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The European oyster - the native Oyster of France - "Huître plate" or "Gravette"

I could not resist.  Many know that for the past year or so I’ve been a de facto vegetarian.  I do believe it’s OK to eat meat – I simply do not want to consume the hormones and antibiotics that swim in our meat pool.  I’m for healthy happy animals.  Regarding seafood, I’ve been on the fence.  Overfishing is a big issue, and lots of species (other than the ones being targeted) are being annihilated in the process.  As I’ve not quite made up my mind, I have simply abstained from eating all animals this year.  Until Friday.

One each of five different kinds of oysters flown in directly from France

A guy in my yoga class, someone I’ve seen once or twice a week for over a year but have never actually spoken to, mentioned to our teacher after class that there was an event at his restaurant the next day.  Turns out he’s a chef at one of my favorite wine-tapas-y-bars in town, Basta, and they were flying in crates of oysters direct from France.  Free-for-all true-blue French oysters, best in the world, from 8 am until they run out.  I knew I would be there.

So after an excruciatingly long wine tasting (hot, little business, new high heeled boots), I walked about 20 minutes until I reached the Carmel Market area, a strange yet fitting location for this bistro.  Friday is my favorite day in the shuk – I can get the best deals – everyone wants to get rid of their produce before the Sabbath starts – and I know where the best vendors are.  10 minutes later, laden with all the fruit and veg I’ll need for a month – and I’m at Basta – looking at this:

Basta's oyster spread

France and oysters go way, way back.  From Roman times when France was known for the best oysters, all the way to modernity when France became the first country in the world to start cultivating oysters on a large commercial scale – the French take their oysters and oyster culture seriously.  This fantastic website I discovered, devoted entirely to oysters, quotes the poet Léon-Paul Fargue (1876-1947): “I love oysters. It’s like kissing the sea on the lips.” So here I was, thrilled beyond belief to be sitting at this charming Tel Aviv bistro – meters from the raging-pre-Shabbat shuk, (the vendors now screaming and lowering their prices every few minutes), about to consume these gorgeous, rare gems – about to plant a slobbering wet kiss on the lips of the sea.

I think they're just as beautiful on the outside

To tell you the truth, that expression is bang-on.  I’ve always told my curious kosher-keeping friends that eating oysters is like eating a mouthful of the sea.  But kissing the sea – on the lips – oh my – that injects the sexy passion into the act of eating oysters.  It feels so natural,  feeling the cold, creamy, briny loveliness slide into your mouth.  It’s like French-kissing your food.  A food that is the embodiment of French-kissing.  But cold.  Ice cold.  Weird, I know.

And so, my friends, the time has come, to talk of cultural oyster references.  The first that comes to mind is, of course, Lewis Carroll’s poem, “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” from Alice Through the Looking-Glass.  The most famous stanza:

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–
Of cabbages–and kings–
And why the sea is boiling hot–
And whether pigs have wings.”

However, my most favorite oyster scene is from Tampopo.  Please excuse the inane “commentary” from the person who posted the video onto YouTube.  Just watch the movie.

Ahh! So damned good.

"O Oysters," said the Carpenter, "You've had a pleasant run! Shall we be trotting home again?' But answer came there none-- And this was scarcely odd, because They'd eaten every one.

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UPDATE (23/12/2012): I wrote this a couple years ago, and my stats have proven it has been quite a popular and useful post. Please note, I believe the “Little Prince” has closed. Shame. It was quite a Tel Aviv staple.  A few other cafes I want to throw out there to make a more relevant list: Etnachta (Dizengoff just south of Arlozorov) – basic menu, very friendly staff leave you alone for hours, lots of electric plugs if you know where to look, good atmosphere.  Campanello (corner of Ben Yehuda and Nordau) is relatively a new place, and I hope it stays around – authentic Italian deli, incredible meat sandwiches, fresh and affordable pizzas, a cafe environment – again lots of electric outlets, good internet, friendly staff, and the food is far above average.  Finally Maker’s (Ben Yehuda 202) seems more like Tel Aviv’s best casual take out sandwich place at first glace, but at second glace, they have more electric outlets than any other cafe I’ve seen.  I’ve gone there for years for their incredible hot roast beef and goose subs with poached egg, and though I’d seen people working on laptops, I didn’t working there myself it until recently.  It seemed too casual (most of the seating is outside, but the enclosed glass structure around the sidewalk heats it adequately enough). I now think I can recommend it, and highly. Did I mention it’s also open 24/7 except Fridays?

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I’m at a favorite café right now, and I’ll be attempting productivity…right after my grilled cheese with tomato and cafe Americano with warm milk on the side appear.  The cafe lifestyle in Tel Aviv, and Israel in general, makes my existence more than tolerable.  It’s a real comfort.  At times a joy.  I’ve written some incredible articles, short stories, blog entries, and plowed through tons of work for clients on a binge when having procrastinated to the point of insanity.  I alternate between long macchiatos (incredible how you can drag out a long drink as opposed to a short), Americanos (best value for money), and occasional lattes (strong) made with soy milk (decadent and healthy).

As opposed to the US (and its prolific slew of Starbucks), internet is always free.  I thought it would be so stateside, but it’s not always so.  I’m out to lunch on the Starbucks phenomenon.  Their presence has been my savior many, many a time, but it’s awfully awkward to have to buy that gift card, use it, register it, and get a month of “free internet.”  I think there’s also a 2-hour time limit.  The busy blandness of SB is also uninspiring to the point of nausea, and don’t get me started on the prices and selection.

