Thursday, October 24, 2013

ESCAPES: Tel Aviv, White Hot. Part 2: Center City North and the Beaches

In my first blog post about Tel Aviv, I discussed the wonderful energy of the city on the Mediterranean, and introduced readers to the street foods of Israel -- a very important part of the food culture in this wonderful country. This time around, I'll delve deeper into the stellar dining experiences in town, from cute cafes to elegant culinary temples, which are such an important part of the always-energized nightlife scene in TLV...and why it's one of the hottest destinations on the planet right now.It's a city of about 400,000, but the vibrancy of the urban setting and the cultural richness paired with the beachside setting...well, it makes it all feel like a cosmopolitan center of 4 million. 


To wit, there is a vast assortment of options around town, and in this installment I'll focus on dining along the beaches, and the city center and north towards the Port (Namal). The area comprises a large part of Tel Aviv, extending down from the Namal and the north of the city, near the Yarkon River, to Jabotinsky Street, and east to the Tel Aviv Center and the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, down to Dizengoff Square, and finally to Sheinkin Street -- and stretching all the way west to Ha Yarkon and the Tayelet, the beachside promenade pictured here. (I am always reminded of Rio de Janeiro's beachside promenade, with its tiles in a similar wave pattern and the city abutting the ocean...but I digress). 



Obviously, this is a large swath of the city, and I don't have enough room to include all of my favorite spots. But I will include as many must-try locales as possible in one posting. And keep in mind that I'll offer a more detailed breakdown of two of the city's top eateries, Messa and Raphael, in a separate restaurant review post.


Starting from the north, on the water, we have the rebuilt, spiffed-up Port area known as the Namal, and its waterside boardwalk, seemingly sculpted out of a sandy-colored wood, undulating (to the delight of many a skateboarder) to blend with the surroundings. Warehouses and industrial structures have become restaurants and bars, boutiques and food markets, and the area is now busy morning through late night. Mul Yam is a seafood-lover's spot, the name a pun on its translation, "across the sea" in Hebrew, and the word for "mussel" in French (moules, pronounced "mool") and "yum," as in delicious. The food is incredibly refined and very European, for the most part -- and outrageously expensive. For a much more casual spot, there's Shalvata, near Hangar 25, and for market-to-table (literally), try Kitchen Market, hard by the Port's food market.  


Just inland from Hilton Beach, on major thoroughfare Ben Yehuda Street, chef Sharon (male) Cohen runs a casual eatery and bar called Shila. I stayed in an apartment practically upstairs from this place for close to a week, and it was always busy, always full of a young (but not too young) clientele, day and night. The atmosphere is lively and friendly, much like the staff, and the food is genuinely really good. A perennial favorite on the menu is a seasoned fish tartare tossed with pistachio oil and fresh mint. It's served wrapped in a beet carpaccio sheath, alongside a mache salad and finished with a yogurt drizzle and pistachios. This would make a wonderful lunch in and of itself, paired with the highly addictive parmigiano bread twists they serve with a red pepper butter (carb-averse patrons, you've been forewarned. Resistance is futile!). Together with a glass of crisp Israeli white wine from the refined list, it's a perfect hot weather meal. But there's so much else to explore on the menu. 
A good choice for a follow-up -- and since you're only a block or two from the Mediterranean, after all -- is the Mediterranean sea bass. The iteration I ordered was perfectly cooked, all crispy skin and flaky white flesh, and served on a bed of shaved fennel and fresh greens, all atop a variation on Romesco sauce. Though I was completely satiated by the end of the meal, I wasn't uncomfortably full and the food never felt heavy. This is the mark of a restaurant that becomes a neighborhood favorite: you leave satisfied but comfortable. You don't feel you've overpaid or overeaten. You can even head back to the beach for a little afternoon sun.


Raphael, located next door to the Dan Hotel on the beach, is a classic top eatery in Tel Aviv. I will write a more in-depth review in a future post, but suffice it to say that chef Raphi Cohen merges superb classic French technique with Israeli and Moroccan ingredients to create a cuisine that is refined, local, and elegantly-presented. The drumfish fillet, pictured, with olives, roasted tomatoes, and herbs is a perfect example of this homespun-to-elegant cooking style. 
At Messa, across town to the east, chef Moshe Aviv is creating art on a plate, with influences from all around the Mediterranean, Middle East, and North Africa. The setting is a gorgeous, low-lit white room, and the combined effect of the surroundings, the food, and the sexy servers presenting it all makes the diner feel beautiful, as well. There are plenty of luxe offerings, from foie gras to seared tuna to sweetbreads to truffles to more foie gras. But the ingredients are treated with respect, and though Chef Aviv is clearly a risk-taker, he's not creating his menu for the sake of showmanship. The food is inarguably delicious -- expensive, artful, and delicious.


