Eating in Tel Aviv

My main impression of eating in Tel Aviv was that it reminded me a bit of SF – young chefs using fresh, local ingredients to drive what’s on their menus.  Frankly, though, what was on the menus in TA seemed more interesting and varied than what I see in SF – and I think there was less focus on interpreting a specific type of cuisine than there was on coming up with the tastiest dishes with the ingredients that were in-season. I ate remarkably well in Tel Aviv and at very reasonable prices – though again, coming from SF means “reasonable” can be in the eye of the beholder. I typically paid US$60-80 for dinner that included several glasses of wine (and usually made up about half the total bill).

Suzanna

This place was recommended by my gay, Jewish podiatrist. I had a lovely walk from my place at the northern end of Rothschild Blvd and was lucky enough to get the last two top out on the large patio in front of the place. Started off with labane and bread, followed up by some serviceable chicken skewers and rice. The food was good – perhaps not spectacular, but good – though it hardly mattered. Sitting out under the trees and stars on my first night in Tel Aviv, the weather balmy (a welcome change from the cold nights in Istanbul), the waiters so easy on the eyes – it was a marvelous way to spend my first evening in Israel.

Tzfon Abraxas

This was not my destination for the evening – I actually had a reservation at Mizlala, but Google Maps gave the wrong address. And I got lost on the way to the wrong address – so when I did finally find the place and it was an abandoned storefront, I was not enjoying myself to say the least.

But as I found my way back, I checked my list of restos I’d researched and realized I’d be passing right by Tzfon Abraxas. And lucky for me, they were able to squeeze me into the cozy (okay, maybe cramped) u-shaped counter. The menu was a bit hard to navigate for a single diner – most dishes are meant to be shared, so the server helped me figure out what to order that wouldn’t be a ridiculous amount of food for dainty me.

I didn’t take copious notes (I was still a little rattled from not showing up for my reservation at the other place). I started off with some simply sautéed beans – they were like tender skinned snap peas. With that, I also ordered onion bread – which was literally that: a piece of bread grilled with half an onion. This was followed up by a burger – came with pickles, cheese and juice-soaked bun. It was messy and darn good.

Oh, and they eschew plates here. Butcher paper is in front of every diner and food is served out of large bowls or on cardboard. Yeah, it sounds weird, but they make it work.  That atmosphere is super-lively. The counter is adjacent to the large, open kitchen so there’s plenty to watch. And there were lots of extras. At one point, everyone at the bar was served a shot of whiskey or vodka and we all “L’chaim”-d. Then one of the servers did something involving the setting on fire of sage and alcohol at the counter – it smelled great. Plus, I think the best thing I ate was the tomato bread. One of the chef’s came out from the kitchen with a giant, shallow plan filled with bread, tomatoes and herbs that had been crusted up under the fire. Everyone was invited to grab a handful as he went around the counter. Simple and delicious.

By the time I left, the bad start to the evening was long-forgotten, as I was happily full and satisfied – and maybe just a bit tipsy (it was that shot of vodka!).

On my way home, I actually stumbled across my original destination, Mizlala – I had been within 50 meters of the place earlier! Anyway, I stopped in and apologized for not showing up. The hostess was as nice as could be and booked me a seat for the following evening.

Mizlala

This was probably my “fanciest” meal in Tel Aviv – though don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t hoity-toity or anything. In fact, I quite liked the set up. A large counter on one side, the kitchen at the back and a smaller room of tables on the left. But the menu was a bit more sophisticated in its offerings than some other places.

When I arrived at 830, the place was very quiet – there were maybe four or five other folks at the counter which I think seats 25-30. So, I was just a tad irked that I was specifically shown to the very last seat on the end in front, i.e. the Mary Ann Singleton seat. Well, at least there wasn’t a spotlight trained on me…

Started off with a really good rosé and a calamari dish served with cauliflower, chickpeas, onion, okra and a tangy-yet-sweet sheep’s milk labane. It was great (though I did make a note that I thought the amount of squid in the dish seemed just a tad stingy – my other note was “Every male member of the staff is hot. Per usual”).

For my main, I had veal loin, which was grilled with onions and served in a date sauce with cilantro and tortellini filled with I-don’t-what – though my notes say they were filled with magic. It reminded me of butternut squash texturally, but was a bit sweeter I thought. And the veal was sublime – tender and a marvelous foil for the date sauce. Really, really good. I think my only quibble was the candied walnuts in the dish – it may have been gilding the lily.

