Reinventing the Grilled Cheese Sandwich in Tel Aviv

Known as ‘toast’ in Israel but more commonly called ‘grilled cheese’ by Americans and ‘toasties’ by the English, this popular kiddie fare is growing up and reinventing itself with tasty and innovative adult versions.

No one knows when the craze for grilled cheese took over the world, but it's pretty clear why:  everyone can make it and it's pretty difficult to muck up.

The classic version requires just two slices of bread and melted cheese, but innovative restaurants prove there’s no limit to what you can throw in between.  

Tel Aviv cafes have taken the grilled cheese sandwich, known in Israel as “toast,” and revamped its image. Moreover, this savory staple isn't just the province of coffee shops anymore – it has moved into the elevated sphere of bars and restaurants too.

The chef's version: "Bikini toast" at Tapas Ba'Shuk

Tapas Ba'Shuk is one of the best things to happen to the Tel Aviv port. It initially served Spanish food, then gradually adopted a more Mediterranean style thanks to the personal touch of chef Barak Aharoni. Most of the acclaim thus far has focused on its local ingredients, but little fuss has been made about its toast.

The dish:The Bikini toast – four perfectly crisp triangles of bread filled with bacon, mozzarella and a touch of truffle. Simple but devastating. The irony of course is that after a few of these, you can forget wearing a bikini. But such is the price of Tel Aviv’s best toast.

The cost:NIS 40 (and innumerable hours at the gym)

Goes well with:The sea view, a glass of cava and grilled artichokes.

Tapas Ba'Shuk, Tel Aviv port

Go for the filling: Goose breast and scrambled egg toast at Lilush Panini

Long before the trend of elaborate sandwiches hit these shores, Lilush Panini was the first neighborhood bistro to bring the hot Italian sandwich – the panini – to the Holy Land.

The dish: The goose breast and scrambled egg toast – the most surprising filling we've come across. It starts with slices of goose breast fried with honey and brandy for a touch of sweetness and a slightly smoked flavor. Add a scrambled egg, some spicy date paste and hard cheese then let sizzle in the toaster. The sublime result deftly navigates the sweetness of French toast with a tantalizing saltiness. 

The cost:NIS 39

Goes well with: The accompanying side salad with citrus vinaigrette dressing and a glass of wine.

Panini Lilush – 39 Frishman Street, Tel Aviv

Because of the bread: Pesto toast at Lachmanina

Four years ago, Nina left her high-tech job and set out on a new path – baking bread. Never mind that she had no prior knowledge. The tempting smell of her baking wafting through the neighborhood brought so many customers she had to expand.

The dish: The pesto and pine nut toast. There’s nothing original about toast with pesto, but this cheese-free pesto, based on pine nuts and heavy on the basil, makes the concept fresh again. The bread is made in-house, with a texture somewhere between brioche and challah. Joining the pesto is emmental cheese (known as Swiss cheese in the States), feta, fresh tomatoes and a few more basil leaves. The result is a worthy reinvention that should become the new standard.

The cost:NIS 32  

Goes well with: Accompanying leafy salad with hazelnuts. Try a cup of their great coffee and make sure to leave room for cake.

Lachmanina,14 Kremnitzki Street, Tel Aviv

Best bang for your buck: Emmental toast at Rothschild 12

Rothschild 12 defies definition, equally at home as a bar, cafe and even a restaurant. Its shifting guise usually depends on what time you show up. By day, Rothschild 12 provides front row seats to the theater of Rothschild – and the food menu has only improved with time. In the evening, the rear turns into a bustling bar with great food and great live music.

The dish:The emmental (Swiss cheese) toast. Available at all hours, this toast manages to avoid the common toast pitfall of drying out. This "magic toast,” as we’ve come to think of it, is toasted to perfection on the outside and filled with a lot of butter, cheese, tomatoes and black olives inside, cooked precisely and balanced so the competing tastes coexist in harmony.  Given its size, there’s no better deal in town.

The cost: NIS 28

Goes well with: Spicy, black olives (which come with the toast) and a Campari orange juice as an aperitif. 

Rothschild 12, 12 Rothschild Boulevard, Tel Aviv

The Parisian: Artichoke and anchovy toast at Cafe Habima

Cafe Habima opened a bit over a month ago at the end of Ben Tzion Boulevard, kitty-corner to the Habima national theater. This new kid on the block is a charming, outdoor spot that’s part kiosk and part cafe, emphasizing premium ingredients and coffee, of course.

The dish:Artichoke and anchovy toast. With its bold flavors and beautiful presentation, you know right away that Cafe Habima isn’t just another kiosk. The finished sandwich is wrapped in paper and tied with string, but it’s what’s inside that counts: pureed anchovies with butter, hard-boiled egg, artichoke hearts and mozzarella. Meow.