Without further ado, here are the Tel Aviv Cafés I work in and find to be at once affordable, inspiring, and possessing an understanding wait staff:

  1. Segafredo

    Segafredo, corner of Frishman and Dizengoff.  This is a bare-bones epitome of a cafe.  Their coffee is great, and in the true Italian tradition, they offer a nice selection of delicious yet simple sandwiches.  There is no “cooked” food.  The decor is almost nonexistent.  But the prices are lower than any other cafe I’ve encountered, mainly (I think) because of the lack of showy side salads and lunch specials.  Here, you order a sandwich, you get a sandwich, along with a small bowl of olives.  The take-away prices are cheaper yet.  The inside has a giant wall-length booth with electric outlets between almost every table.  When I discovered this cafe, it wasn’t for work that I chose it as a regular spot.  Right after I made aliyah, I found it pleasant to people-watch (it may very well be one of the best intersections in town) and write frilly letters and postcards to family and friends.  A bit later, I found it was within walking distance of my first therapist and right across the street of a Steimatsky bookstore.  The fact that they serve the closest thing to real American pies in Israel, and that these huge individual circles of either berry, cherry, apple, and caramel, on top of a layer of creamy white chocolate cost a whopping 19 shekels ($5), blew my mind.  When chocolate cake, tiramisu and tart tatin run between 33-40 shekels ($9-12) everywhere in town, and you can only get a lousy slice of dry carrot cake for 19 shekels anywhere else, there was no competition.  I would enjoy a leisurely walk after therapy, mulling the ideas, then stop at a bookstore and browse and/or buy, then head to Segafredo for a cherry pie and a creamy coffee which I slowly consumed while I read for an hour or two.  The waitresses are sweet, and they leave you alone.  It’s a prime spot for business meetings and independent workers by day, a neighborhood joint on weekends, and a pre- and post- theater must-stop for the Beit-Lessin Theater across the street.  All I can say is go.  Don’t judge a book by its cover.  Give it a try.

  2. Cafe DIZI

    DIZI, Kikar Dizengoff across from the cinema and Kabbala Center.  This is cafe is the height of cool.  A cafe & laundromat (it works, believe me), in a prime, sunny location.  It’s vegetarian (with fish), relatively reasonably priced, colorful, young, with the BEST MUSIC (I listened to Dylan, Dire Straights, Petty, and the Beatles all day yesterday), and the most comfortable sofa I have ever had the pleasure on which to rest my derriere.  The food is creative and satisfying across the board.  Affordable and yummy things to order: the crunchy toasted croissant grilled cheese with spicy salsa on the side (I ask them to put the salsa inside the croissant before they toast it) for 19 shekels; the egg salad sandwich, a very nicely made lunch, served with tomato and pickle on a toasted sesame kaiser roll with a lovely side salad, all for 29 shekels; and finally, a personal favorite – the garden sandwich – the vegan’s delight – roasted pepper and eggplant, shredded carrot and radish and cucumber, shmeared with avocado – heaven – healthy – and you really feel that energy while you eat it, also served with a side salad, all for 32 shekels.  With a 9 shekel Americano, plentiful outlets, and a smiling tattooed staff ignoring you for hours on end, I feel like I’m hanging out as I work.  It’s where I finished my novel, so DIZI is quite dear to my heart.

  3. The Little Prince, Simta Plonit off of King George near Gan Meir.  A rustic used bookstore-cafe the likes of which you’d expect to see on a college campus.  It’s in a classically old building, with wood floors, flea market furniture, very quiet, and outlet-plentiful.  Your fellow customers are more likely to be learned, cultured types as opposed to businessmen or social-networking mavens or visiting American students.  My recommendations: “The Princely Breakfast” is the most bang for your buck at 35-ish shekels – two eggs any way, a loaf of fresh bread, a side salad, and a selection of spreads and dips (tehini, jam, cream cheese, tuna salad), and coffee or juice; the “wrap combo” – a half-order of one of their wraps (one of the only places in town I’ve seen them – I get the Iraqi one with eggplant and tehini), a side salad, and a beverage, all for 20+ ish shekels.  They really leave you alone here, and I’ve gotten so much work done.  Be careful not to confuse the Little Prince cafe for their other branch around the corner on King George; it’s the same bookstore/company, but the other place is only a bookstore, carrying the majority of their titles, while the cafe has a more limited selection.  In the summer they have really fun outdoor seating in their back garden.
  4. Fresh Natural Lemonade at Loveat

    Loveat (several locations – Dizengoff & Jabotinsy; Nahalat Binyamin just south of Allenby; and Barzilai 1 across from Yehuda HaLevi in the Gan HaChashmal area).  Organic coffee, clean & modern design.  Some locations are more apt for work, but they are all really fun.  The food is not cheap, but it’s all really really amazing for cafe fare.

    Loveat Nahalat Binyamin

    The best place to work is the Nahalat Binyamin branch, mainly because they have a large variety of seating areas, one of which – a loft gallery with velvety booths and outlets – is perfect to hide away.  This branch also has a back garden, a side garden, and lots of seating out front, a very perfect spot to see and be seen on market days.  The Jabotinsky branch is the smallest, but they do a great job with makeshift seating on the sidewalk with a glass box placed over it during winter months.  I worked at Barzilai once and found it tolerable.  What to order: to keep the cost down, it’s best to go not too hungry.  That said, their baked goods are wonderful.  Get the bran muffin.  As far as sandwiches, ordering off the menu is expensive.  They have a number of pre-packaged (yet very fresh) sandwiches much like a remember in Ireland and England – egg salad, tuna, mozarella & basil, roasted veg, etc.  They look small and flat, but they’re cheaper and quite good and filling.  The sides.  I have made a meal out of the sides.  You can get a small soup (fresh every day, the size of which seems like the serving I’d give myself at home) for pennies (under 20 shekels), and you can order a side of bread and butter (a whole mini baguette) for 8 shekels.  A fun thing to have is their flavored lemonades – fresh and homemade, they come in glass jars and are naturally flavored with things like a whole cinnamon stick inside.  Be sure to take one of the cards where they give you a stamp for every coffee – it takes a long while, but when you complete 3 cards (30 coffees) they give you a free bag of fresh organic coffee to take home, along with the three free coffees you’ll have had at the end of each 10 cups purchased, of course.