For dessert: Indian fig panna cotta, fresh fig, pistachio, Indian halva, tapioca, chai ice cream and date cookie. It was definitely trying too hard. The tapioca was good, but there were just too many ingredients fighting for attention – and the spiral date cookies were too doughy.

Kimmel

Had a simple and tasty meal out on their patio – which may not have been the best choice, given it’s on a busy intersection. Salad to start, followed by a surprisingly simple and beefy sirloin steak.

Ha’Basta

A tiny place next to the Shuk Carmel with a small counter inside and some more tables out front. I inadvertently chose the best seat in the house, since I had a great view into the kitchen and watched the chef cooking things up on a stove that appeared to be about as small as the one in my tiny kitchen at home.

Started off with a traditional bread salad – tangy, savory, fresh and perfect on a warm Tel Aviv night.

Had a difficult time choosing a main – was tempted by the pasta with meatballs – but went with the crab served with cheese in puff pastry per the server’s recommendation. Oh boy – it was good. Very rich, but the serving size wasn’t too much and the crab was excellent. I made fast work of it.

Besides keeping my wine glass filled, shots were proffered (this is a custom in Tel Aviv restaurants that I both heartily endorse and am very leery of…) and consumed. I chatted up the other couple at the counter, NYers who spend a lot of time in Israel. They got the meatballs and sang their praises – they also insisted I try some of the excellent red wine they were drinking. So, in other words, I had rather a lot to drink. So, when it came time for dessert, I think the couple offered to share their warm chocolate budino with me – though it’s certainly possible that I was like, “OH, HEY! I’ll take some of that!” I guess we’ll never know…  But it was a simple and well-executed chocolate dessert – which I appreciate, since there’s really no need to get fancy with chocolate.

Café 48

I’d spied this place across from Mizlala and liked the looks of it – plus I’d highjacked onto their wifi whilst at Mizlala and I love me some free wifi.

Well, this turned out to be a great choice. I took a seat at the bar and the lady at the bar, after pouring me some wine and giving me the menu, described the entire specials board to me (it was written in Hebrew, obv) and made several recommendations.

Started off with a Thai salad with pork. Wow – so good. Fresh mint and other herbs and greens, along with some shrimp chips piled atop a tender serving of mildly spicy pulled pork. Delicious.

I’d noticed several of their specialty cocktails on the menu, including one with gin and cucumber, which sounded great. But I’d already had some wine and didn’t want to tempt fate… But someone ordered one and I watched as my waitress prepared it, muddling the ingredients and then lining a crystal tumbler with cucumber slices before pouring the drink in. There was more cocktail than could fit in the glass – so out came the shot glasses and me and the two fellows next to me were treated to a sample. And yes, it was great – I mean, c’mon, it’s cucumber and gin!

For my main course, sea bream (a semi-firm white fish) served simply atop broccoli and green beans. Perfectly cooked and just the right amount.

And for dessert? Panna cotta topped with diced celery and pineapple. It was surprising and really tasty combination – the celery adding texture and it’s mild flavor to the creamy panna and the sweet pineapple. A big success.

This was one of my favorites of the trip – not only because the food was so good, but because the service was so genuinely friendly and helpful. Highly recommended.

The Bun

Stopped here for lunch. Their specialty is sandwiches served on Asian-style steamed buns. I started with a carrot and radish salad, followed by a couple of buns stuffed with pulled shortrib. Pretty yummy – though I might’ve liked squirt of Sriracha to zip them up a bit.

The pide place around the corner

My Airbnb host told me about this place and I was glad I took his advice. On the northwest corner of Dizengoff and Ibn Gabriol is Frank’s Hot Dogs (which, judging from this write-up, I should’ve visited too) – right next door on Ibn Gabriol is the pide place. The chalkboard menu is all in Hebrew, but if you ask for an English menu, they’ll give you one. On both my visits, the fellows taking orders were very friendly. One visit, I tried the kofte – and it was great. But rather amazingly, the pide that knocked my socks off was the cauliflower one – big chunks of grilled cauliflower, mixed up with tomato, cucumber and tahini. It was pretty great.

UPDATE: I’ve been advised the pide place is Miznon, from chef Eyal Shani of Tzfon Abraxas.

Gedera 26

Another small place near the Carmel Market. It was pretty quiet and I grabbed a seat at the small bar – which was great since the kitchen is right there and I literally watched my meal prepared about a meter in front of me.

