Tapas in Israel

Tapeo
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
http://www.tapeo.co.il/
Tapas
Not Kosher
Hertziliya Pituach
Muro theme
9 Shenkar St
09-954-6699 / 09-954-8030
Tel Aviv
Gaudi theme
16 Ha’arba St
03-624-0484 / 03-561-0489

After having spent a semester living in Madrid, you’d think I’d be incredibly familiar and naturally accustomed to eating tapas.  Unfortunately, this is not the case.  In Madrid, the majority of tapas are meaty, a major issue for someone who doesn’t eat non-kosher meat.  Luckily, tapas bars in Israel are more conscious of those with dietary restrictions.

Tapeo is no exception.  With a section of the menu devoted to vegetarian tapas, there was no lack of options for us.  Jackpot!

Our trip to Tapeo was rather spontaneous and, in hindsight, Doug and I are both thrilled that we ended up going.  We initially planned to have dinner in Tel Aviv, but were too tired to bother with the idea of public transportation on a Thursday evening.  So, on a whim, we decided to go to Tapeo.  We made a last minute reservation to the local restaurant, which is apparently quite the hotspot on Thursday nights.

Tapeo in Hertziliya

Whether you’re taking in the restaurant’s décor from the wrap around wooden bar, from a table on the raised platform, or from the upstairs seating area, it’s quite apparent that the theme isn’t entirely Spanish, as one would imagine given that it’s a tapas bar.  While a Muro-esque painted adorned the length of one wall, the color scheme and other images were reminiscent of Aztec symbols.  The indoor wrought-iron street lamps, however, gave the place a more European metropolitan feel.  All in all, not an entirely unified theme, but it came together to look fantastic and elegant, if nothing else.

Tapeo in Hertziliya

Tapeo in Hertziliya

We had some trouble choosing our tapas from the long list of vegetable options, but we eventually settled on four of the dishes along with a salmon tapas.

Our asparagus tapas came out first, looking simple but tasty with its pickled lemons & spiced aioli sauces and little char marks from the grill.  The asparagus was cooked absolutely perfectly, not too hard or soft, but tender and easy to bite.

Asparagus with pickled lemon & spiced aioli sauces

The patatas bravas came out next.  Each potato cube looked beautifully and evenly crispy, a true marvel worth admiring (from a potato lover’s perspective).  It tasted even more amazing than it looked.  The inside of each potato piece was soft and melty, a perfect contrast to the crusty outside.  The potatoes were perfectly salted and covered with a tiny bit of tomato sauce and spiced aioli sauce, which gave each piece a creamy, refreshing touch.  The one thing I would have added was a little more spice.

Patatas bravas with tomato and spiced aioli sauces

The paprika-crusted salmon was next.  As people who aren’t huge fish fans, we didn’t expect much.  But the salmon was shockingly good!  It was cooked such that the outside was beautifully crusty and crispy while the middle was still slightly raw.  While usually not our thing, it was amazing how tender it was and how the fish really just melted in our mouths.  The beans that went along with it weren’t too flavorful, but added a chewy texture to contrast the crunch of the outer part of the fish and the buttery consistency of the inner part of the fish.

Paprika-crusted salmon

The cauliflower that came after was probably my favorite (with the patatas bravas a very close second).  The chefs somehow managed to get the cauliflower to brown perfectly and evenly.  It looked, quite accurately so, simply mouthwatering.  The cauliflower was not only perfectly colored, but also perfectly cooked—it had a nice, toothsome crunch to it.  The creamy anchovy aioli sauce was cooling and refreshing, with a nice garlicky bite.  Simple and delicious.

Cauliflower with creamy anchovy aioli sauce

Our final tapas were the mushrooms.  Neither of us eats many mushrooms, but both of us seem quite curious about them and open to trying them.  Consequently, the mushroom filled with cheese topped with saffron sauce intrigued us.  Luckily so, since the dish was quite tasty.  The mushroom and hearty goat cheese made for an incredible combination along with the very mild, but defined saffron sauce.  Earthy and comforting.
By the time we finished all of our tapas, we were appreciative of the restaurant chefs’ skills.  They clearly knew how to handle their vegetables: cooking them to perfection, putting together dishes that highlighted the flavor of each one, adding only simple sauces that completed their flavors.