The cost:NIS 25

Goes well with:The drip-brewed coffee, made from freshly ground beans and three blends, giving it a rich fullness, taking our coffee culture to the next level.

Cafe Habima, Kikar Habima, Tel Aviv  

Other toasts you shouldn't miss:

Cafe Sheleg– On the corner of Allenby and Geula streets you'll find one of the best cafes in Tel Aviv, serving up simple yet scrumptious toasts two different ways: cheese, or cheese and ham. We went for the second option (NIS 34) and were rewarded with a rich, buttery toast that was one of the best we came across. Cafe Sheleg, 44 Geula Street, Tel Aviv

Cafe Michal– The offerings here are more creative than your standard cafe fare, and one of the highlights is the toast, served in a croissant with veal salami, poached egg and green onion. The croissant is sweet, crisp and wonderful, the salami has a surprising and delicate spiciness, the scallions give it a light freshness and the yolk of the poached eggs makes the dish an evolving experience as it soaks into the croissant.

It’s not a classic cheese-toast per se but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable. As the toast (NIS 42) is served on the breakfast menu, it's only available until 5 P.M. and comes with a drink and salad. Cafe Michal, 230 Dizengoff Street, Tel Aviv

Beta Cafe– This nine-year-old cafe-restaurant boasts a cheese toast (NIS 40) on the dinner menu alongside more elaborate dishes. Their version features pesto made from arugula, giving it a bitter kick that may not be to everyone’s taste. It shares the inside with two types of cheese, olives, tomatoes and red onion. It’s tender and tasty though the arugula sets the agenda. One negative is a surplus of butter inside and out.  Beta Cafe, 17 Brodsky Street,Ramat Aviv.    

Sonia Getzel Shapira– Located in a beautiful garden just off King George St. with mosaic tables scattered about, this beautiful cafe is sandwiched on an alley whose name means “anonymous.” But given its selection of toasts, which command a whole section of the menu under the pretentious heading "the legend of toasts," we recommend you get to know it well. Each toast is named after a fairytale heroine and we opted for Cinderella – wholegrain bread with goats' cheese, baked sweet potatoes and a roasted pepper spread (NIS 25). The snack-sized serving of four small, not very attractive, triangles may resemble Cinderella’s drab origins, but the taste manages to transform this pumpkin into a carriage. Sonia Getzel Shapira, 1 Almonit Alley, Tel Aviv.  

Alma Cafe– This Jaffa-based cafe has a lot going for it:  a wide, pleasant space, tasty food and excellent service; but above all it has a patisserie and bakery called "Piece of Cake." The menu has a long list of sandwiches, including two toasts. Our recommendation is the Italian (NIS 39) on excellent homemade ciabatta with smoked beef, caramelized onions, red pepper, cheese and Dijon mustard. Alma Cafe, 19 Yehuda Hayamit, Jaffa

The best toasts outside of Tel Aviv

Cafe Bono– This coastal road cafe is a popular rest spot for cyclists heading north – and if you're going to rest, you ought to eat well at the same time. Their ham toast is exceptional. Instead of spreading butter everywhere, these clever folks use aioli, thus transforming your average toast into a unique find. Cafe Bono,Kibbutz Yakum

Tati– This combo bistro-cafe gives you the best of both worlds. They were about to strike the bagel toast (NIS 44) from the menu – after all, this is a serious bistro – but the clientele wouldn’t have it so the prodigal toast returned and is now available both day and night. The sweet bagel is baked in-house with a light coating of sesame seeds and stuffed with pesto and tomatoes. The shocker is in the choice of side dish – French fries. French fries?! Tati, 53 Derech Hashalom , Givatayim.

Gal's Bakery– This Haifa bakery serves up sweet delights and is not a bad place for breakfast and coffee either. The toast (NIS 40 including salad and drink) is made with homemade whole-wheat bread, providing an unfussy base on which you can add extra cheese or vegetables. Gal's Bakery, 131 Hanassi Boulevard, Haifa.

Cafe Kadosh–Meir Kadosh opened this Jerusalem institution back in 1967. Years later, his son Itzik, who grew up in and around the kitchen, took over. As public demand grew, so did the menu and toast was welcomed aboard. Between the croissant with gouda cheese and tomato confit or the one with goats' cheese, Roquefort and figs, we simply couldn’t pick a winner (NIS 34). Cafe Kadosh ,6 Shlomtzion Hamalka, Jerusalem

SabaCiabatta– For the last decade, this Saba Ciabatta has been the best place in Be'er Sheva to get fresh-baked, creative sandwiches. Try the toasted ciabbatta with a spicy spread, tomatoes, olives, eggplant and cheese. It's somewhere between a pizza and a hot sandwich, merging the best of both (NIS 36). SabaCiabatta, 109 Roger Rasco, Be'er Sheva.

Rotem Maimon