  5. Tazza D’Oro

    Tazza D’Oro, Ahad Ha’am 6 at the northern edge of Neve Tzedek.  I LOVE this place.  It’s so charming.  You feel like you’re in Europe.  I’ve only worked here once, but I know it’s possible.  I simply had to mention it because it’s just the perfect date location, the perfect Friday afternoon with friends, the perfect late-night dessert, and yet also a wonderful early-morning breakfast spot.  Fridays there is live jazz in the afternoon in their big outdoor garden (even in winter, it’s almost entirely under a awning and umbrellas, and there are heat lamps everywhere).  The coffee is simply the best.  The menu isn’t cheap, and they stopped serving beer in tap, but there are ways to get around this.  There is one affordable salad, and the breakfasts are worth the cost (but not served all day).  That said, if you’re there anytime later, the only real choice for me is the egg sandwich.  It’s the cheapest thing on the menu (perhaps 29 shekels), and it doesn’t come with anything else.  That said, it’s the best egg sandwich I’ve had in Israel.  The bread is hugely thick cut, and it’s a kind of doughy challah or brioche, plentiful yet fresh mayonnaise, the egg is a kind of omelet, tomato slices.  It’s just good.It makes me happy to eat that.  You know that at this kind of place, they really put effort into their food.  Even the simplest thing on the menu.  Get a coffee, too.  It would be a sin not to.  It is after all one of the few places you can get this real Italian roast.  It’s home is a few meters from the Pantheon in Rome, one of my favorite places in the world, so I satisfy a little nostalgic nagging when I go.   So – mornings for work; Friday afternoons for jazz and beer and wine; every evening for a good date; and all the time – excellent coffee.

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Eating in America (continued) — Budget Vegetarian Dining Adventures

New York cuisine proved to be far more interesting than Chicago’s, although I am certain this isn’t at all a rule.  This is probably because I saw more friends, ate less at my sister’s place, and was generally “on vacation.”  Here are the places, some exceptional, some pretty mediocre, that I patronized.

  • Popover Cafe

    Popover Café – typical yuppie breakfast place with a specialty in super-inflated-fluffy popover buns (if you can call them that).  We got in early-ish (before 10:30) and didn’t have to wait for a table.  Lots of interesting egg dishes.  Funny rule in NYC – no alcohol served before 12 noon on Sundays.  I really wanted my bloody mary or mimosa.  I really did.  Finally stateside in a proper decent breakfast place, and no booze to take the edge off the weekend.  Goodness.  I made up for it that night, though.

  • Landmarc.  Ick. Ick.  Overpriced ick.  Besides a salad or something, close to no veg options of interest on the menu.  There are daily pasta specials, and one was agreed to be made for me sans meet.  The waitress went on and on about how todays risotto was great.  And I love risotto.  Better than fetuccini  alfredo any day as a veg option.  And you know what I got?  Pretty much fettuccini Alfredo.  No risotto.  We were in a hurry and I was really hungry.  I didn’t say anything.  So I’m saying something now.  First of all, if you’re a tourist in NYC – don’t go to TriBeCa besides the World Trade Center site.  Seriously, there’s nothing to see.  I really don’t want to put people down, but only wealthy artists and yuppies live seem to live there.  It’s not too pretty either.  Second, if you live there or are visiting someone who lives there, I wouldn’t go to this restaurant, especially if you don’t eat meat.  There’s a perfectly charming bakery down the block on Duane.  They’re way famous and overpriced, too, but at least you can’t mess up a cupcake or croissant too badly, and their mint tea really hit the spot when I was stuck in a huge downpour.  Just don’t eat in TriBeCa unless you do your homework.  Ugh.  At least the wine was good, and they had plenty of half-bottles.  Getting pleasantly sloshed took some of the frustration off of the crappy pasta.
  • Better Being Underground – yes that’s the name – awesomeness in a paper bag.  Tzaziki egg salad sandwich.  Incredible gourmet soup with pears and I can’t remember what else.  Not cheap but not expensive, given the amazing ingredients and speed.  It’s one of those sit-down-break-open-a-bottle-of-bubbly-just-because kind of lunches except it’s in a tiny basement without any seating and you grab what you want or wait a couple minutes while they make it for you.  Yes.  At least al fresco dining was to be had at a sweet little park across the street.
  • Food Exchange Café – At least it might be.  It could be the Oxford Café.  I can’t remember the name, so I’ve googled the entire (59th and Lexington) area, and these two seemed the likeliest candidate.  The only two options on the block, and both sound like delis.  Honestly I was only there for a few minutes.  I’m writing about it because it seemed like a typical office-worker-lunch.  Very NYC.  A hurried lunch if I’ve ever seen one.  A counter.  All the diverse, delicious sandwiches already made.  You point, they grill or not, according to what you want.  You pay somewhere else.  It comes out to you.  You stand and eat.  Or you go to a tiny park facing some giant bridge and noisy intersection on 59th.  It’s all good.  My three-cheese caprese was just that.  I miss Italy.
  • Pomme Café Astoria – it’s nice that people realize that they’ll get more business if their décor is just right.  It helps if it’s all in the right neighborhood.  And Astoria seems to be just that.  Really hip.  Lots of cool looking restaurants.  If not for the lack of high buildings and slightly shabbier look, it could be the Upper East Side, not Queens.  The food was very pretty on the plate.  My mushroom truffle risotto was perhaps the best thing I ate in NYC all week, miniscule as it was (as it should be, say I).  Again, yes, maybe I should give them a break because it is a French place, but there was nothing veg on the menu besides that risotto (an appetizer), the onion soup, and two salads.  And it was a beautiful authentic upscale French bistro menu.  Great, great, creamy, crisp crème brulee.  Just as it needed to be.  This place I would recommend.  Great drinks list.  I had Talisker and Johnny Walker Green.
  • Brooklyn Label Cafe

    Brooklyn Label Cafe – Organic tofu and cheese and potato scrambler.  Oh yeah.  My friend always gets the scrambled eggs that come with a huge side of roasted beets.  It’s delicious.  Lots of creative veg.  Lots of creative non veg.  It’s a rocking joint.  A raving recommendation from me.  It’s such a hipster spot.  Really warm and welcoming.  The food is just interesting, flavorful, and comforting.  Yay for Greenpoint!

