Tel Aviv - “That's all you're eating, chérie? You crazy?” shrieks Julie Ozen, bracelets dangling, gray hair high in a tight bun.
She's not my grandma, but she might as well be. On my plate, today's specials include artichoke hearts and figs stuffed with beef in a lemon and mint sauce, whole beets cradling a mix of rice, lentils and nuts, and plump fish balls - a sampling of the Egyptian dishes her mother taught her back in Cairo.
A few streets away, the seductive tangy aroma of hawayej, a Yemenite spice mix used to jazz up soup and pastries, woos diners into a simple eatery. Across the alley, local hipsters line up for a stool at an outdoor Venezuelan “arepa bar.”
In Tel Aviv visiting my sister Brigitte, I am at the Carmel Market, stunned by this place where languages, cultures and culinary specialties coexist within steps of each other.
“Tel Aviv is the secular centre of Israel,” said Gil Hovav, a consultant on “Israel's Top 100 Ethnic Restaurants,” a free e-book published by the nonprofit organisation World Jewish Heritage Fund. “That may be the most surprising feature for first-time travelers who expect to find what they call Jewish food, meaning kosher Eastern European cuisine.”
Indeed, there was nothing remotely kosher in the flaky pastry called kouign amann, which was dripping with salted butter when we savoured it during Passover at Da Da & Da, the new French brasserie on the first floor of the Institut Français.
“It's even tough to find a great chicken soup,” said World Jewish Heritage Fund founder Jack Gottlieb. “People come to Tel Aviv for fusion and creativity.”
Both were in evidence at Oasis, an eatery built around a 200-year-old olive tree, where California native Rima Olvera darts around her small open kitchen, molding whatever ingredients had landed in the kitchen that day into dishes she files under “destinations.” One evening, she took me to Rome via a zucchini carpaccio drizzled with truffle oil; to Hong Kong with fried chilies stuffed with shrimp and ground pork served with Lapsang Souchong tea jam and sticky rice; and to Brussels through dark cocoa fettuccine.
“Israelis have no roots, no tomorrow, they're completely free,” said Eyal Shani, the Israeli celebrity chef who runs nine restaurants, including pita temples in Vienna and Paris. “I can't import food culture, I can only forge my own based on the best local ingredients.” He reveres tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, olive oil, fresh fish and lamb, adhering easily to the common currency of the Mediterranean diet.
But some of the best food I tasted in Tel Aviv was rooted in tradition: moist grape leaves delicately wrapped by Yom Tov Levi, 93, who learned his craft in Istanbul in the 1940s before moving to Israel and relocating his Yom Tov Deli to the Levinsky Market near the Central Bus Station. Curious about the tanginess of the green olives, I begged the current owners, Levi's grandsons Eitan and Yomi, for the pickling recipe, but all I got was, “It's an old one, a very old one.”
The brothers don't live in the past, though.
They recently opened Gela, Israel's first “all-vegan ice cream” shop. (Nearly five percent of Israelis are vegan.)
Trends seem to rise and fade quickly in Tel Aviv. French bistros have sprouted everywhere, Georgian cuisine has become a thing and many chefs choose the pop-up route to test new concepts.
While I was there, Yuval Fachler had moored his Californian-Mediterranean cuisine at Salva Vida in the Brown Hotel while Eran Zino anchored his eight-day pop-up restaurant in Jaffa, where his gluten-free fare sold out in a matter of minutes, perhaps thanks to the best gluten-free schnitzel I have ever tasted.
“It's the age of specialisation,” said Jonathan Borowitz, chef at M25, the meat-centric restaurant owned by the crew behind the new Meat Market. I will probably crave the grass-fed beef I gnawed there for the rest of my life, but Borowitz's talent goes way beyond grilling. A green salad reminded me of the work of French chef Michel Bras. “With mixed greens, you have to imagine you're a rabbit and make the kind of salad you want to jump into,” Borowitz said, laughing.
I strolled on the boardwalk along the crowded beach to the arrhythmic beat of matkot, the paddleball game that has taken over Israel's beaches. Turning my back on the gleaming skyscrapers, I headed to Jaffa, the ancient walled town where the city originated.
