Tel Aviv was always hovering something in the middle of the ever-growing list of places I wanted to visit. But in recent years, I kept hearing what a hip place it was, and how it was sort of the “San Francisco” of Israel. Stretching along a massive beach, as soon as I arrived in the city, I wanted to ditch my luggage and jump right in. Then eat.
Tel Aviv is a lively place and the vibe is decidedly different from Jerusalem. I don’t think you could visit one without the other. Whereas Jerusalem is historic, Tel Aviv has a somewhat more modern look and feel because many European Bauhaus architects fled to Tel Aviv, so there are lots of Bauhaus and Bauhaus-inspired houses and apartment buildings across the city, making this a UNESCO World Heritage site.
There are 4000 Bauhaus buildings in Tel Aviv and it’s nice to see many of them being restored as we passed along the streets. In fact, I was tempted to slip a note under a few that caught my eye, currently under renovation – especially the ones a block or two from the beach – so they could be in touch with me when they were finished, and we’d talk.
There are over on hundred different cultures living in Israel and one of the many influences in Israel is, surprisingly, French. No, I didn’t partake in macarons or croissants (I can get those at home) – but at Ika Chocolate, chocolatier Ika Sarah Cohen learned from the best in Paris: Michel Chaudun, Jean-Charles Rochoux, and Jacques Genin.
Naturally we had plenty to talk about, which was a little difficult when I had a mouth full of her superb chocolates. One I particularly liked was filled with a tumble of slivered, roasted almonds. But the real test was the box I brought home to taste-test by my very own, on-site Parisian taste-tester, who proclaimed them “exceptionnelle.”
Although Tel Aviv is modern, with its hip coffee bars and stylish boutiques, one evening we took a trip up to the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) neighborhood with Dorit Barak. It’s a rather challenging place to go and although one could likely go wander around alone, I was glad to have a guide along.
Many of the people are extremely traditional and there’s a lot of controversy about their role in Israeli society within Israel. Dorit took us to a delicatessen which served salads, a giant kugel (noodle pudding) – which wasn’t as good as my Aunt Millie’s – and gefilte fish, which everyone made a face when I mentioned it. But I still like it, especially with the bite of horseradish grated alongside. Unfortunately no one else was up for a taste, so I didn’t get any.
Then it was over to Hatzvi bakery. (Also spelled as Hazvi bakery. And warning, the site opens with music.) The first thing I noticed about the decidedly modern-looking place was that it was “help yourself” – which meant there was definitely no French bakery influence here. (As in, “Ne touchez pas!”)
The only similarity, perhaps, that Challah is an eggy bread, somewhat similar to brioche sans le beurre. But like France, there were a whole lot of able-bodied jeunes homes manning the ovens.
The bakery walls were lined with breads of all kinds – and baskets were filled with bagels and flatbreads. And when I posted a quick snapshot of one particular round of bread holding a bottle of vodka, which had been prepared as a special order for someone’s celebration, someone online quipped that the bread would probably have more flavor if the bottle was facing the other direction.
I went upstairs to watch the young men hard at work, mixing up giant batches of dough, then standing around a table braiding them into loaves. While it doesn’t look all the strenuous, in the limited time I spent working in a bread bakery, I’d have to say it’s not easy to do what they do all day – or night. But at least if they ever get tired, with their impeccable braiding-abilities – and speed, they could likely find jobs in a swanky hair salon and quadruple their income.
Hatzvi also had amazing hummus. I couldn’t help myself from ripping off wads of challah and smearing them with the tahini-laced chickpea spread. It was really excellent. And when I astonishingly wrote about it on Twitter, Amit Aaronsohn tweeted back…
So Amit promised to take me on a hummus tour of not only Jaffa, but Jerusalem and Tel Aviv on my next visit. And I’m holding him to all three of them, even though he only promised one – which at least I have in writing. (And I hope Twitter counts!)
Aside from being so intense, Israelis have a very strong entrepreneurial spirit, even more so than Americans. (And less-so than, um, elsewhere.) But not being a beer-drinker, I was vaguely interested in going to a tasting of artisanal beers.
And Israel is not a country of beer-drinkers either. When I asked what people drink in cafés, I was told “Coffee. Lots of coffee.” But with the hot weather, why not beer?