  • Café Grumpy – Awesome green tea.  Great to work at.  Quiet.  Funky.  Yes, yes, yes.  I wish we had cafes like this in Israel.  Hip and quiet and tasty and so internet friendly you’d think it was the Skokie Public Library.  Gotta love Brooklyn!

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Eating in America – Casual Budget Vegetarian Dining

It has never been this difficult to be a vegetarian in the United States.  Perhaps I take it for granted, living in Israel – everything is so salad-based, so kosher-themed (if not kosher itself) with meat and milk being eaten separately, that more than half the choices at any given time seem to be vegetarian.  Not so in the US.  Have times changed since I was last a vegetarian (1992-2000)?  Granted, I was a child (13-21) when I last abstained from eating animals and was less aware and ate out less as a rule.

For my own sake I decided to document where I ate over the course of my trip.  Usually I made choices according to budget, convenience, and menu, in that order, unfortunately or fortunately.  I think I gained a kilo or two while away.  Oh well.

I’ll go city by city, as there’s a lot of text.  Chicago is the least interesting because I got to eat and cook at home, which is far cheaper and far far more interesting fare than at most eateries I can think of.

Chicago

  • Panera Bread – Walking into an establishment that appears so healthy, fresh, and modern like Panera Bread – and be presented with only 1 meat-free sandwich – is quite frankly appalling.  Two vegetarian soups and three simple (dull – green, Greek, etc) vegetarian salads (out of 8) were also on the menu.  I ended up taking half a Mediterranean sandwich (very dry and exceptionally uninteresting, seeing as I live on the Mediterranean coast myself) and a tomato-based vegetable soup.  First time I saw that American eateries are wild about chicken.  Ugh.
  • IHOP – The comfort factor is quite high at a place like this.  In Israel we (I) miss the fast polite service, familiar (butter soaked) foods, and endless cups of crap coffee and half & half.  There is nothing even remotely similar.  IHOP is breakfast, slightly upscale fast food (you get to sit in comfy booths and get served), cheap, and oh so traditional.  Yes, it’s crap.  But it’s good crap.  Crap you miss.  Instead of a stack of chocolate packed pancakes, my parents and I all inadvertently ordered from the “healthy choices” menu, where we could see how many calories we were actually consuming, and this with the egg-substitute, grease-free, veggie-ful type omelets.  So much for overlapping crispy meat byproduct mingling with eggs and sausage swimming in pools of maple syrup.  At least the coffee is still…coffee.  And endlessly we drank.
  • Eduardo’s – Chicago is known worldwide for its unique deep dish pizzas.  They are oh so good, lovely rustic shells of crusts, bursting with thick layers of cheese and rich tomato sauce, one slice being more than a meal in and of itself.  Anywhere but at Eduardo’s so it seems.  The service was so bad, it’s simply not worth mentioning our level of suffering.  And the pizza was crap.  I was embarrassed to be eating it with out of towners.  Enough said.  Go to Pizzeria Uno or Due or Lou Malnatti’s or Giordano’s or whatever.  Eduardo’s was never my favorite.  And I will never be going back after this.
  • The Corner Bakery – this “Lettuce Entertain You” restaurant sure has changed.  It’s fast, slightly interesting Italian, order at the counter style.  But there used to be more choices.  They used to cook most everything in front of you while you waited anxiously.  There were rosemary encrusted loaves and pine nut spinach tarts and the best ceasar salads you can imagine.  Now, eh.  You order everything, and you don’t get to see it.  It does come to your table, though. But the assembly line has taken over.  I had a three-salad combo.  Not much to choose from, I got macaroni caprese, a bean salad, and a Greek salad (I think).  They were pretty unremarkable.  Healthy-ish, though.  Filling.  Decent portion for “fast food.”  A good choice at the mall, I guess.
  • The Celtic Knot – Evanston – Awesome. Irish pub, Irish-British cuisine. Comfort food with an upscale twist. 90% meat menu, but the veg options were brilliant.  My mother had a portabella sandwich with freshly fried potato chips (not fries, for those non-American readers).  I got a warm spinach salad with goat cheese, cranberries, and candied walnuts.  That was heaven.  Best meal in Chicago, by far, and on my last night in town.  We ate the meal accompanied by Cider (mother) and a Snake Eyes for me (half cider, half lager – a drink that’s illegal in many parts of the British Isles because it’s said to raise a person’s temper and make them mean and prone to fighting.  Don’t ask me why.  Someone once ordered one when I was bartending in London, and not knowing what it was, went to the asst. manager.  He told me what it was, said I was never to make one, and then he proceeded to pour one for the gentleman because “he knew him.”)

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Morrocan chicken stew

My Morrocan chicken stew - so tender - served over couscous

Cumin, chick peas, chicken & lamb. Eggplant, coriander, courgettes & couscous.