Seems everyone in Israel harbours a favourite hummus joint, but there was consensus that Jaffa's Ali Caravan (a.k.a. Abu Hassan) was a sure bet. It took a while to walk there from the water, and even longer to get a table, but the chickpea puree was smooth, nutty and deeply satisfying.
Back near the sea, I was reminded of Morocco at Haj Kahil, with its “Arab cuisine with a Galilee touch,” and the 12 different salads served as an appetiser. The carrots were more tangy, the labne (strained yogurt) a tad more sour and the baba ghanouj more fluffy than any I had tried.
Among the champions of the “new” Israeli cuisine, Meir Adoni, of Moroccan descent, seemed to epitomise yet another trend: After travelling the world and coming back to Israel, he has found inspiration from his roots - both at his casual eateries and at his fine dining restaurants. “I think of my grandmother's culinary heritage and build on it as the base for my creativity,” he said.
At Mizlala, his casual eatery near the Great Synagogue, a croissant revealed fried calf brains and eggplant stew, a delicious combination.
Tel Aviv may be the secular centre of Israel, where so much takes place in the street (art, food, social life) but on Friday night, even hipsters and food maniacs go home to Mom's for a traditional Shabbat dinner.
The town shut down suddenly, so I headed to the elegant Montefiore Hotel, where a happy buzz accompanied creative cocktails and Vietnamese-accented French cuisine.
But that night, I craved a different kind of fare. I walked through the empty streets to my sister's apartment, where she was hosting a potluck dinner. On my plate later, I savoured falafel, friendship and family. And that was the taste of home.
If you go..
Where to stay
36 Montefiore St.
A luxury boutique property with the look of a manor on the Italian Riviera, the hotel features a smartly curated blend of design and elegance in the black-and-white rooms. In the bar and the dining rooms, a whiff of colonial style matches the Asian-accented menu. Rooms from about $370 (about R4 800) per night.
Brown TLV Urban Hotel
25 Kalisher St.
This sleek and stylish urban hotel with a hint of 1970s nostalgia caters both to the business crowd and city travelers. With a chic roof deck and a gorgeous spa suite, the hotel also hosts regular pop-up art shows and gourmet events. Rooms from about $183 per night.
Where to eat
Malan St. 42
Julie Ozen creates marvels from her corner luncheonette in the Carmel Market, pulling inspiration from her Egyptian background and the recipes she learned from her own mother. Many vegetarian options available. Entrees start at $15.
Da Da & Da
Rothschild Blvd. 7
A bustling French-style brasserie open all day with innovative Israeli touches and classic French fare. Entrees start at $8.
Montefiore St. 17
Chose menu items based on the countries or cities you want to travel to and let chef Rima Olvera, who cooks with her palate and her feelings, guide you. Entrees start at $13.
Don't let the simple digs throw you - this is a carnivore's paradise with local grass-fed meat grilled to perfection. The tomato salad oozing with sunny, sweet pulp and the “simple” tangy green salad are especially memorable. Entrees start at $12.
Simtat HaCarmel 30
Abu Hassan (Ali Caravan)
18 Shivtai Israel St.
Find your way through Jaffa and brave the lines for a taste of smooth, nutty hummus, rumored to be perhaps the best in Israel. Entrees start at $10.
David Razi'el St. 18
Authentic Arab cuisine at the entrance of Jaffa. The salads and the breads are absolute musts. Choose well between large, generous entrees, if you're still hungry! They start at $14.
Nahalat Binyamin St. 57
The buzz at Mizlala is as vibrant as the food! In the able hands of celebrity chef Meir Adoni, the eatery offers his mix of creative, international street food in a contemporary diner atmosphere. Calf brains in a croissant, anyone? Entrees start at $21.
What to do
It is impossible to stroll the busy alleyways of this market and not end up starving. Instead, hop from one stall to another for a moving feast, Tel-Aviv style. Open 8 a.m. to late at night. On Friday, the market closes in early afternoon, earlier in winter; closed on Saturday.
Levinsky St. & corner of Herzl St.
Even though this “market” is made of a few streets lines with stores, the shopkeepers are as knowledgeable and obsessed with their products as the foodies and chefs who shop there. Open Sunday through Thursday.
Space offers lectures, French movies and other cultural events. Open Sunday through Friday.