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Tel Aviv's Little Russia

Allenby Street, Tel Aviv

Photo: Maira Kalman

At 106 Allenby the Mal’enkaya Rossiya (Little Russia) delicatessen has everything you need to re-create a serious Russian table in the Middle East. There’s vacuum-packed vobla, dried fish from the Astrakhan region, which is perfectly matched with beer; marinated mushrooms in an enormous jar; creamy, buttery Eskimo ice cream—a Leningrad childhood favorite of mine; tangy eggplant salad; chocolate nut candy; glistening tubs of herring fillet; and a beautiful pair of pig legs. “Israelis love these stores now,” Zur-Glozman tells me, and the pig legs may be just one of the reasons. Russian speakers, Jewish or not, have an abiding love affair with the piggy, and it was the influx of former Soviet immigrants that brought a taste for the cloven-hoofed animal to Israel, much to the dismay of the country’s religious conservatives. The wildly successful and ham-friendly Tiv Taam chain of luxe food stores came along with the Russian immigration; the aforementioned Gaydamak tried to purchase the chain and turn it kosher, but even his billions couldn’t temper the newfound Israeli enthusiasm for the call of the forbidden oinker.

Farther down on Allenby, the Russian-language Don Quixote bookstore—the Russian nerve center of Allenby Street—is full of curious pensioners and boulevard intellectuals feasting on a lifetime’s worth of Isaac Asimov’s science fiction, Russian translations of the kabbalah, and an illustrated Hebrew-Russian version of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, which is presented like a Talmudic text with sweeping commentaries crowding the words. “To Nineteen Year Old Gaga—so that he won’t be stupid,” an old tome is helpfully inscribed.

A few blocks down the street, the Little Prague restaurant is full of Russian boys hitting on Israeli waitresses, and young Russian women pretending to eat. Little Prague exults in a wonderful version of the Czech classic veprove koleno—a marinated and slow-roasted pork knuckle with a hint of rye, which in the hands of the chef is flaky and light. There is also a heroic schnitzel and excellent Staropramen and dark Kozel beer on tap. The interior is gloomy Mitteleuropean, but outside a nice garden deck beckons, fully populated by drunk, hungry people as late as 3 a.m. and at times bathed in the familiar sounds of the theme song to The Sopranos.

Allenby saunters into the sea, where pale ex-Soviets take to the beach like it’s their native Odessa and florally dressed babushkas offer me advice: “Young man, take your sneakers off, let your feet breathe.” A right turn at Ben Yehuda Street leads to the Viking, a languorous, partly outdoor restaurant that joylessly specializes in dishes like golubets, a stuffed cabbage peppery and garlicky enough to register on the taste buds. As I tear my way though the golubets and lubricate with a shot of afternoon vodka, a mother in one corner softly beats her son, who is wearing a T-shirt that says ready when you ready. Crying, beaten children, along with sea breezes and heavy ravioli-style pelmeni swimming in ground pepper, complete the familiar picture, which could have been broadcast live from Sochi, Yalta, or some other formerly Soviet seaside town.

Off the Allenby drag, Nanuchka is what Zur-Glozman calls a neo-Georgian supper club, a place where one can order a cool pomegranate vodka drink, featuring grenadine juice from Russia and crushed ice, or a frozen margarita made with native arak liquor, almonds, and rose juice. The décor is mellow and cozy like a shabby house in Havana, complete with gilt-edged mirrors, portraits of feisty, long-living Georgian grandmas, and many charming rooms stuffed with sumptuous divans and banquettes in full Technicolor. The highlight of the crowded and raucous bar is a photograph of the former prime minister Ariel “The Bulldozer” Sharon staring with great unease at a raft of Picassos. At its more authentic, the Georgian food can really shine. Try the tender chakapulu lamb stew with white plums and tarragon, or setsivi—a cool chicken breast in walnut sauce, bursting with sweetness and garlic. Pinch the crust of the cheburek meat pie and watch the steam escape into the noisy air.

On the same street as Nanuchka, the club Lima Lima hosts a popular Sunday night showcase for Russian bands called “Stakanchik,” or “little drinking glass.” Amid luxuriant George of the Jungle décor, young, hip, and sometimes pregnant people in ironic CCCP and Jesus T-shirts shimmy and sway by the stage. A young singer wearing an ethnic hat begins a song with the words “Now it has come, my long-awaited old age,” a sentiment somehow both Jewish and Russian.

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