"Casserole" in HebrewThe second of the Anglo Food Blogger’s dinner I’ve attended was held last night at Casserole (3 Lillenblum, Neve Tsedek), a trendy yet down-to-earth kosher restaurant specializing in real Middle Eastern cuisine, specifically stews and kubbehs (meat-filled semolina dumplings either boiled or fried) from Iraq, Tunisia, and Morocco. The restaurant also seems quite proud of its Arak collection.  An alcoholic anise beverage (similar to Ouzo and Pernod) served on ice, often with sprigs of mint,  it is a regional specialty and favorite.  It’s an acquired taste, and many Westerners (like us) don’t take too kindly too it.  Besides a selection of some 12 different kinds, the restaurant sports a wide variety of homemade flavored Arak.  Rare, indeed.

Dinner was organized by Miriam and Michelle, and we were joined by Sarah, Liz, and Yael, all wonderful, knowledgeable cooks and food bloggers.  I encourage you to visit their blogs – altogether they’re great way to get a real taste of Israel.

Iraqi beef stew

Iraqi beef stew

Our dinner was lovely. Rather home-cooked, yes, but very satisfying, and very very affordable.  The chicken in my Moroccan stew was as tender as you could possibly want, falling off the bone at the mere suggestion of cutlery.  I tasted the others’ kubbeh and various other stews, each as delicious as the next.  I was particularly taken by a couple of the mezes – a stewed zucchini with a generous amount of garlic cooked in it and a spicy cold eggplant dish I ate until I wiped up the bottom of the dish. Half loaves of thick white bread were served with a small bowl of pickled cabbage and carrots, as well as a small bowl of savory curried pumpkin.

Curried pumpkin spread, (juice of) beet salad, spicy eggplant & pickled veg

The conversation’s wide range spanned from translation of the names of the unique ingredients in some of the lesser-known dishes we were eating, to the particularly embarrassing state of Israeli politics and international relations at the moment, to Studio 54 (one of us had been!), Andy Warhol’s diaries, and back to Israeli wineries and the tour we’ll potentially be taking together to one when the Passover season is over. And of course, much more.

Huge kubbeh! - stuffed with lamb & cooked in broth

With only three (or four – I almost never look at salads) categories, all mains are 30 shekels, all first courses around and mezes (smaller “tastes”) between 10-20 shekels or so.  With the six of us sharing a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc for 90, we each paid 50 shekels apiece.  I’m saying wow. A real deal for dinner or any meal. Especially for Neve Tsedek – yuppie-ville if ever there was one.  I’m going to have to come to Casserole again.

A super-fun evening.  I really enjoy the company of this diverse, smart group of ladies.  Seriously, folks, check out their beautiful blogs.

Casserole's interior, image from their website

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The best croque monsieur on this side of the Mediterranean. Best croque madame, if we’re being technical.

I discovered a bistro less than a ten minute walk from my house.  It’s a tragedy it’s taken me this long to find it.  Gilad and Daniel located at 300 Dizengoff (corner of Yehezkiel just north of Nordau) is the closest thing to a real French brasserie I have ever seen in Israel.

Here’s the story of my first meal.

I decided on a long walk this Friday morning.  Tough week.  Sunshiny day.  Why not? I packed 3 books (you always need a selection) and headed north on Dizengoff (I usually head south).  Desperately in need of some breakfast, I knew there were some trendy places north of Nordau.  I didn’t expect what I found.  Jeremiah is a cafe that everyone knows.  It’s always full of hip people.  A place to be seen.  Not a place I’m comfortable with, but as I’d never been, I thought I might try it.  Before I got there, I passed Gilad and Daniel.  It wasn’t as crowded, and the people seated seemed a little more on the interesting side.  A waitress smiled at me as I walked by.  Then, out of the corner of my eye I saw that the far end of the exterior wall was covered in a Renoir print —  famous colorful cafe scene.  Immediate u-turn.

The menu features a breakfast crepe and the croque, of course, with main dishes including an incredible saur kraut and mixed meat dish, coq au vin, boeuf bourgignon, and an incredible looking couscous tagine.  Many “Israeli” dishes on the menu, as well (heck, it is Israel, after all), but these French dishes are perfect.  Down to earth, simple, well done.  No fancy dry brioche (a la Benedicts).

I had such a lovely time eating this croque madame, I cannot emphasize this more.  The cheese was perfectly melted and creamy and rich.  Mingling with the ham and the runny yolk I adore so much, I dreaded the end of the simple sandwich.  So much so that I photographed the very last bite.

It was a lovely day, a perfect meal, and I sat for an hour or more with a good cup of coffee and a hilarious book, Three Men in a Boat.  I highly recommend this bistro.  It’s the finest eatery in my neighborhood, and despite the fact that it’s very much a small neighborhoodsy cafe, the meal I ate was more authentic and satisfying than any I have eaten along the fashionable Rothschild Blvd corridor.  Yes, better.  I’d put money on it.

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Review: Rak Basar (translation: “Only Meat” – restaurant); 223 (cocktail bar)

Tel Aviv certainly loves its gimmicks – restaurants and bars all over town try some interesting and often odd tricks to get people in door.  Some gimmicks are logical – a breakfast restaurant serves breakfast and not dinner.  A cafe serves coffee and not sirloin.  But, I’m not quite for fad gimmicks.  If it works, it works, great.  My experience at the deaf-blind center’s BlackOut restaurant was a real thrill.  My disappointment at 24-hour breakfast at Benedict’s was monumental.  But will these places (or their genres) stand the test of time?  Or does that even matter?  Here are two accounts of recent gimmicky places I had the pleasure of encountering.

Rak Basar

Gimmick #1: choose your cut and size of meat at a real butcher shop at the back of the restaurant – then have it served on a small tabletop grill – where you can choose to cook the meat further, or simply keep portions of it warm while you slowly work you way through the masses of it all.

At a restaurant called “Only Meat,” it really says something when the parts of the meal I loved most were the all-you-can drink wine jug (after all, you stop caring after the second glass that the wine is uber-cheap Shel Segal) and the appetizers (creative, finely chopped salads – one with cactus!; and an elegant small-portioned grilled beef tongue served atop a salad).