I must say, I was a little skeptical when I saw the bread being prepped for me. The lovely brown oval was popped into the microwave, then put onto the grill to crisp up the outside. WELL. It was so good – crispy and doughy and hot. Served with some labane (yum) and a cilantro pesto that I advised the chef he should sell by the gallon. I could have made an entire meal of just that bread and pesto. But obviously didn’t…

First up, a simple dish of sautéed calamari. Tender and a heaping helping.

I actually had a bit of a hard time choosing a main, since so much of it sounded good. But I decided on bratwurst – not really sure why, just sounded good. They are made in-house, seasoned with sage and ginger and they were fantastic. When the chef was serving them up, I was going to ask for mustard, but he was already preparing a little bowl to go alongside – though as it turned out, these brats needed nothing else. They were so wonderfully flavored on their own, I wouldn’t add a drop of mustard. Served with a great potato salad and a kind of sweet-and-sour kraut/slaw.  I think this was my favorite dish of the whole trip.

The chef (I think his name was Lee? I didn’t write it down… Oops! I am the worst) was really personable and was happy to chat with me about food and travel – and he encouraged me to take photos while he was working. Oh, and at some point, shots were served… I didn’t even bat an eye this time.

Café 48 (again!)

For my last night in Tel Aviv, it was a toss-up between Gedera 26 and Café 48. I’d really enjoyed both of them – and since Gedera 26 closes on Shabbat, back I went to Café 48.

I had the same lovely server, whose name I learned is Darya. She was as gracious and helpful as on my first visit.

This time I started with a Vietnamese-style shrimp and vermicelli salad. Fantastic – and frankly better than any I’ve had in SF. Not to mention that I think there were a dozen plump shrimp in here – along with a very spicy chili-infused sauce. It was the best starter of any place I’d been.

For dinner: steak and potatoes. That is literally all it was. A perfectly medium-rare steak served with wedges of oven broiled potato. Hearty, delicious, a great cut of beef. And a really nice part? I asked for salt and was provided a small bowl of sea salt flakes rather than a shaker full of Morton’s. It’s a small thing, but speaks volumes about the care with which the food is served.

For dessert – an oat-and-butter cake-pie hybrid. Sticky and sweet, a crispy-buttery crust, a dollop of cream on top. Wonderful. And really nice way to say farewell to Tel Aviv.

The Cats (and a Few Dogs) of Istanbul

THERE ARE CATS EVERYWHERE IN ISTANBUL! And, I must say, for the most part, they seem in relatively decent shape. Though I’m sure it’s still a fairly tough life out on the street. And, as much as I wanted to, I refrained from cuddling with them. I do love cats, but I also value my stunningly-beautiful countenance and didn’t want it slashed to ribbons.

Oh and there is also a pretty decent size cat population in Tel Aviv – so the last few photos are actually from Israel.

Israel – I’ve lost track of what day I’m on…

Tuesday, I schlepped out to the Design Museum Holon – and quite enjoyed my visit. The current show is by Ron Arad – who also designed the rather amazing building that houses the museum – and featured several of his fascinating metal pieces and his trademark crushed Cinquecentos – or is it Cinquecenti? Non so… Anyhoo, I was quite taken with the building’s interaction with its environment (i.e. I took tons of photos).

Oh, and on the way in, a group of kids – two girls and a boy – asked me something. “Sorry, I don’t speak Hebrew.”

“What do you call that? It’s super cool!” referring to my septum piercing. They peppered me with other questions, amazed that I was all the way from SF and saying “Oh too bad…” when I indicated I was traveling alone. They also recommended a visit to the mall across the street. “Zara!” Nice kids… Oh, and the ticket lady at the museum told me she liked my mustache! I seem to be getting more popular every day – it’ll be good to get back home where everyone hates me!

Had a lovely dinner at Cafe 48, which I’d spied across the street from Mizlala over the weekend. I plan to write separately once I’m home about the restos I went to – but I heartily endorse this charming cafe. Really good food, an extraordinarily kind server (who translated the entire specials board for me and gave me some excellent recommendations – and a shot of gin and cucumber on the house. THAT really won me over!).

Today, I was up early and managed to find my way rather easily to the train station for my trip to Haifa and Akko. Other than getting off two stations too early (and fortunately figuring that out before leaving the station – had to wait 20 minutes for the next train). Good thing I’m in no hurry what with being on vacation and all!

