Israel vacation is culinary discovery


Chef Sharon Cohen is the chef and proprietor at Sheila in Tel Aviv. (Anatoli Michaelo)
August 28, 2012

Even when you have lived in Tel Aviv, as I have, and return regularly to visit relatives, a culinary tour of the place can show you a side of Israel you haven’t seen before.

Such was the case this summer. Through the Twitterverse and fellow blogger connections, my husband, Jonathan, and I met Inbal Baum, a 31-year-old former Washington area lawyer who founded Delicious Israel. We explored the nooks and crannies of nameless storefronts and stalls with awnings, including some in the city’s famous Carmel Market.

At one of them, a Yemenite woman showed me how to make lachuch (LA-hooh), a spongy, yeasted pancake akin to the injera of Ethi­o­pia.

Baum was insistent that we eat at Sheila, a chic seafood restaurant not far from the beach on the northern, old port end of Tel Aviv. It hadn’t shown up in the small bit of advance trip intel I had done, but our guide was spot-on. Chef and proprietor Sharon Cohen, originally from Jerusalem, tends to shy away from the spotlight. But his food deserves celebrity status.

The 36-year-old chef gets up early enough to bid at the daily 4 a.m. fishermen’s catch held in nearby Jaffa. His cuisine is influenced by Mediterranean bounty and flavors, by his Persian and Yemenite ancestry and by his work at the now-defunct Sakura, a Japanese restaurant in Tel Aviv. His execution is impeccable.

We had an in­cred­ibly fresh-tasting fillet of red drum on top of a lovely green risotto and blanched, pureed basil. Depending on the season, Cohen says, the dish might include mussels, shrimp and calamari. (He also makes a risotto with artichokes.)

But what made me press for a recipe was the chef's carpaccio of Spanish mackerel, with slices of caramelized fig, drizzles of yogurt and balsamic vinegar and a sprinkling of toasted sunflower seeds. I couldn’t wait to make it back home.

I happened to run into Cohen before I ate at his restaurant. Baum took me to meet Maoz Alonim, 38, chef of the minimalist HaBasta restaurant within the Carmel Market. The chefs were discussing the slim pickings at that day’s fish auction; Alonim refuses to serve what he calls “genetically engineered, farmed fish.”

HaBasta is the brainchild of Alonim and Itay Hargil, both veterans of the well-respected Yoezer Bar & Restaurant in Jaffa. It recently made the list of Newsweek’s “101 best places to eat in the world,” thanks to a nod by the oh-so-hot Israeli-born Yotam Ottolenghi, a celebrity chef-cookbook author in London. The menu changes daily — sometimes twice a day, depending on what’s mined from the surrounding open-air market. Alonim served us a perfectly seasoned heap of fish tartare with black lentils (another recipe score of mine; I’ve made it already, using grouper) and a whole, charred and peeled eggplant with tahini and deliciously runny egg yolk.

Israel is bubbling with creativity and fusion of foods. I can’t wait to go back and explore the food scene some more.

RECIPES:

Spanish Mackerel Carpaccio With Caramelized Figs

Seviche With Black Lentils

Madnick is a recipe developer, cooking instructor and food photographer in Fairfax. She blogs about food at www.foodwanderings.blogspot.com.

Sheila 182 Ben Yehuda St., Tel Aviv. 03-522-1224.

HaBasta 4 HaShomer St., Tel Aviv, 03-516-9234.

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