Although I ordered my NY strip steak rare, it came blue.  My dad’s sirloin (ordered medium rare) came in rare-to-blue, and my sister’s ostrich (ordered at the butcher’s recommendation of medium-to-medium rare) came in so blue it was cold in the middle.  And it being ostrich – a bird – I was worried at how safe it would be to actually eat it in that condition.

My first thought was that they honestly thought that the tabletop grill would keep cooking the meat steadily, so they undercooked.  But the grill wasn’t quite hot enough to do that.  My second thought was that most Israelis unfortunately like their meat well done. Perhaps the cooks just don’t know what rare really is and thought it better to undercook than overcook.

We sent a lot of it back to be re-fired — with varying levels of success.

The positives – the most attentive friendly wait staff I have encountered in Israel.  Our waiter was a tattooed oddly shaved gent named Shai.  He was a ball, and to be sure (despite our food), we left him a hefty tip.  The decor is authentic old-Israel-brick with vaulted ceilings & down-to-earth wooden furniture.  The bottomless wine glass is fun, and the appetizers are wonderful.

It was just a shame that the gimmick – the restaurant’s raison d’etre – was such a huge let down.  I won’t be going back too soon.

223


Gimmick #2: Classy yet friendly cocktail bar with creative, original recipes using local ingredients and liquors.

Sounds perfect! In a town where beer is king and most bars have usually never heard of a sidecar, 223 (named for its address – 223 Dizengoff) has a perfect recipe for success. Or so you’d think…

Atmosphere: 10; Service: 10; Cocktails: 3

Admittedly I’ve only been once.  But when you’re served the worst classic gin martini of your life at place that calls itself a state-of-the-art cocktail bar – you’ve got problems.

They have a ginger-lime-pineapple-lemon grass martini; Mediterranean caipirinhas; blood orange margaritas, and an awful lot more scrummy-sounding drinks.  And they are delicious.  Really delicious.  One drink even won an international award.

My issues:

  1. The glasses – if it’s a margarita, serve it in a margarita glass; if it’s a martini, serve it in a martini glass.  It makes a big difference.  People feel special drinking from these specially shaped large glasses.  The drinks go down better. There’s a reason they exist.  We were served in regular tall ridged glasses.  You couldn’t even call them highballs.
  2. Ice – cocktails should rarely be served with ice.  Our drinks came with lots of big ice cubes…and straws…(hello – where’s the salt for the rim of the margarita)…which leads me to suspect…
  3. Watered down drinks? I can’t prove it.  They might be super-strong.  I would hate to be slanderous here.  But the volume of the drink, the size of the glass, with all the different juices going in, and the ice (the ice!), just made it all feel fishy.  I guess, after all, you’re paying for the gimmick – not the booze.
  4. The WORST martini of my life! My sister told me I should have sent it back and assured me its common practice in Israel.  Call me a polite American.  I suffered the abomination.  I love classic cocktails.  Not that fruity-tooty isn’t great.  But I relished my few years in Chicago as a young professional, heading for swanky downtown hotel bars with other colleagues for dirty martinis or Manhattans or cosmopolitans.  And I love a classic martini.  Gin, never vodka.  Served pretty damned dry.  With a big ole olive or two.  Maybe even a dressed up blue cheese olive or two.  The drink I was served at 223 was not a martini.  I requested a real martini glass, if they had one, and the waitress insisted that they did.  Why my earlier order of a fruity martini didn’t come in one remains a mystery, but this supposed martini appeared in the correct glass.   That said, it was made of a substantially large percentage of vermouth.  I’m talking 35-50% vermouth.  Gin was the aftertaste.  It was really nasty.  It wasn’t served cold enough (no ice cubes could bail the bartender out using this glass), and the three olives were our tiny wrinkled Israeli variety (probably all they had).  They were, however, the best part of the drink.  And the laughable part?  They charged me 44 shekels for this drink – a full 5 shekels more than any other classy drink on their menu. A gin straight up may have cost me half the amount – and I would have gotten more.

I know.  I seem arrogant.  But when you order a chicken at a fried chicken stand and you get an egg, what can I say?  In this case, I will go back.  The bar is charming:  the decor is adorable, European, wallpapered, upholstered, cheery.  It’s right around the corner from my house.  The people are friendly. The service, prompt.  And it’s a smoke-free bar, if I remember correctly.

I will, however, be sticking with Scotch.

Here’s a fine article on how to order a martini.

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Some places are worth visiting just for the ambiance

And when living in Tel Aviv — sometimes you just want to get away.

Italy is always a perfect choice.

It was the second time I had visited Rustico, a charming, warm, stylish, (and if I’m honest – sexy) eatery.  The walls are artificially weathered, the paneling is a multicolored wooden puzzle, the authentic wood-burning pizza oven warms the chilly night air away, and the bar…is just a lot of fun.

As usual, it was crowded, and we didn’t have a reservation.  Luckily, as we were only three, there was space at the bar.  This turned out to be quite fortuitous — bar-side seats provide a bird’s eye view of ALL the cooking action.  That’s bravery for you — a kitchen that’s open for everyone to see — no need for a chef’s table here.

Our view...and our pastas being prepared

Simplicity is often the best policy

Here I must mention that I’m not a creature of habit. Sometimes I wish I were. I like to try everything. But this time, I didn’t.  I simply loved what I ate last time at Rustico, and I have often found myself craving it (and attempting variations of it at home).  And what kind of gourmet would I be if I didn’t relish giving in to cravings?  So I went with the simple Lemon & Spinach Pappardelle.  Dreamy.  I love pappardelle because it’s simultaneously a long and a wide pasta.  Think fettuccine that’s five times as wide.  It really holds a sauce well, and it’s heavy enough to feel hearty.  Because of this, I find the lighter butter-lemon sauce a perfect contrast.  It’s fresh fresh fresh, and oh so tangy – bearably so – but sometimes you need that tongue-curling goodness.