Mushrooms filled with cheese, topped with saffron sauce

Despite our desire for more of each of the dishes we tried, we restrained ourselves in the interest of having a dessert.  The waitress described numerous options, but the first one she mentioned stuck: churros con chocolate.

The classic Spanish dessert called to me at the moment and I was glad they did since they were divine! Never had I had churros so good, so tasty, so addictive! While they weren’t truly Spanish in prepartion (the Spanish eat their vhurros without anything sweet, really), they made me want to go back to Spain and survive off churros for the rest of my life.  They came out, mini style (so cute!), covered in sugar, along with three dips: dark chocolate, white chocolate, and dulce de leche.  All of them were amazing! The churros themselves were crunchy on the outside, but smooth and creamy on the inside.  They were gentle, but incredibly flavorful.  When eaten with the dark chocolate (which was unfortunately a little frozen), one enjoyed the sensation of richness.  The white chocolate gave a sense of luxury, while the dulce de leche contributed an added sweetness. So. Good!

Churros

Churros con chocolate

Despite my sadness when they were gone, I was thrilled that they left a noticeable and amazing aftertaste, reminding me throughout the rest of our night that we had a lovely dinner followed by the most delicious churros ever—truly a great way to end a meal!

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Dining in the Dark at Blackout

Blackout (NalaGa’at)
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
http://www.nalagaat.org.il/
Dairy
Kosher
Retsif Ha’Aliya Ha’Shniya, Yafo Port
(03) 633-0808
Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday
(6:30pm – Vegetarian Meal 90 NIS OR Fish Meal 110 NIS)
(8:30pm – Vegetarian Dinner 140 NIS OR Fish Dinner 160 NIS)

I recently enjoyed one of the most romantic dinners of my life. Think whispered conversations, stolen kisses, quiet giggles, and completely worriless enjoyment…  What do you imagine? Sharing bites of churros con chocolate in a quiet café in Europe?  A beachside meal eaten while a gentle Mediterranean sea breeze playfully ruffles your hair?  A small table for two at an intimate, candlelit restaurant?  Outdoor seating in a quaint garden under twinkling stars?

I doubt any of you instantly thought of a restaurant where you can see nothing, where you have to be led to your table in a human train and eat your meal in the absolutely pitch black darkness while sharing your table with people you’ve never met.  But believe it or not, despite not being able to make eye contact or even see the people you’re eating with, the experience is incredibly intimate.

Na’LaGaat is a center in Yafo for the deaf and blind.  They have a café, a theatre, and a restaurant.  After many attempts to make a reservation and many cancellations due to a number of scheduling conflicts, we finally made it to the restaurant, Blackout.

Na’LaGaat

Blackout has two seatings on Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays—one at 6:30pm and one at 8:30pm.  The 8:30pm seating is longer and includes more food, but trust me when I say that the amount of food you get at the 6:30pm seating is plenty.

Before you enter, the staff provides you with a menu and explains how it all works.  You order your meal before entering, but you can order drinks from your waiter/waitress once inside.  The wait staff is comprised of those who are blind or severely visually impaired.  You are seated next to your dining partner, as it is far easier to interact with them this way, although you may be seated with other diners.  If you need anything during the meal, you simply call for your waiter, as they are always nearby.  Bibs are provided for those who want to avoid making a mess of themselves during the meal (we’d recommend taking one to wear as a bib and another to supplement your napkin).

Inside Na’LaGaat. This is the area where you lock up your belongings in a locker and choose your meal before entering the restaurant.

