My wife is the one who wanted us to go to Tel Aviv. With no real interest in the holy sites, I must admit, I’ve never considered Israel much of a holiday destination. Its restaurants rarely (never?) feature on the well known lists of the best places to eat in the world and Michelin do not publish a guide in the region.
She, however, had seen the weather forecast for October and found a direct flight from Manchester – for her sake, I thought I’d be able to put up with a week of eating knishes, kugel, kreplach and have been known to enjoy a cream cheese & lox beigel.
After a little reading, my ignorance of “Israeli cuisine” soon became apparent. Hailing from the cold climate of Central and Eastern Europe, these dishes, of course, are mostly popular amongst the Ashkenazi Jews. More suited to the warmer weather, Sephardic foods include the likes of the lighter, spicier and Arabic influenced shakshuka, hummus, falafel and shawarma.
When I’m in a foreign city for the first time, we usually head straight for the local food markets. Find the food market and you’ll find the heart of any city. You can usually get a handle on all that’s good and seasonal. With the pick of the day’s freshest produce, marketplaces’ ‘street food’ offerings are usually strong too.
In Tel Aviv, Shuk Ha'Carmel (Carmel Market) is the most bustling and best known of the markets but there are plenty of others worthy of a mooch.
If you’re looking for a more refined experience, head to the covered Shuk HaNamal and swanky Sarona markets. Levinsky is the place to go for a grittier experience with its heady mix of spice shops, bakeries and cafes.
Alongside the traditional delights, such as Hummus HaCarmel (HaCarmel 11) and stalls selling kibbeh and shakshuka filled pitas, highlights of Carmel Market’s vibrant melting pot of cuisines include the South African Bunny Chow (HaCarmel 13) and Venezuelan Arepa’s (HaCarmel 38).
Kibbeh @ Shuk Ha'Carmel
Shakshuka in Pita @ Shuk Ha'Carmel
But without a doubt, the two best things we ate in “The Shuk” were a ‘Druze Pita’ and a cheese filled ‘Boureka’.
Encased in a delightful filo pastry, which managed to be flaky, crisp and chewy in equal measures and filled with a tangy Bulgarian ‘sirene’ cheese, the Boureka from Original Turkish Bourekas (HaCarmel 39) came with a grated tomato salsa, pickles & a boiled egg. Boy, was it good!
Boureka @ Original Turkish Bourekas (Shuk Ha'Carmel)
Just inside the market on the left (HaCarmel 3), a trio of Druze women wearing their traditional white al-mandīl veil, skillfully bake crepe-thin breads on a curved taboon (saj oven), which are then folded in half and slavered in sour labane cheese, before being liberally coated with spicy za’atar, olive oil and fresh tabbouleh. I opted for mine to be finished with tahina, boiled egg & pickles.
Druze Pita @ Shuk Ha'Carmel
Also on the market, but offering a little respite from the hustle and bustle, I ate at an Israeli kebab restaurant, called Shumel (HaCarmel 21). I ordered the ‘Jerusalem Mix’ chicken breast, liver and hearts with salad and tahina. You can have this served in a pita but, on this occasion, I went for a plate with a side of grilled vegetables.
Jerusalem Mix @ Shumel (Shuk Ha'Carmel)
Venturing on to the side streets, we enjoyed two great meals at M25 (Simtat HaCarmel 30) and HaBasta (HaShomer 4).
Taking its name from the Hebrew for ‘the market stall’, HaBasta is a small restaurant and wine bar with an al fresco mishmash of rustic and retro furniture, perfect for people watching. Selecting the finest, freshest ingredients from the nearby ‘bastas’, the handwritten menu changes daily.
Beetroot & Fish with hints of green chilli & mint @ HaBasta
Fennel with pecorino & mint @ HaBasta
Lamb’s Brains with lemon & spinach @ HaBasta
Beef Tartare & Carpaccio with green peppercorns @ HaBasta
No, it’s not named not after the hellish London orbital but because of its location, 25 metres from its parent butcher shop, Meat Market, M25 is a meat lover’s paradise – the chalkboard menu is written only in Hebrew (the only place we came across that didn’t have an English version), mercifully translated by our server.
Pickled ox tongue with mustard & chrein (beetroot & horseradish) @ M25
Arayes – a baked pita filled with spiced minced lamb @ M25
Lamb Shawarma topped tomato salad & a zingy lemon & garlic puree @ M25
On the side @ M25, I ordered a skewer of ‘liah’ (also called ‘ayla’) – I didn’t know this at the time but apparently, it’s a Middle Eastern speciality coming from certain sheep native to the region, which, like camels, survive the desert by storing fat, albeit in their butts not humps.
Although not a food market, the area around Jaffa’s Shuk HaPishpeshim (Flea Market) has some excellent places to eat. We stayed at an apartment in Jaffa (also known as Yafo).
