High-End Kosher Taking Hold In Tel Aviv
Fri, 06/10/2011
Israel Correspondent
Merkado, a Latin American meat restaurant in the Azriella towers. Photos by Joshua Mitnick
Merkado, a Latin American meat restaurant in the Azriella towers. Photos by Joshua Mitnick

Tel Aviv — When Sandra Elias visited
Tel Aviv as a kid back in the 1980s, she remembers going back to the same handful of restaurants every year. It wasn’t because they were anything special. For the kosher observant, they were the only game in town. Only Jerusalem had real options for kosher dining.

“There really was no variety” in Tel Aviv, Elias said.

Over the last 15 years, Tel Aviv has gained acclaim abroad for its blossoming dining scene, with hip restaurants and creative chefs fusing the best of Mediterranean and Jewish food cultures. Initially, the new foodie culture left observant Jews, natives and tourist alike, largely out in the cold.

In recent years, that has started to change with the appearance of new restaurants that boast high-profile chefs who are trying to raise the bar of kosher dining — both in cuisine and ambience.

Though many eateries are located on the periphery of the city’s center for nightlife, the religiously observant visitor to Tel Aviv finally has options for eating out in Israel’s cultural capital.

Driving the shift is a desire by restaurant entrepreneurs and top-name chefs to reach out to a new client base. In a sign of Israel’s transition from a collectivist ascetic culture to one based on individualism and materialism, dining out at fine restaurants has, over the past two decades, become much more commonplace. Religiously observant Israelis have been slower to embrace the trend, but in recent years they have been looking to dine out as well.

Others say the trend has also been boosted by the influx of French Jews from traditional backgrounds who have been buying up vacation properties in Tel Aviv and are looking for places to eat out.

One of the recently opened restaurants is Uno, an Italian dairy restaurant in the atrium of the Amot Investment high-rise office tower (formerly IBM House). Celebrity chef Nitzan Raz, who opened the Sushi Samba fusion restaurant in Tel Aviv, said he decided to open the restaurant when he identified a population whose needs were not being met.

“Israel has all of these religious groups, and there are a lot of kosher restaurants, but not so many fine dining places,” said Michael Barsky, the head manager at Uno.

Uno’s dining room is bright with natural colors, which are augmented by colorful plates of fresh Italian salads, bruchettas, pizzas and pastas. The restaurant draws clients from its neighborhood of office buildings and the Tel Aviv district courthouse across the street.

“[Opening] was a huge risk. We didn’t know what would become of it,” Barsky said. “There’s a huge stigma about kosher food in this city.”

That’s because in Tel Aviv, compliance with Jewish dietary laws, has always been seen as a liability for restaurateurs. The kosher categorization requires restaurants to close over the weekend, and cooperating with kashrut supervisors means an extra headache for managers. The problem gets to the heart of the Israeli kulterkampf: in the bastion of free-wheeling secularism, setting limits on cuisine is liable to turn off the locals.

But Barsky insisted that Uno’s kosher status hasn’t turned away the secular, and among the lunch crowed on a recent day several people dined without yarmulkes or traditionally modest dress.

One of the earliest gourmet kosher restaurants was Deca, a dairy fish establishment started by television-show chef and restaurateur Haim Cohen.

With a modern interior, the restaurant is one of the few kosher establishments located in the center of the city’s nocturnal haunts: HaTa’asiya Street is a gritty industrial corridor by day that comes alive at night as one of the main clubbing districts.

The restaurant’s development hasn’t been without its bumpy patches. When Deca opened in late 2007, partner Shuki Goldstein predicted in an interview with the Haaretz entertainment section that if the quality of kosher restaurants could rise to the level of their non-kosher counterparts, Israeli diners would prefer the former. But two years later, he sold his stake, complaining to Yediot Ahronot’s business section that there weren’t enough observant diners in Tel Aviv to support the restaurant and “the secular public doesn’t want to see yarmulke wearers.”

Merkado, which is located on the upper floor of the shopping mall at the base of Tel Aviv’s Azriella Towers, was also started by a celebrity chef. Avi Biton, known for the popular French Mediterranean bistro, Adora, opened Merkado to offer a high-end kosher Latin American meat option. In a country where kosher meat has a reputation for being rough and bland, Biton’s choice presented a challenge.

Biton’s solution for making Merkado’s offerings more succulent involve the use of duck fat, butter substitutes and vegetable fat, said Lana Hess, a manager at Merkado.

“Every chef’s goal is to do kosher food without knowing it’s kosher,” she said. “It’s also to prove kosher is not a curse.”

Locals who observe kashrut say the trend is welcome, if overdue.

A resident of Tel Aviv since the mid-’90s, Elias says she is no longer shy about suggesting kosher restaurants to secular friends.

If kosher restaurants were once centered in hotels and near the beach, they’ve now begun to spread out to other areas, Hess said.

“In the last five or six years, a new kosher restaurant has opened up every couple of months,” she said. “There’s now a huge variety.” Elias recommends eLuna.com website for a list of kosher restaurants. She said that one of her favorite spots out is Bocadillo, a kosher tapas bar on Nahalat Binyamin Street, another nexus of city nightlife.

“It’s nice to sit out in the city and drink sangria,” Elias said, “instead of sitting in a hotel.”