessert is another NIS 42. The wine list is a good one and the wine of our choice cost NIS 140. Whether for the regular menu, the special fixed-price business lunch or the platter royale, this place is worth multiple visits.

Rokah 73, Sderot Rokah 73, Tel Aviv (behind the tennis courts). Open daily 12 P.M.-1 A.M. Tel.: (03) 744-8844.