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Posts Tagged ‘gimmicks’

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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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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