We giddily awaited to be seated, watching as couple after couple entered the restaurant with their bibs on.  We ended up being the last couple led in.  Before entering the restaurant, you enter a small “holding” area of sorts where you meet your waiter/waitress in a dimly lit environment.  After the introductions, our waitress explained that we’ll “human train” our way to our table.  A waitress-Taly-Doug train proceeded into the void of darkness that was the restaurant.

Our waitress helped us feel our way into our seats, told us that our napkin and silverware were to our right, and suggested that Doug try to pour water into our glasses from the jug on the table.  He cautiously did so, successfully filling both of our glasses without spilling (as far as we could feel, anyways, since we couldn’t actually see of course).

I spent the first few minutes convinced that my eyes would adjust to the dark and that at any moment I would turn my head and see shadows, at least.  I just couldn’t understand how they managed to make the restaurant so dark! I couldn’t help but put my hand directly in front of my face just to see if I would see something. I didn’t.  For the first time in as long as I can remember, I was in the complete, utter darkness.  There were no windows, clocks, watches, phones, or cameras inside – just blackness.

We managed to get through our breadbasket without incident, but our meals required a little more effort.  I had ordered the pistachio gnocchi in creamy poppy-seed and almond sauce while Doug, being more adventurous, ordered the surprise meal.

Our waitress put our meals in front of us.  Thinking it couldn’t be that hard to eat without seeing, I found my fork and stabbed it into the middle of my plate. Only when I put my fork in my mouth did I realize that it was empty.  It took several such instances before I became more attuned to and focused on the slight pressure difference in using my fork when I actually pierced a piece of gnocchi and the tiny weight at the end of my fork when it had something on it.  As the meal went on and my plate emptied, it also became increasingly difficult to find pieces of gnocchi.  I had to use my silverware to simply push things towards the center of my plate so I wouldn’t miss anything.  I couldn’t help but wonder how many meals went back to the kitchen only partly eaten, since people couldn’t find their food in the dark.

Doug, meanwhile, had an entirely different dilemma when he got his meal. He had ordered the “Surprise Meal” and had no idea how to approach it—what silverware to use, if it needed cutting, if it would be warm or cold. Luckily, it turned out to be a rather simple dish: spinach ravioli.

As if eating our own meals wasn’t enough of a challenge, we both wanted to try the other’s dish.  We wound up having to feel for each other’s hands in order to find the fork.

Getting past the enjoyment of the actual experience, I thought the food was rather tasty too. Nothing out of this world, but definitely good.

Throughout the meal, we chatted with the couple we shared a table with.  According to the waitress, the restaurant tried to avoid having parties sit together but ultimately couldn’t help it (why is beyond me as I obviously couldn’t see the layout, size, or shape of the restaurant).  While at first they were worried that people wouldn’t enjoy sharing tables, they found it was a blessing in the end.  It doesn’t surprise me at all, considering we thoroughly enjoyed talking to our faceless tablemates.  We talked to them about the experience at the restaurant, our meals (our neighbor got fish—I couldn’t imagine trying to eat that without seeing anything!), where we were from, where we lived, what we did, etc… all without knowing what the others looked like.   We joked that the restaurant would be an excellent location for a blind date, as the people would really get to know each other without any physical or visual influences.

We spoke a little more as we waited for our desserts.  When they arrived, we and the couple across from us found that our waitress had brought us each an extra treat.  She told us that they brought us the extra treat as an apology for having made us wait so long. Our tablemates received an extra dessert because it was the guy’s birthday. And with that, the waitress started singing happy birthday… or rather, the entire restaurant started singing happy birthday with more gusto than I had ever witnessed in a restaurant birthday song.  As everyone clapped and sang, I couldn’t help but laugh.  It was as if everyone, with the knowledge that they couldn’t be seen in the darkness, lost their inhibitions.  Afterwards, our tablemate was quite pleased that, despite the fact that everyone in the restaurant just sang to him, he could soon walk out as an anonymous young man.

