By Adam Sachs
June 13, 2014
Credit: Sivan Askayo

“Are you eating brains?” the chef asks hopefully.

It’s lunchtime in Tel Aviv. The banged-up Bauhaus buildings of the White City district are full, the bar trade lively.

Behind a curved glass-and-steel façade—buzzing café tables on a sunny street, South Beach on the eastern Mediterranean—the chef, Meir Adoni, is describing a brand of influence-rich, ingredient-agnostic, genre-busting, adrenalized cooking that doesn’t sound anything like what you’d expect from Israeli cuisine until you arrive here and step away from the hummus stand your cousin told you about and stop filling yourself from the bounteous salad stations of resort hotels and start saying yes to chefs bearing brain sandwiches.

With apologies to all ancient biblical contexts and vexing current political subtexts, I’m here just to eat. So of course I’m trying the brains.

Especially: crunchy fried calves’ brains on croissants made of butter-clouds. Layered with pickled eggs and a Moroccan-style stew of tomatoes and eggplant, preserved lemons, potatoes dressed with yuzu aioli.

The dish is Adoni’s riff on a Tunisian tuna fricassee sandwich, which itself roughly conjures an unkempt salade niçoise on a roll.

A onetime winner of Knife Fight, a local Iron Chef variant, Adoni is a compact, muscular fellow in sharply pressed, short-sleeved chef’s whites. He has a shorn head and hyper-expressive eyebrows. At Catit, his more formal restaurant next door, Adoni gets good marks for his tweezered, molecular-style compositions in the high-international style. But here at Mizlala (which more or less translates to “stuff your face”), the chef lets down his proverbial hair, delivering what he calls his “crazy, very rough kind of cooking.”

“Catit is my laboratory; here is my saloon,” Adoni says.

On cue, a waiter sets the brain before me. It is served with something like a dozen crisp cucumbers and, rather than a mere plate, it occupies a large frying pan, the better to underscore its brawny massiveness. “Use your hands,” the waiter advises. “The fork and knife, it’s just for show.”

There is a touch of the Zohan about Adoni (“I think Israeli womens is one of the most beautiful womens in the world”) but his ebullience is earnest and winning.

Like many chefs of his generation (he’s 41), Adoni left to work and train abroad (the late Cello, in New York; Alinea, in Chicago; and the inevitable notch in the stagiaire’s belt, a stint at Copenhagen’s Noma). And like his compatriots he returned home eager to fuse what he’d seen in those kitchens to the kaleidoscopic, cross-pollinating, impossible-to-pin-down thing called “Israeli cuisine.”

Israel is a tiny country with no real history of distinct regional cuisines. But a restaurant like Mizlala couldn’t exist in Jerusalem, 40 miles to the southeast. Cosmopolitan, sybaritic, Tel Avivans don’t, as a rule, go in for the restrictions of kosher laws.

“The black-hat people would be killing me in Jerusalem,” Adoni says. “Here you have the gay clubs. You can do things you can’t in other places. I take Jewish cuisine and I serve it with pork and seafood. I make a kugel with a tzimmes of carrots and I put glazed pork belly on that—and it’s Jewish!

“Here we have the knowledge that came to Israel from all over the world, from North Africa, from Arab cuisine, from France, Italy, Spain, and from all the Jewish cuisines from the mothers and grandmothers,” Adoni says, his eyebrows dancing in tempo with his delivery.

“The French, they have white pepper, nutmeg, and salt. I have fifty spices. Israeli food, it’s destroying you all the time. It’s sweet and sour and salty and pickled and we’re crazy about that. It’s an unbelievable adventure in the mouth.”

The waiter with the impeccable timing returns to deliver a lamb tartare with Palestinian influences, among others: chopped ruby-red meat, dark pools of puréed charred eggplant, cumin, pine nuts,thin rings of red onions, punctuating dabs of yogurt, chopped tomato, swirls of truffle oil, all topped with—why not?—jalapeño chiles.

Smoky, sweet, spicy, this is food without borders, borderline ridiculous but never succumbing to pointless piling-on. A dish that satisfies Adoni’s dictum that whatever hybrid, many-mothered form it may take, modern Israeli food must never, ever be boring.

There is no such thing as ‘Israeli cuisine,’ ” Gil Hovav says with a smile.