While my notes got a little hazy after the twelfth beer, I remember the first few the best, especially one flavored with a bit of passion fruit juice from Negev Brewery, who has great labels on their bottles. More straightforward beers were made by the Shapiro brothers, whose beer is brewed close to Jerusalem. No word on whether their mother was hoping her nice, Jewish boys would grow up to be doctors, but she should be proud nonetheless.
Just when I thought I couldn’t drink, or eat, any more, we took a trip up north, in the direction of Haifa, to Acre, where the restaurant of Uri Buri is. Uri is large, bearded man who served some of the freshest fish I’ve ever had. And I’ve had lot of fresh fish in my life. There were some innovations, like pear slices with mascarpone, and flying fish roe, but lots of raw fish served in thin slices with nothing but a simple acidic vinaigrette or lightly smoked, which had me wishing I’d pocketed a few of the bagels from Hatzvi bakery.
Nearby, in his ice cream shop Endomela, they were scooping up flavors like Arak (anise liqueur), apricot, poppy seed-yogurt, and we even tried Wasabi sorbet at his restaurant, paired with raw fish.
He gave us a tour of the Efendi Hotel, which is like a little oasis in a small village. Uri spent eight years remodeling, under the ever-watchful eye of the Antiquities Authority of Israel, to bring it back to its former splendor. If you think remodeling a home will give you gray hairs, look at poor Uri! : )
But looking out over the amazing skyline, I was thinking about leaving my resumé with Uri, just in case he needed any extra help scooping.
Then later it was up to Mizpe Hayamim, where I had the incredible Israeli Breakfast that was worth waking up for. But the night before was dinner at their restaurant, Muscat, where nearly 80% of the products served come from their organic gardens, including house-made cheeses and yogurts, from their herd of cows, goats, and sheep. The chef walked us through the gardens, and showed us the lovely, fragrant strawberries, I pulled out some watercress floating in a pond and marveled at the peppery flavor, fig trees were ready to explode with ripe fruits within a few weeks time, and best of all, the mulberries trees were glowing with angry-purple berries, whose sticky juices left my camera-snapping fingers useless. (Which was okay, since I was happy to have an excuse the pick more mulberries off the trees.)
Because night had fallen, and it was rather dim, photos were out of the question at the restaurant. But you can take a look at their Flickr stream to get a taste.
The food all over Israel was pretty great, which Israelis told me was not always the case. (I’m pretty sure that kugel was a holdover from those days.) In fact, we only had one meal that I wasn’t wild over. Partially because when I go out to eat, I don’t care about gimmicks (like pounding carpaccio right on the table, which had me scrambling to hold down the wine glasses, which were precariously wobbling towards the edges of the table) and was deafeningly loud. I think because I live in France, where voices and music are moderated in restaurants, I’m more happy to be relaxed at dinner, and I like talking to my tablemates. (Although I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before someone starts pounding out carpaccio à table here, too.)
Our last meal was at Messa. Truthfully, when I walked in and saw the floor-to-ceiling white drapes, doormen, and a lot of very good-looking people perched in oversized chairs, I was expecting the usual tuna tartare and arugula salad with Parmesan shaving, à la restaurants Costes, in Paris. But I almost fell off my oversized bar stool when plate-after-plate came out of chef Aviv Moshe’s kitchen, each one better than the one before, culminating in a tableful of desserts that were so creative, and so incredibly delicious, if I hadn’t eaten so much before they arrived, which included a re-imagined Lamb “Shawarma”, Fish kabobs with eggplant cream, yogurt, pickled lemon and pine nuts, and Kade, a Kurdish pastry with cheese and grilled vegetables, I would have gladly scraped all the dessert plates cleaner than the white drapes. And to prove how much I liked them, I just wrote the longest run-on sentence in the history of this blog.
The low light was very romantic, but not good for picture-taking, so you’ll just have to take my word on it. But it’s been a few weeks, and I’m still thinking of the dessert composed of rich chocolate ice cream, chocolate sauce, and a few mysteriously wonderful crunchies mixed in. If I wasn’t leaving for the airport early the next morning, I would have gone back and talked to the pastry chef. But alas, I had to bid shalom to the gefilte fish, and to Tel Aviv.