Now, I’m relatively good at finding my way around with a map – so I’m going to go ahead and give a big “eff you” to Fodor’s for the shittiness of their Haifa map. It didn’t seem to relate at all to the actual geography. But given that my destination was the Bahai Gardens, which were gloriously visible from the train when I arrived, I figured I wouldn’t have too much trouble finding the funicular which goes up to the crest of the hill.

I was sort of headed in the right direction and sort of not, when an old dude came up to me, seeing me staring at my guidebook, and asked me something in Hebrew. “Sorry, I don’t speak Hebrew,” I advised.

“Oh, English? OK, I speak English. What other languages do you speak? Oh, French? Bonjour, monsieur! What’s your best language? OK, I speak English. Are you Canadian? Oh, where in United States? OK, here I take you.”

And with that he escorted me about three blocks to the funicular station, explaining to me on our arrival that it is called Paris Place because it was built by the French. I think this was pay-off for my attempts to bring good travel karma by helping lost tourists when I’m home in SF – though I suppose now I ought to start offering to escort them to their destination as a thank you to this very helpful gentleman from Haifa.

Rode to the top of the hill, had some breakfast and then took the noon tour of the Bahai Gardens. It was lovely – a walk down the 700 steps toward the golden-domed Shrine of the Báb, surrounded by burbling fountains and beatiful landscape cascading down the steep hillside.

Back to train station and rode another 20 minutes to Akko. Schlepped over to the old city (it was literally one million degrees out – again) and had a bit of a look around. Frankly, it wasn’t my favorite – I guess I’d seen similar-though-far-more-impressive scenery in Istanbul…

Train back to Tel Aviv and I walked past the Azrieli Center just as it was being hit with the setting sun. A wonderful trio of towers.

I was supposed to be taking an “East-West Tour” of Jerusalem on Wednesday – one with a decidedly political slant. Sadly, it got canceled at the last minute. So, with no plans to get up early the next morning, it seemed wise to re-visit the gay bar – where it was drag night and I got to see “Cher” and “Evita.” Lots of fun actually.

Quiet day after. Thursday I go to Jerusalem for an overnight visit!

Tel Aviv

Some photos below from Tel Aviv, mostly from my walk with the Bauhaus Center or down in Old Jaffa.

It’s funny – this city is not particularly photogenic. Yet it’s a really wonderful and charming place – it’s sounds corny, but it feels almost more of a state of mind. I particularly notice it in the evenings, as I’m walking down Rothschild Blvd. There’s a wide pedestrian and bike promenade down the center, lined with benches and kiosks selling drinks and snacks. And it’s always filled with families with kids out for walk; couples holding hands; groups of friends hanging out having lively debates about who-knows-what. It seems like a really wonderful life people are living here.

And with that being said, it’s hard not to feel a bit lonely sometimes. Of course, that’s mostly my fault – I don’t speak the language, which serves to further exacerbate my social awkwardness. And this is not to say I’m not enjoying myself – but it seems like this would be a particularly lovely place to experience with friends.

Oh, and this is as good a time as any to ask, “WTF is going on with the gene pool over here?” I’d estimate greater than 90% of the dudes are extraordinarily good-looking. It can be distracting – lucky for me, I’m a master of discretion and have trained myself not to stare or leer…

As for today, I visited the Diaspora Museum up at Tel Aviv University. It told an interesting story – though the museum is in dire need of updating. The building’s 70’s design is not standing the test of time and the galleries are dark and surprisingly shopworn – some of the signage is actually missing letters.

This was followed by a trip to the Eretz Israel Museum – which was…odd. Coins, stamps, ceramics, glass, a strangely uninspiring pavilion dedicated to Baron de Rothschild. To be honest, didn’t feel like it was worth the trip uptown – though I did manage to take the bus without either getting lost or having locals point and laugh at me. So, win?

Stopped by my place to grab my swim trunks and took the 20 minute walk to the beach. This was my first ever dip into the Mediterranean Sea! It was very nice – still warm out in the afternoon, the water just a bit cool. The only slight poke in the eye? I could literally see right into the apartment I’d originally booked via Airbnb but that was canceled two weeks before my trip by the a-hole host. Now, the apartment I’m in is fine (for the most part) – but this other place looked pretty fantastic, with the floor-to-ceiling windows and the balcony looking out at the sea. Oh well – it’s fine… But did it have to be right there while I was frolicking about in the waves..?