Our desserts were good.  Doug got a chocolate mousse with almond crumble that proved to be very rich.  Meanwhile, I got the white chocolate mousse with butter cookie crumble and fresh fruit.  Our extra treat was a cheesecake.  Our neighbors, who were kind enough to share, received a dish with marzipan in it.  While none of the desserts was incredibly memorable, they were all tasty enough.  But my favorite part about the dessert wasn’t the flavor… it was listening to our tablemates as they shared.

“OW!” screamed the birthday boy.

“What? What happened? I was just trying to give you a taste of the mousse…” His girlfriend replied, confused.

“I was just drinking! You hit me in the eye with your spoon!”

With that, I lost it.  The hilarity of it overwhelmed me.  While I couldn’t see anything, I imagined I could. The guy, one eye covered in mousse and squinting slightly after getting hit in the eye with a spoon, the girl confusedly holding a spoon only half-full of mousse.

I regained my composure just in time for our waitress’s visit.  She sat down with us and started chatting with us.  We talked about the layout of the restaurant, how she managed to navigate it, and how she managed to serve patrons’ food without knocking things over.  On a more serious note, she explained that as a young girl, she attended normal school as her mother insisted that there was nothing wrong with her.  Our waitress explained that she was blind in one eye and severely visually impaired in the other, so it was very difficult for her to attend a normal school.  But, as she talked about her children and grandchildren, she made it clear that her visual impairment did not preclude her living the life she wanted.  I couldn’t help but be awed by her strength and courage.  As she told us that she worked at the restaurant since its opening in 2007 and how the restaurant never did well financially, I couldn’t help but wish I could somehow help out.

Shortly after, our waitress led our tablemates to the exit (again, human train style).  More and more parties were leaving, so the restaurant became gradually quieter.  Awed by the experience, we sat for a short time holding hands, waiting for our waitress to fetch us (we had to wait for a few minutes as a traffic jam had developed by the exit, it appeared).  Eventually, our waitress led us back out the way we entered, where we paid and picked up a cup of hot tea. Tea in hand, we made our way to one of the outdoor café tables, where we finally saw our tablemates in person and put faces to the voices we heard over dinner.

I was surprised to see that the people were less attractive than I imagined. Not that they were unattractive, but for some reason I thought they would be rather good looking (based solely on our good conversation with them during the meal).  It’s truly amazing… the basic outline we create of people we interact with without seeing (like the person you speak with on the phone every day at work whose appearance surprises you when you finally meet them, or the book character whose image in your mind is shattered when you see the movie presentation of him).

We enjoyed tea after the meal.

Thinking back, it’s amazing how the night has become a blacked out area of my memory.  With no frame of reference whatsoever (silverware, plates, tables, food, waitress…), it has turned so easily into a memory of blank, dark nothingness.  Yet the blank, dark nothingness is accompanied by memories of scents, sounds, thoughts, and touches that are all the more amplified and memorable given that they are not linked with a particular site or image.  It’s hard to explain, but in a nutshell, it’s an eye-opening experience absolutely worth having.

Cave o’ Yoezer

Yoezer Wine Bar
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
http://yoezer.com/
French, Wine Bar, Gourmet
Not kosher
2 Ish-Habira Street, Yafo
(03) 683-9115
Sunday – Thursday (12:30 – 1:00)
Friday – Saturday (11:00 – 1:00)

Valentine’s Day in Israel isn’t quite the same as it is in the United States.  Paper hearts in pink and red don’t decorate every restaurant and stores don’t sell boxes of chocolate en masse.  Nevertheless, the occasion gave Doug and me an excuse to make reservations at a fancy restaurant.  We wanted something new and different, so we picked Yoezer Wine Bar, a restaurant located in a cave in Yafo, despite having heard that the waiters were pretentious and terrible.  From our experience, the waiters seemed friendly enough… and seeing as we got a fair sampling of service as our waiter kept changing between the long waits for each dish, I’d like to think our experience is representative of the restaurant’s staff.

The restaurant was surprisingly spacious and airy for one that is located in a cave.  Candlelit interior and graceful stone arches contributed to a sense of intimacy and elegance, despite the packed, slightly chaotic restaurant.