My dinner companions were Mom and Dad, and each ordered a risotto and another simple pasta dish. All well made.  We were really happy.  The only ho-hum element was my unremarkable Valpolicella.  They just don’t import anything really classy to Israel, I find time and time again (I’ve found it remarkably difficult to find my new favorites – Sicilian wines – at even the nicest wine stores). And unless you go to a restaurant that specifically calls itself a wine-bar, wine lists even at top eateries are extremely short.

For dessert we split the Scatziatina (sp?), pizza dough shmeared with chocolate, topped with Mascarpone, then closed up like a calzone and fired up in the pizza oven.  It’s the Italian version of a French crepe, I tell you.  Scrummy.

Verdict? A perfect place for a perfect night out.  It’s a place for a first date, a family dinner, or a celebration — it seems to dress up or down on demand.  Rustic-chic, I should say.  The food is a bit pricey (pastas 51-63 shekels; meats 62-93; small pizzas in the 40’s), but the decor, the super-attentive wait staff, and the gutsy clean-as-a-whistle kitchen crew make it worth your buck.

With a branch on Rothschild Blv in the south and Basel Street in the north, Rustico is a really great choice no matter where you find yourself…when craving a bit of an Italian getaway.

My parents are leaving tonight, so my two weeks of restaurant heaven are about to come to a close.  I’m slowly compiling my photos and thoughts about each. Restaurants to come include: Hashdera 34; Barbounia; and Rak Bassar (“Just Meat”).  I’m sure there are others, too I’m not thinking of.  So come back for a visit, and happy eating!

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I have never had a dining experience like this — and I’m afraid this quirky gem of a restaurant could become an addiction.

BlackOut in the Jaffa Port of Tel Aviv-Yafo is the ultimate theme restaurant.  Catch is – the gimmick inspires more fun and more meaning than any other eating experience you may ever have.

Why?

You eat in a pitch-black room, you can’t see your food (not to mention your cutlery, glasses, napkin, the water pitcher…), and you’re served by blind waiters and waitresses.

The Na Laga’at Center is the home of Black Out restaurant.  It’s exceptionally unique in that it’s perhaps the only center in the world that caters to the deaf, the blind, and the deaf-blind communities and enables them to give of themselves, be creative, and earn a decent salary while doing it.

Na Laga’at means “please touch,” a welcoming phrase that counters the typical “please don’t touch” signs we encounter all too often.  It’s a not-for-profit organization that opened its doors in 2007 and is comprised the Deaf-blind Acting Ensemble; Café Kapish, with its deaf waiters; and as mentioned, BlackOut, the pitch-black restaurant with its staff of blind waiters.  More than 70 people are employed here, most of whom are blind, deaf, or deaf-blind.

I haven’t yet seen their internationally acclaimed performance (“Not By Bread Alone” – where they bake bread on stage), and I’ve only ever grabbed a quick drink at their cafe during a huge arts fest (I’ve heard the barristas encourage you to order in sign language that they teach you), but this restaurant…this restaurant!  All I have to say is I left the building in total ecstasy.

Here’s the scoop.

You enter the big bright building (used to be an industrial hangar), take a left, and head for the reception area of the restaurant.  It’s crucial to make a reservation in advance because there is very limited seating, and the configuration is such that they need to arrange guests just right on communal tables.  The meal begins precisely at 9 pm (there’s a seating at 6 pm and a seating at 10 pm, but both are for abbreviated versions of the menu).  While you wait for everyone to arrive, a deaf bartender hands you a glass of pink champagne.  Once 9 pm rolls around (or thereabouts…it is Israel, after all), the hostess explains that you are to order in advance (prix fixe – 140 shekels for 3 courses & 90 shekels for 2 – fantastic kosher-dairy dishes…lots of fish, too), place all of your belongings -phones included – in lockers (if you lose anything in the restaurant, it’s near impossible to find), and wait for your table to be called.  All guests are escorted train-style, with hands on the person in front of them, and led to their tables slowly and carefully.

Because it really is pitch-black.  The walls are absorbent velvet.  There are a few buffer rooms that lead out, the final one with black lights…so there is no possibility of seeing a thing.  They warn that some people find it very disconcerting, unpleasant, or claustrophobic for the first few minutes.

I enjoyed it from the first second.  In fact, I left feeling euphoric, and I really did not want to leave. I swear, it was better than Disneyworld.

Highlights included –

  • Ordering the “mystery” for all three courses – the chef puts together something that isn’t on the menu – leaving you to figure it out in the dark. There is a veg or fish option, though.
  • Eating with your hands – So much fun! Try eating quinoa, ceviche, and ratatouille with your fingers! It felt really liberating.  I was so glad I there was a sink with soap upon entering and exiting.  When we left, my dad smugly declared that he had eaten everything with his silverware. Ah well, he missed half the fun!  At least he left with one thing to be proud of – he was the only one of all of us who felt sick and disoriented (and it seemed to us – bordering on a panic attack).
  • Figuring out the mystery food – I am a big foodie (although I hate the word), I am the ultimate kitchen improvisationist, I went to culinary school, and I work in wine.  I took this on as a personal challenge.  Piece of cake, right? For most, no.  But…I came out on top! Not only did I figure every dish out, I identified most if not all the spices and technical nuances of the dishes.  I’m a snooty snob, I know.  Then again, I was the only one adventurous enough to order the mystery dishes.  How many people do you know who’d go to a restaurant and say, give me whatever you got…I don’t want to know what it is…
  • Pouring water! It’s not just the finding and grasping the jug – it’s connecting the top of the jug to the glass, not spilling, knowing when there’s enough – my goodness! I think the best technique is to pour over a finger that is already dipped into the cup.
  • Talking without seeing.  You wouldn’t think this to be all that odd – most likely you’re going out to eat with people you already know.  But there was a freshness and an ease I haven’t felt in years with my family.  We’re a tense bunch.  Nerves.  Easy to rattle.  But at BlackOut, I spoke when I wanted, and said what I wanted.  I didn’t roll my eyes at my mother.  It flowed.  It was the healthiest moment my family has had all week.  I think it has something to do with not seeing facial expressions, not fiddling with clothing, not being to analyze the mood of the people by what you see.
  • Our dear waiter Eliran – your waiter is your ambassador. He leads you in, orients you, jokes with you, brings food, drinks, the works.  And we had conversations! Great conversations! We asked questions about being blind, about the dead waiters at the cafe, no holds barred.  It was so genuinely friendly and interesting. I dare say it even felt intimate. If I had to give an importance weight to the different elements of the restaurant, I would break it down as such: food 20%; darkness 40%; waiter 40%.  You cannot survive there without him.  He makes the darkness quite light, in every sense.
  • Leaving the restaurant filled with a sense of joy, mirth, peace, silliness, and energy.  I haven’t felt this “myself” in a long time.