Another top-notch offering further south along the beach is the beautiful Herbert Samuel -- a spot at once international and very Tel Aviv. The restaurant is part of the Alma Hotel, and its design is airy and modern, on two floors (upstairs is the open kitchen, for voyeur-diners), at the south end of Ha-Yarkon, across from the beach. You can sit at tables with windows looking onto the Mediterranean, or you can eat and drink  at the large square bar in the center of the downstairs dining room. It's a social spot and always lively with personable bartender-servers. Many of the plates are designed to be shared, and this allows a group to order a variety of dishes to taste the Mediterranean and greenmarket-inspired fare.


We started with a grouper tartare, deliciously seasoned and beautifully presented on a bed of eggplant pureewith a few slicks of inky charred eggplant sauce along the plate's rim. We also, upon recommendation of our server, tried the "famous" tomato salad. I was worried about tomatoes possibly not being in season (though Israel grows some wonderful greenhouse produce), but it did not disappoint. The tomatoes -- various heirloom varieties from sun gold to crimson to greenish-black -- were incredibly flavorful. These were tossed with various microgreens, thinly-sliced red onion, scallions, pistachios, and the Israeli feta-style cheese called tzfatit. Coming from the Italian school of thought on food -- that good food is simple, high quality, and balanced -- I was won over by this salad. I finished it and immediately craved another.
Instead, we moved on to a light main course of octopus, shrimp, and artichokes on a delicious labneh-cream dressing and tossed with all kinds of goodies from land and sea, including roasted potatoes and sea beans (one of my favorite vegetables on the planet). This was such an interesting juxtaposition of flavors in one course, and presented as if on an artist's palette, a slab of gray slate with a slather of garlicky yogurt sauce topped with an assortment of colorful delicacies. The dessert menu was too tempting to pass over, so we indulged in the churros and chocolate sauce with vanilla and chocolate gelato on the side. All was accompanied by another exceptional bottle of Israeli white wine -- a crisp sauvignon blanc, this time around.


From high-brow to egalitarian fare, center city Tel Aviv even offers a fun burger-and-schnitzel joint, on lovely Rothschild Boulevard: Moses. This is a fun place, ranging from family-friendly lunch spot to a surprisingly hopping bar and date spot later in the day. And I would be remiss in my reporting if I didn't mention Benedict, the small chain of restaurants open 24/7, specializing in breakfast foods from around the world. And one cannot leave Israel without having tried shakshuka at least once. This is the Israeli national breakfast dish, and it's savory and delicious. It consists of a base of tomatoes, onions, and peppers stewed together with chili pepper to make a spicy tomato base. Into this stew, the eggs are cracked, basically poaching them in the tomato sauce. There are green versions, made with everything from tomatillos to spinach -- and they're ALL delicious. The version at Benedict is classic, and something I've indulged in more than once...after a night out on the town...at 4 am...with a glass of champagne. As you can see from the photo, the shakshuka comes with delicious bread, eggplant puree, an Israeli salad, and various other sauces. This is good stuff, and all but guarantees you a good night's sleep afterwards, if you want it.


And while I'm on traditional, I have to include one of my favorite kinds of meals to have -- not just in Israel, but in the entire world. Perhaps this is because I've only ever found these restaurants in Israel, so the pleasure of an indulgent meal of traditional Yemenite cuisine is one I look forward to, and a happy but infrequent occasion. The Yemenite neighborhood in Tel Aviv is central and pretty much surrounds the Ha-Carmel market, a bustling sprawl in the city's heart. One restaurant where I enjoyed this food is an old reliable called Maganda. There's an interesting mix of diners: locals and kosher Orthodox Jews and tourists all enjoy the festive, casual atmosphere here. Yemenite food is famous for its variety of mezze (starters) -- a selection of dips and salads and pickled vegetables, including the omnipresent hummus, baba ghannouj, and pickled cucumbers and olives. There's also a tomato-based eggplant salad, garlicky hummus made neon green with cilantro, a spicy pepper dip, and the list goes on. It's best to just try everything with an open mind, and a warm pita in hand. For main courses, you have grilled whole fish, roasted chicken, and various delicious kebabs over rice from which to choose. This is a place where you can fill up quickly on the mezze -- not a mistake, since these can be the highlight of the meal -- but you should try to leave room for a main course. The variety of flavors really satisfies.


