Plenty of Fish in the Sea: Tel Aviv's Best Seafood

Once a mere guilty pleasure and culinary taboo, seafood is now front and center in many of Tel Aviv's finest restaurants. Here are our top picks - from the inventive to the classic.

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 Rotem Maimon
Rotem Maimon

At the end of the 1980s, shellfish began to be served in a few restaurants across Israel. The first places to do so were mainly those near the sea who had good working relationships with the local fishermen. Back then, shellfish was considered to be a refined, expensive (and subversive) delicacy in a largely kosher Israel.

The big shellfish revolution began in the mid-90s, when it was officially allowed to be imported into the country. This helped to slightly reduce prices and exposed the cuisine to a wider audience. The plethora of shrimps, blue crabs and calamari in the Mediterranean also played their part.  As foreign tourism to Israel increased and the numbers of non-kosher restaurants rose, shellfish became a more common sight on menus, and names like lobster, oyster, octopus and scallop rolled off our tongues.

As every foodie knows, the best time to eat shellfish is between September and April, when it's more expensive but higher quality. Over the years, excess demand has emptied our shores and led to an increase in imported shellfish, so it can now be found all year round at a variety of prices, from low (usually frozen) to very high (saltwater fresh). In the hot summer season, there’s nothing quite like light, delicious seafood paired with a cold glass of white wine, closing your eyes and imagining you're in Italy or Greece.

Best for the whole family: Barcelona calamari at Pier 23

Six years ago, Ben Maharovsky returned to Israel after five years in the United States. He wanted to open a small place that offered a nicely packaged selection of culinary hits, sold at attractive prices for the whole family. Perhaps by accident, it ended up being situated opposite the famous (and expensive) seafood restaurant Mul Yam. At Pier 23 the cooking is simple and the menu has remained the same since its opening day, but each dish is treated with the respect it deserves. There isn't a hostess and you don’t have to get dressed up, but you do have a great view of the Tel Aviv Port.

Our pick: The Barcelona calamari. One of Israelis’ favorite dishes over the last few years is fried calamari, a dish served in every self-respecting place. Pier 23’s version is juicy and crispy served with homemade mayonnaise, sweet and spicy sauce, and lemon. Their secret is that the calamari is marinated for 24 hours in milk (worth trying at home).  This retains the texture, neutralizes the  smell, and ensures the panko (Japanese breadcrumb) topping with togarashi (Japanese Seven-Flavor Chili mix), adheres properly.

The cost: NIS 37

Also recommended: Peking dim sum (NIS 36). These excellent Chinese dumplings are made from steamed rice paper and contain whole Thai shrimps. They're served on a bed of iceberg lettuce with sweet soy sauce and sake. Simple, clean, and delicious.

Pier 23, Hangar 23, Tel Aviv Port

For the especially hungry: the sharing plate at Manta Ray.
At Pier 23 the cooking is simple and the menu has remained the same since its opening day.
A spectacular Thai fisherman’s dish that is only available when fresh crystal shrimps are on hand.
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For the especially hungry: the sharing plate at Manta Ray.Credit: Rotem Maimon
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At Pier 23 the cooking is simple and the menu has remained the same since its opening day.Credit: Rotem Maimon
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A spectacular Thai fisherman’s dish that is only available when fresh crystal shrimps are on hand. Credit: Rotem Maimon

The spectacular one: Kong Cha Nampa at the Thai House

Since 1996, the Thai House has been bringing Thai culture and cuisine to Tel Aviv, and we’re not talking about the sort of stuff they feed to gullible tourists in Khao San. The Thai House, managed by Yariv Malili and his Thai wife Lek Sunan, is a great way to familiarize yourself with real Thai cuisine and try unconventional dishes that are still accessible and tasty. Come with an open mind.

Our pick: The Kong Cha Nampa. A spectacular Thai fisherman’s dish only available when fresh crystal shrimps are on hand. Aside from the dish's beautiful presentation, it evokes the flavors of Thailand to their fullest.  It’s a bit sour, a bit spicy, a bit sweet and a lot of sea. The shrimps are lightly soaked, halved and placed on a plate with a pepper marinade, some extremely fiery chili, and big chunks of garlic and mint. The freshness of the shrimps gives them their delicate sweetness, nicely contrasting the firm spiciness of the marinade. Missing Thailand? Start with this dish.