The night we arrived, we had a wander down to the famous clock tower on Yefet St and ate a Lamb shawarma. The accompanying pickles were especially good.
Also near the clock tower, Said Abuelafia & Sons is a 24-hour Arab bakery which sells all sorts of delights, including flatbreads scattered in za’atar and an Arabic empanada / calzone / samosa / pasty type thing filled with cheese, creamy mashed potato, onion, mushroom and egg, called ‘Sambusac’.
Sambusac @ Said Abuelafia & Sons
Allegedly named after, Japheth, Noah's boy, who built it after the flood, Jaffa is one of world’s oldest ports. From here, Jonah set off from before getting swallowed by a whale and, in Greek mythology, Andromeda was tied to a rock for being a bit of a looker.
The View @ Hazaken Vehayam
Down by the port, overlooking Andromeda’s rock, we visited Hazaken Vehayam (The Old Man and the Sea) – although not the most gastronomic of meals, our evening here was one of the highlights of our trip. Overlooking the boats, the location is great – as are the 20+ little side salads that are deftly deployed to diners the moment they take their seats. For just over 100 NIS there is a choice of whether to accompany the salads with grilled fish, meats or seafood. The price also includes a jug of traditional lemonade, hummus, falafel and bread.
Salads @ Hazaken Vehayam
Grilled Fish @ Hazaken Vehayam
Seafood @ Hazaken Vehayam
Dessert @ Hazaken Vehayam
Also on Jaffa’s port, Container is housed in an old fishing warehouse. Billed as a restaurant, bar, art space and music venue. The atmosphere was good but the food was far from the best we received in Israel – chewy calamari!
Cauliflower, tahini, Kalamata olives & truffle oil @ Container
Fried Fish & chips @ Container
‘Ceviche on the Beach’ @ Container
Purple Calamari with orange butter sauce & crispy onions @ Container
Just behind the port, Abu Hassan aka Ali Karavan (HaDolphin 1) reputedly serves the best hummus in Tel Aviv - some say the best in the world! Open early and serving until they ran out (usually mid afternoon), the creamy hummus is served warm with a steaming musabaha, pillowy pitas, tahini, raw onion & a tart garlicky infused lemon juice.
Hummus @ Abu Hassan aka Ali Karavan
Hummus @ Abu Hassan aka Ali Karavan
It appears many of those who dismiss Abu Hassan’s claims as ‘hummus kings’, do so as fans of the nearby Merkaz HaHummus Ha-Asli (Yefet St 73). Not an expert, I wouldn’t like to choose… both were excellent. I opted Hummus Snober, topped with pine nuts. Known as ‘ful’, fava beans are another popular topping.
Hummus @ Merkaz HaHummus Ha-Asli
A little further up the road, Abu El-Abed (Yefet St 92)
is was a charming little place that has had been
open since 1949. We went and had a great meal of mainly vegetarian dishes
including some joyous fried cauliflower. I’d asked for the ‘stuffed lamb neck
with baharat, almonds & pine nuts’ but was informed that they had a reduced
menu as it was their last day… I assumed this meant they were on holiday they
day after, or something? But when I walked past the next day, the signage had
come down and a noddle bar was opening in its place. Hopefully it’s just
Okra & Rice with house salads @ Abu El-Abed
Salads @ Abu El-Abed
Fried Cauliflower in lemon & garlic sauce @ Abu El-Abed
Another legendary place is Dr. Shakshuka (Beit Eshel 3). As the name suggests, the speciality is the Tripolitan dish of shakshuka - a pan filled with a sizzling cumin heavy mix of spicy tomatoes, red peppers, garlic and onion, topped with egg.
The shakshuka can come with a wide range of additional items, including hummus, mushroom, aubergine and shawarma – I had mine with merguez sausage.
Shakshuka @ Dr. Shakshuka
From lunchtime until late evening, the streets Jaffa’s Shuk have a particularly laidback vibe with a swathe of hip bars and places to eat.
Food wise, the pick of the bunch for us was Onza (Rabbi Hannina 3) but we also enjoyed the vibe in Shaffa Bar (Rabbi Nachman 2) and the kitsch yet homely Puaa (Rabbi Yochanan 8).
