I’d like to say I’ve gotten used to it, but every enjoyable wander through the Carmel Market in recent years has caused a new small pang in my heart. This time, it happened when I passed the spot that used to house the stall selling pirated tapes, and later CDs, which always played the same festive medley in a loop at full volume.
Like many other stalls, faces, sights and sounds, this stall no longer exists. In its place now is a stand selling homemade boutique beer, from which, as I passed, Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” was blaring. Don’t get me wrong, Ian Curtis is fine, but there are times and places when Avi Sinvani would have been a little more appropriate.
And never mind the wrenching symbolism – what’s worse is the irony. Anyone nostalgic for the market’s traditional voices will find them in its modern stands and restaurants, which haven’t merely replaced the stalls of yesteryear but were also quick to try to recreate their atmosphere by adopting their names, their language, their conduct and their sounds: some more convincingly and appropriately; others with an embarrassingly forced artificiality.
Hacarmel 40, one of the three or four new stands that recently opened in the market, isn’t innocent of this shtick, which, as usual, is produced by a cellphone with Spotify, a playlist featuring Aris San and a loudspeaker operated with a quick finger on the volume button. Is it fun? Enjoyable? Absolutely. But this time, it’s not because of the ostensibly witty party mood, but for the exact right reason: the food.
This stand, run by chef Elad Amitay and his tiny crew, is a new, small outlet of the fish and seafood store Rostom, which is located directly behind it. The commercial encounter between old-timer fishmongers and young people wearing starched white blouses and black aprons works well even when it doesn’t – for instance, when the store owner asks one of them to quickly fry up an enormous quantity of fish for some friends who came to see the new venture, and refuses to hear their explanation that the small fryer can’t handle the load and that all the oil is going to spill out. In the end, they agree to cook it in two batches.
Pairings like this have become a fairly popular arrangement in the Carmel Market, and in Tel Aviv in general – stands that utilize, on the spot, what raw materials the supplier has to offer. In this case, the stand takes fresh, varied seafood and prepares fast food from it – a fresh amberjack fish salad with mango (32 shekels, about $9), seafood or fish either grilled (10 shekels per piece) or fried (32 to 50 shekels a portion), rotating specials and a fisherman’s sandwich (40 shekels) that has garnered quite a bit of attention, and which I’ll soon discuss at greater length.
Despite my love of deep-fried foods, when it comes to seafood, it’s hard to say I’ve ever found breaded and fried dishes to be more attractive. I therefore had few qualms about skipping the fish and chips option (which is minus the chips). Instead, I chose three portions of fresh seafood on the grill: calamari, Crystal shrimp and crab.
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The staff at Hacarmel 40 know their work, from selecting and cleaning the seafood to giving separate attention to each piece – the way it’s seared on the grill and for how long; how much oil to use; what combination of spices and juices it needs. It’s no surprise that the plate I received was not merely a very enjoyable appetizer, but also a high-quality one.
The freshness of the seafood was evident. The calamari was crisp and wonderful. The shrimp was large and very juicy. And even the crab – despite the always bothersome job of eating it – was tasty, benefiting from a mixture of herbs stuffed into it before it went on the grill.
Then I moved on to the stand’s pride and joy. The fisherman’s sandwich is a local version of the Turkish balik ekmek (“fish in bread”), without which no visit to Istanbul is complete. It’s a dish so simple yet so super popular that it’s puzzling that it hasn’t been replicated more widely here, especially since fish is almost nonexistent here as street food, or at best, served in cutlets or breaded and fried.
At Hacarmel 40, they put a filet of sea bass (or sometimes another whitefish) on the grill. They sear a roll lightly greased on the inside alongside it. When both parts of the meal are ready, they add lettuce, tomato, saffron mayonnaise, caramelized onions, a garlic-lemon sauce and chimichurri.
The result was stunning. The fish – a large, long, deboned and very fleshy piece that definitely justifies the price (which I thought was reasonable in any case) – was grilled to perfection. It didn’t dry out, but remained juicy. Its taste stood out with every bite, despite everything that was beside and on top of it.
As with other good sandwiches, the interplay of textures between the crisp exterior of the roll and the soft filling worked well. And the sandwich’s other ingredients added a sweet-and-sour piquancy that elevated the entire dish.
It’s a light, fresh, colorful sandwich that became one of my market favorites while I was still devouring it, and certainly in retrospect. Even that small pang in my heart gave way before the tasty morsel in my mouth.
Hacarmel 40, Carmel Market, Tel Aviv
Hours: Monday through Thursday, 10 A.M. to 6 P.M.; Friday 10 A.M. to 4 P.M.