Inside Na Laga'at - tables at the Capish Cafe circle around the BlackOut restaurant that sits inside that "big ship" looking construction - and the industrial hangar that the space was before

Here is what I remember of the menu.

My mysteries:

starter – smoked salmon topped with asparagus spears;

main – panko-breaded salmon (I know, they really should NOT have served salmon for both courses) on a bed of awesome authentic ratatouille;

dessert – malabi (a middle eastern type of pudding or custard – can be quite gelatinous – this wasn’t – very white – flavored with rosewater, nuts (peanuts in this case, but I prefer pistachio or almond), and shredded coconut, topped with a very sweet syrup).

Other memorable dishes my family had: ceviche of dennis fish on endive; some sort of pistachio gnocchi; seared drum fish with lovely herb infused quinoa salad; a creme anglaise filled pastry with halva (lovely sugared sesame paste); and a homemade chocolate-hazelnut ice cream (think nutella) with caramelized coriander seeds!

In between courses we were offered tiny little drinks – first a very spicy hot cider made with a bit of wine, orange juice, cinnamon, cloves, and rum – and before dessert, a teeny tiny passionfruit margarita.

I should stop writing.  I should’ve a while ago.  But if you’ve read this far, you can see how moved I was at this experience.  I felt I participated in some sort of process.  A performance.  It woke something inside of me.  My senses were heightened.  I felt a lot of love here among these people and this environment.

So, folks…if you live in Israel, you have no excuse not to go! It’s kosher, there’s tons for vegetarians, it’s for a good cause, it’s friendly people, great food, and it may just be the most therapeutic experience you’ll have over a table…or in the dark, for that matter…

I giggled for an hour after after we left.  I couldn’t stop smiling. I’m still smiling at the memory.

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The parents are visiting, “and tell ’em what they’ve won, Bob…a glamorous expense-paid trip to exotic IKEA!”

So, I spent most of the day in the big blue box with Dad.  Flexing our capitalism muscles, we strolled the tchotchke-laden aisles and Scandinavian-designed dioramas, stroking terrycloth towels and comparing furniture colors under the glaring fluorescent lights.  I came out with some jolly good booty: a small bookshelf/dresser (the “Billy”), a bedside table (the “Kullen”), 3 mugs, 2 plastic bowls, dish-washing brushes, a measuring cup, a reading lamp, three vanilla candles, 6 large tulip-shapes wine glasses (finally something I can smell wine properly in), 6 drinking glasses (I broke at least 4 of our original 6), 2 double sheet/duvet sets, three terrycloth towels, 4 dishcloths, some energy-saving light bulbs, an electric socket splitter, and a power strip.

And upon paying, we were promptly confronted with – a hot dog stand.

When we passed by the food court earlier (Dad begging to stop and nosh claiming – hey, how often do we get to eat Swedish food…), I walked right on by, thinking it ridiculous to have a meal in the middle of a monopoly warehouse store, in a monopoly of a restaurant, simply because we’d already been shopping for 2+ hours and were parched and famished.  No siree, we could eat somewhere normal later.  Swedish food, indeed!

But after another 1.5 hours of shopping, as it typically goes at the Swedish colony of I…, Dad looked at the hot dogs, then looked at me and said, “Can I have one?”

These were plain old heated in one of those rotating metal rolling devices, hot dogs.  I looked at him and said, “no.” Yuck.  We’d be home in less than an hour! But then I took pity.  My own mouth parched from the lack of liquids, I wanted to stop and buy a bottle of water anyway.  So, what’s the harm?  This hot dog cost 5 shekels ($1.40), the water put me back 4 shekels ($1.10), and I was genuinely pleased with how financially sound this food and beverage purchase was.

There were no toppings besides ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise (mustard-only – We do come from Chicago, after all). But Dad was pleased all the same.  I surprised him with the hot dog, and it disappeared in under a minute.

Now, I’m not sure why they sell hot dogs at IKEA.  I think it’s weird.  It’s a little creepy.  And it’s all they seem to sell, ready-to-eat, at the exit door.  It’s not a typical Swedish or Israeli food, and there are certainly more interesting fast finger foods around. But after our whirlwind tour of the fascinating and luxurious land of I…, the red hots were a welcome familiar form of sustenance to ease our aching bellies as we began our return to civilization.

When you leave, I suppose you’re just too exhausted to think about the dodgy meat filling and the lack of pickles, relish, onions, tomatoes, and peppers.  You’re too tired to realize that you’re once again pulling out your wallet, just as you thought you couldn’t spend even one more penny.  You’re just glad to be eating while getting the hell out of there.  All good capitalistic adventures eventually come to an end.

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