Tasting Tel Aviv, Israel's culinary capital

[Map: Tel Aviv]
By Bonnie S. Benwick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 4, 2010

It is Friday morning in Tel Aviv. As breakfast arrives at my table, situated 60 feet from where the Mediterranean is sending forth gentle, foamy waves of hello, I wonder whether the server has made a mistake.

There are small bowls of marinated eggplant, eggplant mousse, creamy labneh, tzatziki, hot Balkan-style flatbread and slices of dense walnut bread, herring with pickled red onion, a salad of diced cucumbers and tomatoes, roasted red peppers glistening with olive oil, three kinds of flavored olives, smoked salmon and a seviche of gray mullet.

Two minutes later, she returns -- only to deposit a brimming copper pan of shakshuka, a spicy dish of tomato, peppers and egg crowned with grilled haloumi cheese.

Eat up, says my friend Vered Guttman, a native of this cosmopolitan Israeli city on the sea. There's more on the way.

A few years ago, when we became friends over plates of the food she makes as a caterer in Washington, Vered began lobbying for such a moment. "The restaurant scene in Tel Aviv is amazing," she would say, followed by a series of: "They have the best. . . ."

Not taking her word for it turned into an enlightening late-winter journey. She went to visit friends and relatives. I went for the food.

"Twenty-four seven, you can have a bite," Vered's friend Yaron said as we sat at Manta Ray, a casual restaurant at the southern, beachy end of Tel Aviv. When toasted vegetable sandwiches and stacks of thick, slow-roasted eggplant disks showed up next, owner Ofra Ganor pulled up a chair. Manta Ray has served breakfast, lunch and dinner daily for 11 years, which makes it one of the city's oldest "modern" eateries.

Two decades ago, as a pioneering restaurateur, Ganor could not even find fresh herbs grown in Israel. Today, she says, Israel is Europe's largest supplier. After a trip to Los Angeles in 1996, she "stole" an idea to create a three-day Taste of Tel Aviv event that would showcase her country's so-called chef restaurants. The annual celebration adds more dining spots each year.

"Recognition of the food scene was gradual," she says. The cuisine at Manta Ray reflects what Ganor sees as a mingling of Eastern European, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures that features seafood, of course, and Israeli vegetables grown year-round.

Other chefs I spoke with in Tel Aviv, Jaffa and Jerusalem had similar stories of discovery and invention, many of which included initial cooking stints in Europe and the United States. Their newfound skills and culinary ideas fueled the desire to return home and work with what was grown locally and to push for more imported specialty items, such as Arborio rice for risotto and anchovies from Spain.

It took immigrants from Eastern Europe, Russia and Arab nations a few generations to imbue their native cuisines with Middle Eastern flavor; now, gradually, the foods that Israelis have developed a taste for on their travels are being imported and incorporated. Celebrity chefs are now homegrown, and food professionals from abroad come to marvel at a culture where fresh vegetables reign supreme, even at breakfast. Israelis want to eat and drink as locavores, and the wine and olive oil industries are pushing beyond their boutique boundaries as fast as they can.

During the same period, Israeli home cooks have found access to greater and more global bounty: non-kosher cheeses, sushi and these days even shellfish, which is not eaten by those who follow kosher dietary laws.

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