Yoezer Wine Bar

Slightly limited by the meat-centric menu, we ordered pretty much every non-meat dish we could.  Before skipping over the meat dishes, I’d like to note that I’ve heard their meat is top-notch.

We started with blinis with red caviar and crème fraiche.  I was a little nervous when they put the dish in front of me as I had never tried caviar and for some reason the idea of eating fish eggs seemed somewhat strange to me. But the newness was also exciting and, as I took my first bite, I was rather surprised.  It simply tasted like salmon… liquid salmon in a bubble.  The blinis themselves were delicious—they were like fluffy mini pancakes.  They tasted a little like undercooked pancakes, in fact, but their mooshiness didn’t detract from their quality (as it would for actual pancakes).  The side of cooling, simple cheese, which tasted a little like ski (an Israeli cheese similar to sour cream) and smoked salmon pieces came together with the caviar and blinis quite nicely—the flavors and textures blended and complemented one another.

Blinis with red caviar and crème fraiche

As we ate the blini dish, our fresh polenta with poached egg and truffle was brought over.  It looked amazing—perfectly cooked polenta with a perfectly poached egg in the center, topped with an elegant truffle.  Luckily, it tasted as good as it looked.  The polenta was sweet and smooth, but with a little bit of grain that gave it texture.  As expected, the egg was perfect. The yolk cracked flawlessly, blending seamlessly into the polenta.  The dish itself was slightly salty with a touch of black pepper that you felt at the back of the palate, which was delightful.

Fresh polenta with poached egg and truffle

Our next dish was the cheese platter, comprised of four types of goat cheese.

Cheese platter, comprised of four types of goat cheese

The first, which was my least favorite, had a strong bleu cheese flavor and was very creamy and smooth with a sour rind.

My least favorite cheese from the cheese platter

My third favorite was a brie with a rind with a bleu-cheese flavor.  The creamy, thick cheese in the center of the brie also had a tinge of bleu cheese, but it wasn’t as strong.  The brie was buttery and slightly sweet, smooth with just a touch of graininess.  While the flavors weren’t my favorite (as I’m not a huge fan of bleu cheese), I loved the way the cheese seemed to melt in my mouth.

My third favorite cheese from the cheese platter

The cheese that was best with the bread (which was quite plain) turned out to be my second favorite.  It appeared to be a hard cheese but was surprisingly soft and easy to cut into.  With a nutty flavor and texture that came with a little tang, it was a lovely cheese.

My second favorite cheese from the cheese platter

Bread basket

My favorite cheese was the thickest of them.  Its rind had a bleu cheese flavor, but the rest didn’t, which was fantastic for me.  It was soft, gentle, and incredibly creamy—the perfect texture for goat cheese. Delish!

My favorite cheese from the cheese platter

Our next treat was the truffle ravioli special.  It was made with egg noodles, which are slightly stiffer than normal noodles.  It was a welcome flavor and gave the perfectly tender ravioli a nice bite and yolky flavor.  The raviolis were filled with cheese and peppercorns, which gave the dish a hot touch that was immediately cooled by the cheese.  The proportion between noodle and filling was great, allowing us to really taste and appreciate both.  There wasn’t much sauce, but it wasn’t dry, either.  The truffles were present in scent and flavor, giving the dish a warm and homey earthiness.

Egg yolk truffle ravioli special

We finished our meal with vanilla clouds and passion fruit.  The vanilla clouds, which were dollops of vanilla bean mousse, were drizzled with passion fruit juice and seeds.  The mousse was silky and fluffy and thankfully not too sweet, as mousses can often be.  It was so light and airy that it almost seemed healthy.  What sweetness the mousse did have was tempered by the sour tang of the passion fruit.

Vanilla clouds and passion fruit

By the end of the evening, we were happily full. Each dish was modestly sized, providing just enough to satiate cravings without becoming overwhelming, boring, or too filling.  All in all, a wonderful meal to have enjoyed in a candlelit cave.