Lastly, I must mention a restaurant that started in Ramat Hasharon, north of Tel Aviv, and opened a second location in the city center which has, as I understand it, closed its doors. It's a shame because the food and the atmosphere were great, and great fun. But the original still exists, so it's worth taking a cab ride to try the homemade kosher Persian cuisine of restaurant EdnaHere you'll find a variety of food well beyond the Israeli staples. Items like Persian stuffed vine leaves are rich and flavorful, and like many items in the Persian repertoire, incorporates a sweet-sour flavor profile that lends Persian cuisine such dimension.   
The main courses run the gamut from "regular" restaurant fare (steak, etc.) to Persian specialties like the beef with eggplant stew, or the meatballs with dried fruit and beets, tomato, and okra. These are definitely hearty meals-in-a-bowl, served with an addictive onion bread to sop up the liquid...but the local clientele, and presumably those in Iran who eat this way often, are not fazed by high humidity or heat. They eat here year-round, and outside, and happily so. The food is incredibly delicious and flavorful -- like you're eating a meal with your best friend whose grandmother happens to be an amazing Persian cook. This food is worth discovering.


Mul Yam (in the Port), Hangar 24, 03/546.9920

Shalvata (in the Port), near Hangar 25, 03/544.1279

Kitchen Market (in the Port), Hangar 12, 03/544.6669

Raphael (next door to the Dan Tel Aviv), 87 Hayarkon St., 03/522.6464

Shila, 182 Ben Yehuda St., 03/522.1224


Messa, 19 Ha'arbaa St., 03/685.8001

Moses, 35 Rothschild Blvd., 03/566.4949

Herbert Samuel, 6 Koifman Street, 03/516.6516

Benedict, Ben Yehuda 171, 03/544.0345; 29 Rothschild Blvd. 03/686.8657

Maganda, 26 Rabbi Meir St., 03/517.9990

Edna, 3 Trumpeldor Street, Ramat Hasharon, 053/809.4838

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

QUICK BITE: Salade Nicoise

It's the perfect encapsulation of the Cote d'Azur. It's sunshine and the south of France on a plate: The Salade Niçoise, or Niçoise Salad.


This is what is known as a salade composée (composed salad), in which the ingredients are not mixed, but rather plated in lines or groupings of ingredient, to be mixed at will by the person eating the dish. (The Cobb salad is another classic example of a composed salad). This is also great for those who want to serve the salad family-style, to a group. It is a meal in and of itself, with briny protein and fresh vegetables brought together by a high-quality olive oil of the variety commonly found in Provence.
There's discussion over exactly what the classic Salade Niçoise includes. The necessary ingredients? Tomatoes, hard boiled eggs, olives, and anchovies and/or tuna. Some say forego the haricot verts, the thin French string beans that should bend and snap in your mouth. Some claim the boiled potatoes -- or in fact, any cooked components -- do not belong in a true Niçoise. There are purists who believe that the salad can contain anchovies OR tuna, but never both. And most claim that the tuna cannot be fresh tuna steak, as has become popular in this time of sushi-grade yellowfin. Some people add red peppers, or artichokes, or radishes. I've seen asparagus, capers, green peas, hearts of palm, and spring onions.

Normally I'm a purist. And since Nice and the area was ruled by the Italians until relatively recently (probably why I love the food so much), I can filter much of what should go in the dish through an Italian culinary lens. Which means, despite protestations otherwise, I say include what's fresh and good, and what works! Genova is just a few miles across the azure waters of the Med from Nice, and they classically use potatoes and green beans in their most classic version of pasta con pesto alla genovese, so I say they make sense in the Niçoise as well. Even some basil works. Radishes, a very French ingredient, seem to work well and popped up in many versions I enjoyed in Nice. Same with artichokes. I much prefer a delicious, tiny cherry or grape tomato to slices of tasteless "salad" tomatoes, but that's just me.
I would even go so far as to say that if you have access to really beautiful fresh tuna steaks, by all means use them -- cooked properly, of course: seared on the outside, ruby-pink in the middle. Still, Italians are known for their excellent tuna, jarred and preserved in olive oil: miles away from Starkist canned nothingness in water, this. And without question, we know that the olives to use are the petite, sweet black olives known as, what else? Niçoise olives. As for dressing, some would claim to just use a couple of glugs of local olive oil. I prefer to make my dressing as French as can be, with some chopped shallots and a spoonful of dijon mustard to start with, some fleur de sel, and a bit of either red wine or champagne vinegar, or balsamic. Which brings us to the olive oil.


If you're lucky enough to actually prepare your Salade Niçoise in Nice, I highly recommend heading to the Alziari store on 14 Rue Saint-Francois de Paule (phone +33 4 93 62 94 03). You'd probably recognize the olive oil can before you'd recognize the name (Italian as it is): the un-mistakable blue checked round metal canister, pictured here. You could even pick up some great milled soaps made with olive oil, or try some of their infused oils. I like to stick to the classic canister, however. It brightens my kitchen and reminds me of the almost surreal blue of the waters of Nice, and looking out upon them as I ate my perfect Salade Niçoise...whatever version I was served on that particular, glorious day.