The cost: NIS 69

Also recommended: Pahk Bong with shrimps. This dish is made from "morning glory" (pahk bong – a type of water spinach), stir-fried with soy and shrimps. Very simple, very tasty. Another great option is the unique shrimp eggroll with bean noodles, coriander and vegetables.  You’ve never tasted anything like it.

Thai House, Bograshov 8, Tel Aviv

For advanced foodies: Octopus, pasta and tomato juice at Habasta

Habasta restaurant takes full advantage of its strategic location near the Carmel market, using the nearby fresh produce for both raw materials as well as ideas. Every month the menu changes, but the basic principle – only the very best fresh ingredients – remains. With Maoz Alonim and Itay Har-Gil you’ll never find frozen seafood or chemically engineered food. If you take this level of quality and thought into account, Habasta doesn’t feel so expensive after all.

Our pick: Octopus, pasta and tomato juice – the best the market has to offer on one big, tasty, plentiful plate. The dish is adapted from a recipe from the south of France, where octopus is cooked in a famous local tomato juice for six hours. The sauce itself is cooked all day with fresh peeled tomatoes over a small flame. Two hours before the octopus is taken off the stove, it's given a blast of hot chili as well as added herbs and some anchovies.  The result is a spicy, pungent dish that can almost be called homemade – that is, if your home serves octopus. It’s served alongside an attractive pile of fresh pasta. 

The cost: NIS 69

Also recommended: The crab cakes (NIS 89).This dish is influenced by Indonesian cuisine, and is served with a ginger, coconut milk, mango and fresh turmeric sauce. A wide variety of flavors you don’t see everywhere.

Habasta, Hashomer 4, Tel Aviv

The summer one: Seared scallops at Dallal

Every time we visit Dallal we forget the heat, the humidity and the sweat, and are transported into an oasis of serenity and style. We’d be quite happy to live in its bakery on a permanent basis. Chef Golan Gurfinkel brings to Dallal an eclectic mixture of flavors that stylishly bridge the gap between old and the new, Jaffa and Tel Aviv, and the sea to dry land.

Our pick: Seared scallops with Greek mash, bacon and spicy carrot butter. Scallops are notoriously difficult to prepare – overcooking them will turn them into rubber, and undercooking leaves them raw. At Dallal, the scallops were cooked to perfection. They are served alongside the Greek mash – Gurfinkel’s interpretation of his mother's cooking – made with potatoes, garlic and pickled lemon, sans the usual butter and cream. In Greece this is served on fish; at Dallal it's served on scallops with burnt butter and sage. It's accompanied by a carrot cream sauce with smoked paprika, a drop of chili and a little bacon on top to complete the smoky taste. The result is an impressive play on textures and richly nuanced flavors. The bottom line: summery, light and fun.

The cost: NIS 56

Also recommended: Black linguine with a variety of seafood in tomato sauce with crab cream and Turkish kashkaval (NIS 92).

Dallal, Shabazi 10, Tel Aviv

For the especially hungry: Sharing Plate at Manta Ray

It’s obvious that the sea shore will provide a multitude of seafood restaurants, but there aren’t many places quite like Manta Ray, which for 13 years now has been straddling the divide between a Greek tavern and fine dining. The place offers a pleasant atmosphere practically on the water with excellent raw ingredients and meticulously prepared food.

Our pick: The wet dream of every seafood lover is the sharing plate, suitable for three or four hungry diners. It's served up in a big iron pot that holds the best the sea has to offer: Four big oven-baked crabs, calamari and calamari heads, stir-fried mussels and shrimps with white wine, coconut milk, red curry, fresh coriander and parsley, all laid on a bed of brown rice that soaks up the tasty sauce in the pot. If that isn’t enough, hidden inside this gorgeous concoction are cubes of baked yams and slices of fresh pineapple. We say crack open a crab, then have a rest.

The cost: NIS 175 for a dish that serves three-four diners.

Also recommended: the shrimps with figs, calamari and parmesan syrup. A delicate, summery dish.