Hovav is a well-known food writer, TV host, book publisher, and lecturer. He abhors fish (“People with good education don’t eat fish. Sushi? I’m not a shark”), isn’t much impressed by certain temples of gastronomy (“I ate at El Bulli. Dreadful”), and claims to not drink water (“I am opposed to it but since you are a tourist you may have some”).

His cookbook Confessions of a Kitchen Rebbetzin is written in the voice of a cloistered conservative rebbetzin, or rabbi’s wife. He and his partner of 25 years, Danny, met in the army. They have an 11-year-old daughter for whom he sometimes will hold his nose and make Yemeni bouillabaisse (“God always takes revenge on the person he loves: my partner and daughter both love fish and seafood”).

Beyond his multimedia ubiquity, however, Hovav is considered something of a national treasure, a living link to the very foundations of Israeli identity: his great-grandfather Eliezer Ben-Yehuda created, nearly from scratch, the modern Hebrew language.

“Hebrew wasn’t spoken for two thousand years,” Hovav says. “It was kind of like Latin today. My great-grandfather was a poor boy, an orphan from a little village in Lithuania. But he knew this was his vocation, knew this is what he had to do. His first wife died and he married her sister and it’s amazing story and…now we speak Hebrew!

“So,” Hovav says, raising a glass of local rosé, “to happy travels in Zion.”

We’re having lunch at Yaffo Tel Aviv, a handsome, hangar-like new restaurant with a wall of unpolished concrete. With its black, Scandinavian-looking chairs set around patchwork tables of reclaimed wood and rows of oversize gray industrial pendant lights above, it’s the kind of room that would be familiar to diners in Melbourne or Malmö, Sweden, though the menu here is very much the product of a singular cultural crossroads.

“The chef and owner, Haim Cohen, is a very cool guy,” Hovav says. “He’s been on Master Chef, blah blah blah, and he owned very posh restaurants. But he is originally from the poorer neighborhoods south of Tel Aviv, in Jaffa, and so he named this place Yaffo Tel Aviv to say that Jaffa is more important than Tel Aviv.”

Cohen ambles over to pat Hovav on the back and say hello. “Jaffa is the authentic part of the city,” the chef says amiably. “Tel Aviv is the big city, and so this place represents a mix of the two. One day maybe it will be a part of what we hope to call Israeli cuisine.”

I eat pickled herring on sweet challah bread with tomatoes and a touch of sour cream too delicate to call a schmear. An oxtail stew is sweet with red wine and port.

“What you have in Israel today is a quilt,” Hovav says, gamely ignoring a plate of roast grouper with eggplant, sorrel, and chickpeas sent out by the kitchen. “It’s colorful and interesting and fun. Israeli food is an Oriental Mediterranean kitchen. A bit hotter, more sun-drenched. A bit more shameless sometimes.”

Hovav remembers the culinary awakening of the 1980’s as a time of rapid change and embarrassment. “This was the Reagan era in Israel as well. We had Chinese restaurants in gas stations. Terrible Italian food and Japanese fusion everywhere. But about ten years ago everybody got tired of the novelties and started returning to food that makes sense. Now we’re back to the necessities.”

Basic requirements to satisfy a Tel Avivan appetite might include: hummus for breakfast at Abu Hassan, the beloved, Arab-run stand in Old Jaffa; a Tripolitan lunch at some unchanged working-class spot; a trip to the Levinsky spice market in the neighborhood of Florentin capped by a snack there of warm Turkish böreks and a cold ayran, a salted, bubbly yogurt drink; meeting friends at Port Said, a loungey, packed little room with a wall of vinyl records and cold beer on tap, by the Tel Aviv Great Synagogue. Port Said is one of a couple of new, people-powered, small-scale restaurants in town where it’s easy to feel like you’re in an alternate-reality Greenpoint, Brooklyn, with better weather. Hahalutzim 3 is another. It’s run by a young couple, Eitan Vanunu (the self-taught bearded dude in the one-man kitchen) and his girlfriend, Naama Szterenlicht (the sweet one pouring wine).

