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Tasting Tel Aviv, Israel's culinary capital

By Bonnie S. Benwick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 4, 2010; F01

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.

Non-kosher restaurants, which serve shellfish and pork and do not separate milk and meat dishes, for example, are on the rise, especially in Tel Aviv. They aren't advertised as non-kosher and might not offer menus printed in English. But one way a tourist can tell is by checking the hours of operation. If a restaurant stays open on a Friday afternoon, say after 3:30, when many businesses start to wind down in observance of the weekly Sabbath (which lasts till sundown on Saturday), kosher food is not served.

(A word about kosher food in Tel Aviv: You'll want to try it, no matter your religious affiliation. It's inventive and largely vegetarian/vegan.)

The weekend technically begins on Thursday night, as many people don't work during the next two days. By 5 p.m. Friday, many people have spent at least part of their first full weekend day shopping for food. Vered says everybody in Tel Aviv cooks, and from the looks of shoppers' bags on this Friday, I believe it. Our post-breakfast stop -- in truth, it's well into lunchtime -- is the recently opened, fairly small morning farmers market in the city's northern port of Namal.

It affords a preview of what might be on the tables in Tel Aviv homes in the next 24 hours. Clamshell boxes of colorful potatoes are lined up in tidy rows. Greens go on for days: shiny leaves of chard, endless fresh herbs, spinach and leeks. Vendors squeeze pomegranates into foamy juice and ladle tahinis into plastic containers. Tins of Israeli olive oil are ubiquitous, as the country's citizens have developed a strong preference for their native brands. The port also has tony shops, including one that sells products of the Galilee. It's a good place to pick up jams, honeys, wines and spice blends.

There's much more action in the stalls of Carmel, Tel Aviv's largest open-air food market. The prices are cheaper than at the farmers market, and the variety of prepared foods is invigorating. Fruits and candies and breads are stacked high. Fish on ice is so fresh that there's no smell. The stream of shoppers grows a bit more frenzied by early afternoon, when the vendors will close down until Sunday.

People retreat to their kitchens or make plans to visit friends and family members. Soon, when the cooking aromas waft from apartment terraces and hit the streets, tourists might wish they'd been invited to partake. But food won't be far from view. Israeli hotels tend to feed their guests at all hours; there's a tray of something to nosh on in a lobby or business center. Even during downtime in your hotel room, you can click on cooking shows on one of Israel's main TV channels that feature such beloved celebrity chefs as Haim Cohen or Israel Aharoni. On the Sabbath, families take walks along the waterfront and picnic in the park. Large metal bins for discarding hot coals make grilling a popular option.

Tel Avivians willingly cop to a lifestyle that's more secular than that in the rest of the country. They're proud of the city's cafe culture, which, as near as I can tell, allows you to sit in an open-air restaurant for long stretches of time, unapologetically and without worrying about a prematurely delivered bill. It's not unusual to meet someone at one restaurant for an early lunch, spend a few hours, and then go somewhere else for a second lunch. That postpones restaurant dinner hours, which stretch until midnight and more likely to 1:30 or 2 a.m.

The hours spent in restaurants seem to melt quickly when you're engaged in lively conversation. But parties of one can be entertained just as intensely by the theater of open kitchens. "All of a sudden, it's very interesting for people to see what's going on," 30-year veteran chef Yossi Elad told me at Machne Yehuda, his eight-month-old restaurant in Jerusalem, which has the same name as the large open-air market it's adjacent to. "We need the interaction between kitchen and clients."

In his establishment, where he and fellow chef-owners Assaf Granit and Uri Navon share the stage, the kitchen hums with good-natured force. The open kitchen in an Israeli restaurant calls attention to itself in a way that doesn't happen in trendy U.S. restaurants where customers might be able to see into the workspace. The crew may take a moment to loudly toast a shift change or show a beautiful tray of freshly roasted seafood to customers at the counter. Dessert can be an experience. Vered and I were wishing for a video camera when three chefs rolled out a sheet of aluminum foil on our table, then arranged, squirted and poured from high above a messy concoction of semolina cake with tahini and caramel sauces and whipped cream. Delicious fun.

Elad finds a camaraderie among Israeli chefs that transcends the competitive nature of the business that he sees elsewhere. "Maybe it's because we served together in the military," he says, referring to the compulsory service for men and women that starts at age 18.

Tel Aviv has restaurants owned by media-dubbed "mad genius" chef Eyal Shani. At his Salon, patrons can stand almost at his elbow and watch him transform a pile of tomatoes into an artistic statement. And when he comes to the table to pound an order of carpaccio, an electric charge goes through the room.

All of which prompts Vered and other Israelis to wonder: What more will it take for any Israeli city, and especially Tel Aviv, to become a true dining destination? Israel's citizens, both Jewish and Arab, can agree to disagree on just about everything; in this relatively young country of 7.5 million, politics, religion and survival are the heavy matters of daily existence.

For the moment, there is general agreement and a positive outlook at least about this new culinary era. Proponents say the effort is not yet fully realized, pointing to battles over imported pork products and to the government's "rebranding" campaign, which, among other things, is attempting to promote an Israeli cuisine that goes beyond falafel and hummus.

By the end of our trip, Vered had only to raise her eyebrows when I pushed back from yet another exemplary food experience, completely satisfied.

Who knew that the land anciently advertised as flowing with milk and honey would take this long to develop its gastro tourism?

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