 

*Please excuse the belated Valentine’s Day dinner post and blurry pictures!

A Taste of Turkey at Pasha

Pasha
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
http://www.2eat.co.il/pasha/
Turkish
Kosher
8 Ha’Arba’a
03-561-7778
Sunday-Thursday (12:00 – last customer)
Friday (12:00 – 5:00)

Despite my Turkish roots (my mom’s half of the family is Turkish), I know very little about Turkish cuisine.  I grew up eating food that was classified as either Iraqi or Israeli.  I’m not sure why, but my mother’s native cuisine just didn’t end up on our plates.  When I ask her about Turkish food nowadays, she says she doesn’t know much about it.

Luckily, our familiarity with Turkish food has little bearing on its quality.  The cuisine is rich and the preferred spices, grains, desserts, and oils vary by region.  Unfortunately, I don’t know whether Pasha’s food focuses on a particular type of Turkish cuisine, but I know that the food was delicious.

Pasha was a large, airy restaurant.  The entire space is open and there is an area of the kitchen that is visible from the dining area, fostering the feeling that you’re eating a large, festive meal in someone’s home (albeit with people you’ve never met and won’t speak with during the meal… not an entirely uncommon experience for some around the holidays, I would say).

Pasha

Pasha

Pasha

We started with bread that was cloudy-soft and delicious.  A touch of salt made it absolutely addictive, but an incredible oil-based dip with pomegranate juice at the bottom was what made it truly stand out.  The pomegranate juice was syrupy in consistency, giving the oil a honey-like texture.  It was unlike any dip I’d ever had before.

The bread and amazing pomegranate-oil dip

Our next treat was lahma joun, a slightly spicy meat pizza that was surprisingly elegant and sophisticated.  The crust was thin and crispy, a perfect base for the well-seasoned Mediterranean-spiced tomato- and cilantro-filled topping.

Lahma joun, a slightly spicy meat pizza

We also shared the kubbeh hamousta, which the waitress told us was the best of their kubbehs.  While we didn’t have a chance to verify that it was better than the others, I can definitely say that it was delicious.  The outer shell was thick but soft, and the stringy-steak filling on the inside was absolutely delectable.  The slightly lemony sauce was a little bitter, but went well with the kubbeh.  Each bite left a taste for more.

Kubbeh hamousta

My urfa kebab dish similarly left me wanting more.  Each nugget of deliciously seasoned lamb was incredibly juicy and full of flavor.  While they were peppery, they weren’t too hot, which was almost a shame since I like my kebabs spicy.  The tomato that came with the kebabs was lightly charred and was marked by beautiful grill lines.  There was a side of tahini, as well, but I’m generally not a huge fan of tahini so I ate my kebabs plain.

Urfa kebab

Doug’s mom ordered the chicken steak with pistachio and cashew dish, which involved nuts wrapped in chicken breast.  Although I think it’s more common than I realize, the idea seemed novel to me.  Beyond that, the dish was amazing.  The chicken was crispy but still moist while the nuts that filled the chicken roll gave each bite a nice crunch.

Chicken steak with pistachio and cashew dish

Doug, meanwhile, ordered the chicken fillet – mas’hana. What is chicken fillet – mas’hana, you ask? It looks like foccacia bread topped with chicken and vegetables.  The chicken was tender and tasted like it was prepared shishlik-style (i.e. on a skewer).  The crust below was soft and doughy.  The spicing was lovely, but the paprika really carried the day on this dish.

Chicken fillet - mas’hana

We all shared the vegetables from the oven (also known as grilled vegetables) as a side, which were very simple but tasty.

"Vegetables from the oven" (aka grilled vegetables)

We also shared the vanilla ice cream with silan sauce and halva dessert, which was absolutely delicious.  While a little sweeter than ideal, between the smooth ice cream and crumbly halva, it had a wonderful texture.

Vanilla ice cream with silan sauce and halva dessert

As our meal at Pasha wound to a close, I couldn’t help but wish that I had grown up eating more Turkish food.