There are tiles on the walls of Hahalutzim 3 and low, glowy lights, a few tables, and a limited counter space you can share with a meat slicer and a collection of cookbooks; there’s the low hum of Hebrew over the jazz. The night I visited, I ate delicate toasts of silver-skinned sardines with shushka peppers in sherry vinaigrette and another of plump pickled mussels and bowls of house-made pappardelle topped with orange egg yolk. I drank Sicilian wine and had a plate of local cheeses and crêpes suzette for dessert and ended up going out for late-night drinks with Vanunu and Szterenlicht in a cramped DJ bar in another part of town.

(The newspaper Ha’aretz reported on the proprietors’ romance: “On their first date they prepared bacon together…drunk with the joy of their initial encounter, [they] bought a pork belly from the Russian butcher, and…rushed home to smoke their own pork chops.” Oddly, none of this appears to be a euphemism for anything.)

Hovav and I make plans to meet the following day at the Levinsky market.

“It’s not just the spices that are colorful. There are so many crazy people there, you’ll like it.”

First, though, he wants to go around to the corner to Lachmanina.

“It’s the hottest bakery in Tel Aviv,” Hovav says. “Did you know it was started by a man who became a woman?”

A long and rather lovely story unspools about Nina who used to be Ofer, the husband of Deganit, and who, in the process of becoming a woman, found also a new calling as an artisanal bread baker. Nina and Deganit Halevy, friends of Hovav’s, weathered the transition and now together run the successful business, celebrated for its Nelson bread, a honey-sweetened loaf inspired by a South African recipe.

“So,” Hovav says, tapping the table. “Let’s go have some transgender croissant!”

The Alma Hotel & Lounge occupies a great old green house with shuttered balconies in the White City. There is a café-lounge with velvety club chairs and black-and-white tiled floors and pretty girls working at a bar backed by a wall of mirrors. My room had painted doors of aubergine and black, an earthenware-red faded kilim rug underfoot, and, mounted on the wall, a stag’s head made of porcelain flowers and plastic grapes and colorful tiles.

One cool evening I walk from the hotel, crossing Rothschild Boulevard, to the restaurant Tzfon Abraxas. My friend Bonnie Stern from Toronto happens to be in town. Bonnie is a cookbook author, culinary educator, and popular columnist for Canada’s National Post. She and Elyse Goldstein, a rabbi, are leading a food tour through Israel. I join the group for a feast of roasted baby cauliflowers served in crinkly paper, Spanish mackerel in a spicy tomato sauce, and Jericho green beans tossed with garlic and lemon.

“People used to take pictures of the bus,” Goldstein says. “When we first started doing these culinary tours, we’d have a sign on the bus and Israelis would laugh at us and point and say ‘What, do they think they’re in Italy?’ ”

These days the advances of the Israeli food revolution are accepted as an article of faith. Eyal Shani, the impresario of Tzfon Abraxas and a TV personality and generally divisive figure, is one of the country’s best-known chefs. His approach is at once highly theatrical and emphatically down-to-earth. He’s known for serving food on flat cardboard or directly on the bar. His restaurant Salon is dinner theater meets chef’s table. He and his crew buzz around behind a bar lined with wooden crates of produce—lemons, artichokes, clusters of red tomatoes, all dramatically lit as if in a still-life painting—engaging with customers who are sometimes moved to dance on the tables. But the food itself is admirably restrained and beautifully treated. One dish at Tzfon Abraxas is called “small pile of tomatoes.”

“Of course, Salon is embarrassing,” Hovav says. “You feel you are in a game you don’t want to be in. Still, it’s a great restaurant. The man has a relationship with eggplants that neither of us has.”

Occupying the opposite end of the culinary media personality spectrum is Maoz Alonim, the charming, soft-spoken, scruffy Falstaffian grump who holds court at Habasta, a tiny restaurant and wine bar at the edge of the Carmel Market. It is a simple room, half of it a glass-covered terrace with heat lamps on the ceiling. I passed a happy afternoon at the bar with Alonim, eating a procession of straightforward plates: yellowtail tartare with slivers of pickled pepper; labneh (strained yogurt) and wilted spinach drizzled with good olive oil; calves’ testicles bought at the market that morning and roasted; a white pizza with asparagus, black truffle, and eggs with runny yolks.