Chopped Liver with radishes & chrein @ Shaffa Bar
Fried Cauliflower Salad with tahini, garlic & lemon @ Onza
Grilled Artichokes with labane, arugula, radishes & burnt vinaigrette @ Onza
‘Tokyo’ Jaffa Sashimi of red tuna, burnt aubergine, mashwiya & ponzu @ Onza
Drum Fish Carpaccio ‘Tabouli’ with labane, mint & parsley @ Onza
Shawarma Doner – chicken, lamb, herb aioli & yoghurt @ Onza
Pachanga Borek – corned beef, leeks, kashkaval & spicy paste @ Onza
Mansaf – minced lamb, rice, pine nuts & jameed (fermented dried yoghurt) @ Puaa
Majadeera – white & wild rice, green & orange lentils, walnuts & raisins @ Puaa
Soused Herring – potato & horseradish salad with frena bread @ Puaa
Just outside of Jaffa’s main town, Itzik Hagadol (David Raziel 3) is another place which serves a huge selection of tiny side salads. The grilled meat menu is pretty extensive, including premium (expensive) products like Wagyu and Steak Rossini but we opted for a trio of grilled offal skewers and a portion of their chopped liver.
Chicken Hearts, Veal Sweetbreads & Lamb Spines @ Itzik Hagadol
Chopped Liver @ Itzik Hagadol
Back over to Tel Aviv – Street Food and Quick Bites
One of my favourite street food snacks was the Sabich at Sabich Frishman (Frishman 44). Iraqi in origin and served in pita, it consisted of roasted aubergine, boiled egg & potato; with a tangy mango sauce (amba), a hot sauce (zhug) and tahini. The pickles on the side were particularly good!
Sabich @ Sabich Frishman
Falafel can be found all over Tel Aviv but, depending who you talk to, Falafel Frishman (Frishman 44), Falafel Gabay (Dizengoff 269) and HaKosem (Shlomo Hamelech 1) are considered amongst the finest. Translating as ‘The Magician’, HaKosem was the pick of the bunch for me - we found none finer whilst in town.
Falafel @ Falafel Frishman
Falafel @ Falafel Gabay
Falafel @ HaKosem
Let’s talk cauliflower… I’ve always been a fan of this versatile vegetable but in Tel Aviv I fell in love with the stuff. The undisputed ‘King of the Cauliflower’ in Israel is Chef Eyal Shani. Shani has a few gaffs around town – Abraxas North, Ha Salon, Port Said, Romano and (currently) three branches of his casual street food joint, Ha Miznon.
We visited two locations of Ha Miznon (King George 30 and Ibn Gvirol 21) – both were constantly busy and buzzing. Keeping things simple, most things come in fresh, fluffy pitas – on the side, you can help yourself to pita, labane, tahini & salads while you are waiting.
All the kebabs were good but the crowning glory was unquestionably the chef’s famous full head of roasted cauliflower
Lamb Kebab @ Ha Miznon
Za’atar Omelette @ Ha Miznon
Potato Pita @ Ha Miznon
Whole Cauliflower @ Ha Miznon
Sac de Coq @ Ha Miznon
One of Tel Aviv’s coolest restaurants, another of Shani’s places is Port Said (Har Sinai 5). We made two visits here, one at lunch time and another in the evening. Here’s the pick of what we ate:
Freekeh, roasted green wheat, herbs & yoghurt @ Port Said
Sweet Potato “that you eat with your hands” @ Port Said
Jericho Green Beans with garlic, lemon & olive oil @ Port Said
Roasted Arab Cabbage with crème fraiche @ Port Said
Chicken Liver with tahini, grilled potatoes & spring onion @ Port Said
Popular with the late-night, hipster crowd and located on a terrace above an urban courtyard, Shani’s Romano (Derech Jaffa 9) is open from 7pm but gets busy much later when the DJ is in full swing.
Golden Baby Cauliflower melting into itself @ Romano
Sea Fish Steak chopped salad & gazpacho @ Romano
Roast Beef Carpaccio Dijon mustard & dressed leaves @ Romano
Getting a little swankier, located in The Mendeli Street Hotel, Chef Yossi Shitrit’s Mashya (Mendele Street 5) is part of the Sucre Group of restaurants, who also run Onza.
Moroccan Frena Bread, labane, 18 spices matbucha @ Mashya
Jerusalem Mix, chicken & lamb offal, amba, pickled aubergine & tahini @ Mashya
Cauliflower ‘Mafrum’, chopped lamb, baharat, doha & sorrel @ Mashya
Raw Spanish Mackerel, burnt melon, buttermilk & black quinoa @ Mashya
Wild Fish, artichoke tapenade, pearl onions, celery & parsley cream @ Mashya
Lemon Meringue, rosemary @ Mashya
Like Mashya, Mizlala (Nachalat Binyamin 57), from Chef Meir Adoni, is another more contemporary restaurant. The menu here takes inspiration from across the globe. We opted to sit at the counter.
Qatayef Short Rib, honey & date veal stock, chickpeas, sumac, baharat, market vegetables & ayran yoghurt @ Mizlala
Calf Brain Croissant, smoked peppers & aubergine stew, pickles lemons & egg. With market vegetable & Kalamata olives @ Mizlala
Jerusalem Beigel @ Mizlala
In short, we loved Tel Aviv and plan to return next October. In the meantime, please keep me posted with any places we must try!