Tomorrow I plan to visit Haifa and Akko – it may be a bit ambitious for a day trip, but I think I’ll just visit the Bahia Gardens in Haifa, and perhaps some lunch in the German Colony. Hoping that’ll leave me time to hit the highlights of the old part of Akko. I guess I’ll find out!

Israel – Days 3 & 4

On Friday, I took a walking tour with the Bauhaus Center. It was quite interesting, learning not just about the Bauhaus architecture here in Tel Aviv, but also how the style of housing reflected the socialist politics of middle 20th century Israel. Really enjoyed the walk, despite the very large group that showed up for the tour. I took plenty of photos – but frankly I’m feeling to lazy to edit them, so this post will consist solely of my blathering.

After the walk, I stopped for a pita sandwich around the corner from my apartment recommended by my host. Oh, man – it was delicious. Cauliflower grilled and then mixed up with tomato, cucumber and tahini. I’ll def be back to try again.

Wandered south to Old Jaffa and the flea market. Oy. It was kinda cool to check out, given the old, ramshackle feel of this oldest part of the city – but total tourist trap with throngs of camera-wielding foreigners (self included, obv). Lovely views of the city and the sea from atop the hill though. Also home of the world’s most well-hidden and unhelpful visitor’s center… And OH MY GOD it was hot.

Walked home along the sea for a bit and popped into HaTachana – “The Station” – and old train depot converted into shops and restaurants. It was very nice, but didn’t stay long – I’m not much of a shopper.

Dinner at Mizlala – the place I’d failed to locate on Thursday – and it was delicious. More to come on the details in a future post – though I will say I didn’t really appreciate getting the Mary-Ann-Singleton seat at the counter – to keep me isolated from the norms I guess – despite the place being only 1/4 full. Yes, it got a bit busier, but the three seats to my left never got filled. Oh well – the trials of traveling alone…

I did visit some gay bars – kinda fun, though it starts WAY too late for me. Stopped at Evita which was populated almost entirely by tourists, then Shpagat which was kinda meh – though again, it may have been due to it being so early, i.e. only midnight.

The bar scene is kinda hard to figure out. I’d passed a place on Rothschild in the afternoon that was packed with guys, rainbow flags flying. When I walked past again at 7PM, it was empty. And on the way out at 1130, it was packed with straight 20-somethings. Most of the bars don’t even open until 9PM, but no one shows up before 11PM apparently. So, I suspect last night was my one and only trip to mingle with the gays – it’s way past my bedtime! But we’ll see…

Today was spent quietly, since I slept in rather late. Had some lunch, then just hung out chez moi, read and watched a movie – I know, I’m the worst! But after seven ten days of being on the move, I really needed a bit of downtime.

Headed to dinner shortly – got a couple of places on my list, so we’ll see how my luck goes getting a table.

 

Israel – Day 1

So, I actually arrived in Tel Aviv yesterday. The trip from Turkey was something – Ataturk Airport is quite a scene and Turkish Airlines is kinda cray-cray. I actually plan to write all about the various flights on this trip once I’m on my way home.

I’ve really no pictures to post of Israel thus far – which is actually a good thing. I’m just getting into the laid-back vibe of the place. It’s really warm here – a nice change from the unseasonably cold weather in Istanbul. And this city is, despite the insane traffic, quite relaxing in its way. Mostly easy to navigate, very friendly locals (a lady on the street was happy to lend me her phone during the kerfuffle getting into my apartment here). It’s a nice change from the intensity of Istanbul and its 20 million residents. Not better per se – but a much mellower feel.

Plus, my agenda here is a lot quieter. I was concerned I’d be bored – but really I’ve just had to adjust to having only one thing to do or see each day rather than three or four.

Had a lovely dinner last night at Cafe Suzanna – per my gay Jewish podiatrist’s recommendation. Today I had a late breakfast at Orna and Ella, then walked along the shore for an hour or so after that. Home to meet my host Jacob, who explained to me where the washing machine was and where the best wine shop is nearby. Dinner started off disastrously when I got hopelessly lost trying to find Mizlala – but managed to find my way to Abraxas North, had a wonderful meal and then miraculously stumbled across Mizlala on the way home, apologized for failing to show up and was able to book for tomorrow evening.

Tomorrow I’m taking a walking tour with the Bauhaus Center at 10AM. Then I have dinner plans at 8PM. I’m hoping I can make it out to a gay bar or two, but apparently things don’t really get started until midnight. And, jet lag or no, that is asking a lot of this old gal… We’ll see how it goes.