Manta Ray, Alma Beach, Tel Aviv

Other seafood dishes you shouldn’t miss:

Goocha - Seafood for the masses isn’t a dirty word. Goocha has helped make it accessible. The place is known for serving up fun dishes at good value for your money. Our pick (from tough competition) is the Mokika (NIS 75), a mix of shrimps, calamari, calamari heads and fresh mussels combined with coconut milk and tomatoes, as befits this Brazilian dish. Food made for enjoyment. Goocha, Dizingoff 171, Tel Aviv

Shabtai Hayafe - It may look like a Jaffa tourist trap but make no mistake: this is one of the best, most modest seafood restaurants you’re likely to find. Now open for more than fifty years, what started as a small stall serving breakfasts to Jaffa’s fishermen grew to become a Greek restaurant ran by the young grandson of the family. Kick dinner off with some carefully made mezes, which go very well with ouzo. Then move on to the main course: chraime (a spicy fish dish) made with shrimps and calamari (NIS 120). The charime sauce is refined by the addition of some cream before the fresh crystal shrimps and calamari (currently in high season) are added. How do you say "delicately spicy" in Greek? Shabtai Hayafe, Hahalfanim 7, Yaffa

Sheila - Sharon Cohen's seafood restaurant is a seafood institution. Almost every dish is worth a mention. We chose the octopus salad with yogurt, green beans and walnut oil (NIS 58). For those who don’t know Sheila, this dish is the best introduction and leaves quite an impression. Sheila,182 Ben Yehuda Street, Tel Aviv

Sandwich - The youngest member of our list is coming to the end of its first month in business, and offers a wonderful ciabatta sandwich filled with calamari with tomatoes, olives and pine nuts (NIS 48). First, a thick layer of walnut pesto is spread over the bread, and then the mix – which is flavored with pastis, tarragon and chives – is added. To top it all off, thin flat chips are included in the sandwich. The result: a little bit French, a little bit Jaffa a lot of Mediterranean.Sandwich, 59 Nachalat Binyamin, Tel Aviv

Rokach 73 - The crab bisque or bouillabaisse? That’s the question we can’t stop asking ourselves. Well, it’s not easy to decide, but eventually we chose the bisque (NIS 48). This legendary dish from chef Eyal Lavi accompanied him back in the days of the late Pastis bar, and, quite rightly, he brought it with him to his new restaurant. Whether summer or winter, the bisque is available all year round. Rokach 73, 73 Rokach Boulevard, Tel Aviv

The best dishes outside of Tel Aviv:

Mahneyuda - Beyond the bells and whistles you have to admit that the food at Mahneyuda is simply good. Our choice: calamari Moshiko – named after one of the chefs. This dish is comprised of purple calamari, served with harissa, a little yogurt, pickled lemon and tahini.  Mediterranean in every sense of the word. The black risotto with artichoke and mussels is no less pleasurable. Mahneyuda, Beit Yaakov 10, Mahane Yehuda Market, Jerusalem.

Idi - Idi Israelovich's successful restaurant is serious when it comes to shellfish. From an abundant seafood menu, we picked a dish that may not be sophisticated or clever, but it’s good: crabs with butter and garlic (NIS 110). Those who arrive very hungry are recommended to try the seafood casserole for two (NIS 215), and the more adventurous should try the lobster. Idi, Habosem 6, Ashdod

Uri Buri - For many years now, the restaurateur Uri Jeremias has been delivering top-quality fish and shellfish. The menu changes according to what the sea brings, but there's no way you're going to leave hungry. We recommend the tasting menu, which allows you to sample a wide range of excellent dishes, also available in half-portion sizes. Just be aware that the whole business can get pretty expensive. Our pick is the scallops (NIS 65) in a ginger, cream and white wine sauce. Uri Buri, Hamigdalor Plaza, Old Acre

Chloelys - There aren't many people in the country who know seafood like Victor Gloger, the chef and owner of Chloelys. With his specialty in French cooking, you can understand why Chloelys is considered one of Israel’s best chefs for over a decade. Our pick: the crab cakes in chipolata sauce (NIS 72). These delicious crab patties are a worthy challenger to the scallops with a touch of truffle (NIS 78). Chloelys, Abba Hillel 16, Ramat Gan

FISH - The more time passes, the more FISH defines itself as one of the most interesting restaurants in Rishon Lezion. It's worth choosing a dish not often seen in Israel: classic mussels in white wine with tomatoes, garlic and butter, available in half-portion (NIS 38) or full (NIS 72). A classic in the making.  FISH, Prof. Benny Havut 7, Rishon Lezion.

Note: The restaurants chosen here have been selected by the editorial staff, and are not influenced by commercial considerations.

Scallops with a touch of truffle at Chloelys.Credit: Rotem Maimon