Alonim is not shy about sharing his frustrations with the political climate in his country. But the food itself is blessedly removed from any dialogue about what is and what isn’t Jewish or Israeli cuisine. It is simply what it is: well sourced, stripped to its essentials, thoughtfully prepared, and minimally messed with. Exactly the kind of satisfying and unshowy thing a hungry traveler is eternally seeking but doesn’t always find.

“Now it is time to learn about dates,” Hovav says. We’re in a stall specializing in dried fruits and spices and nuts, one of many in the maze of small streets that comprise the Levinsky market.

“This is deglet noor, the food of the really poor people. They laugh at the sheiks and rich men who eat the Medjool dates. This is drier, with a rough skin, but people who love it really love it.” We nibble on Uzbek raisins and sour currants from Iran, dried apricots, cherries, and Persian lemons.

At tiny Caffe Kaymak the proprietor brings us glasses of cold arak and laments the most recent losses of his always-losing Israeli soccer team, three in the last week alone.

“God is testing us,” the man says. “There’s a proverb in the Bible, ‘I call to you from the depths of the depths….’”

There are toy cars set on blue steel beams and lanterns and bare bulbs hanging from the peeling ceiling. “I hate this drink,” Hovav says, finishing the cloudy, pastis-like arak. “But it’s what you drink here.”

On the way to Penso for Turkish böreks, we stop to sample marzipan at a shop called Albert, founded in 1935. A customer introduces himself to Hovav and they embrace. “This guy is the cousin of a cab driver I know who makes the best osh palov in the world—a thick Bukharan stew of rice and lamb.”

The marzipan is ethereally light, the best I’ve ever tried.

At Penso, Hovav cracks a hard-boiled egg on my forehead. “That’s how you show friendship,” he says.

I crack a boiled egg on his forehead. We eat böreks, buttery dough pockets filled with burnt eggplant and cheese.

“The more chefs in Israel try to do new things, the more they go back to the oldest things ever done,” Hovav says.

Food traditions, like every other type, interact and overlap in the crossroads here. It’s a cuisine that is both ancient and newly improvised, pulling half-remembered influence from the Jewish diaspora, mixing it with local tastes and the creative leanings of a younger generation of cooks eager to establish their own paths.

Hovav recalls a story another taxi driver told him. The driver was trying, without luck, to cook the food his mother once made, the dishes of his youth.

“The man said, ‘I’m a better cook, I have better ingredients and techniques and time on my hand to experiment but still it never tastes as good as hers.’ So he asked her, ‘Mommy, why does my food not taste as good?’ And she told him, ‘Because when you were young we were hungry. This is the spice that makes the difference.’ So I think we are all trying to go back there.”

It was time for me to be calling a taxi myself. Hovav stuck his head in the window to advise the driver on the best route to my next stop, the Shuk Hanamal farmers’ market.

As we drove away I asked him if he recognized Hovav. “Of course,” the driver said. “He writes cookbooks and is on TV talking about food and his grandfather is Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, creator of the modern Hebrew language. Everyone knows that.”

Adam Sachs is a T+L contributing editor.

T+L Guide to Tel Aviv


Alma Hotel & Lounge 23 Yavne St.; $$$
Brown TLV Urban Hotel
25 Kalischer St.; $
Dan Tel Aviv
99 HaYarkon St.; $$$

Eat and Drink

Abu Hassan 1 Hadolfin; 972-3/682-0387.
Albert 36 Matalon St.; 972-3/682-3863.
Caffe Kaymak 49 Levinsky St.; 972-3/518-5228. $
57 Nahlat Binyamin; $$$$
Hahalutzim 3
3 Hahalutzim St.; 972-3/523-1016. $$$
4 HaShomer St.; 972-3/516-9234. $$
Lachmanina Bakery
14 Kreminitzky St.; 972-3/744-8088.
Mizlala 57 Nahlat Binyamin; $$$
43 Levinsky St.; 972-54/586-6636.
Port Said 5 Har Sinai; 972-3/620-7436. $$
8 Ma’Avar HaYavok St.; 972-52/703-5888. $$$
Tzfon Abraxas
40 Lilienblum St.; 972-3/516-6660. $$$
Yaffo Tel Aviv
98 Igaal Alon St.; 972-3/624-9249. $$$

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Appeared as "Feasts of Tel Aviv" in T+L Magazine