This article is a guest post on NoCamels and has been contributed by a third party. NoCamels assumes no responsibility for the content, including facts, visuals, and opinions presented by the author(s).
Inbal Baum is the Chief Eating Officer (CEO) and Lainie Schwartz is the Program Ch(i)ef of Delicious Israel, Israel’s leading culinary tour and experience provider. Check out @DeliciousIsrael on Instagram, but not while hungry.
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At Delicious Israel, we are on a never-ending hunt to discover the top restaurants across the county (check out our recommendations), vendors and market stalls (which we visit on our Delicious food tours). Israeli food is so good, our philosophy is no one should be wasting any time on bad meals.
Tel Aviv especially is chock-full of chefs who are experimenting with unique ingredients, blending cultures and cuisines in a single dish, and constantly pushing the envelope to keep up with locals’ sophisticated taste buds. The city and some of its hottest chefs and restaurants are racking up awards and prestigious culinary accolades.
So while the best and most well-known restaurants tend to make it onto visitors’ lists – and for good reason – we wanted to highlight some spots that are still under the radar (though, not for long) even for many Tel Avivians.
These restaurants represent the best of Israeli cuisine and all of the things that have made Israeli food and our way of eating so popular all around the world – fresh, local, seasonal ingredients, an emphasis on vegetables and plant-based eating, sharing plates, casual and upbeat ambiance, and most of all – deliciousness.
We predict these picks will make critics’ lists in 2020. Here they are.
The Gourmet Stage: Burek
Part dinner party, part culinary stage, and all soul, Burek, the south Tel Aviv-based brainchild of Chef Barak Yehezkeli can’t really be called a restaurant in the typical sense. Hidden under a bougainvillea-drenched entrance on a gritty Florentine side street, from beginning to end, the Chef’s “show” is sure to delight.
Entering into the open studio kitchen, a live DJ plays from the second-floor balcony, while a trained sommelier bounces from table to table making sure that guests have chosen their wine wisely. With Arak cocktail in hand we were welcomed by the Chef with pillowy, steamy bread (so simple, but one of the highlights of the evening) to dip into either (or both!) a spiced pomegranate sauce and homemade almond butter spread. The seven-course meal – or what felt more like a fancy dinner party – is made in the center of the space and guests are invited to get up and chat with the chefs, learn about the ingredients and methods, and perhaps most importantly snapshots to make their Instagram followers jealous.
The courses progress from vegetable-focused Padron peppers in a yogurt sauce to blue crab filled ravioli and calamari with Jerusalem artichoke and onto the main fish and meat dishes. As the clock strikes midnight, the crowning glory of the night is revealed – the shared dessert/artwork centerpiece created with care; guests are invited to gather around and share the caramelized bananas, cooked pears with whipped cream, and countless other sweet treats directly from the table. It is truly hard to imagine this experience working anywhere other than Israel.
Burek is open twice a week (usually Wednesdays and Thursdays) so reservations are essential. Diners are asked upon booking about dietary restrictions, most of which seem can be accommodated.
- Go there if: you are celebrating an occasion; want to have an opportunity for interaction with a chef; are up for a seven-course (4.5 hour) dinner party
- Delicious Dishes: changing seasonal menu, but the steamy, fluffy bread to start with and the dessert table to finish the evening are great highlights; the wine list is top-notch and highlights lesser-known Israeli wines.
The Local: Igra Rama
A stone’s throw away from the Carmel Market, the front section of this restaurant may not seem big enough to warrant notice, but sneak through to the hidden garden (great in both summer and winter) for fairy lit magic and a whimsical touch. Igra Rama is one of those rare restaurants that has enough ambiance for a romantic date but is quiet enough for families to converse.
Igra Rama’s menu and ethos decidedly fit into the Tel Aviv trend of heavily favoring local ingredients, shying away from large and/or meat-heavy dishes (there is no meat at all on the menu) in lieu of vegetables or sustainable fish and seafood, and offering truly creative dishes. The brainchild of Chef Aner Ben Rafael and partner Tamir Michaeli, Igra Rama takes this so seriously that the only two products not from Israel in the whole restaurant are coffee and black pepper.
The food, wine, and ambiance are all certified Israeli, and the menu is divided into ‘From the Sea’, ‘From the Earth’ and ‘From the Soul’, and with its deeply-held philosophy, Igra Rama can be considered a kind of Israeli soul food.
Dishes are imaginative, not overwhelmed with long ingredient lists or slathered in sauces – their ethos is to make the ingredients’ shine, and season where it enhances their natural flavors. Two of our favorites were the tomato fried with breadcrumbs, served warm goat cheese in a tomato gazpacho with chili, and the ricotta, almond and potato dumplings in butter, lemon, mint and zaatar sauce. A dish of Atlantic horse mackerel sashimi was served simply with olive oil, salt, and hot chile, allowing the flavor of the fish to play a starring role.
Eating here is an exercise in simplicity while remaining sophisticated. Dishes are small and sharing multiple plates for the table is highly recommended. The menu changes daily.
- Go there if: you love vegetables, fish/seafood and are looking for food that is truly local – the best products Israel has to offer.
- Delicious Dishes: grilled fish of the day, the Igra salad (vegetables change daily) and no matter what food you get, save room for the warm basbousa (semolina cake) with a sour cream for dessert.
The Plant-Based: Opa
Tucked into a quiet side street of Tel Avivs’ lively Levinsky Market, known for the best wholesale spices and dried fruit, lies a serene haven and must-visit restaurant: Opa. In a city saturated in veganism and vegan culinary innovation, Opa shines. Though every product and dish is 100 percent vegan, it’s not just another vegan restaurant. Opa is a culinary experience celebrating organic, plant-based eating.
You won’t find meat replacements like tofu, seitan or other imitations – dishes are entirely new creations, turning ingredients typically used as garnishes or sides into stars of the show, like fennel and blueberries. Each dish is named after the plant that the dish is based on, and while the menu hints at the dishes’ other components, the ingredient is the star. Opa is headed by Chef Shirel Berger (who just won Chef of the Year by Time Out Magazine), a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. Sharona Berger, Shirel’s sister and co-owner of the restaurant, noted that most of the clientele who eat at Opa is not vegan, but are rather those looking for a gourmet culinary experience.
Dishes are all small and designed to be shared, and we highly recommend experiencing the full range of flavors by taking the tasting menu, which offers all seven dishes the restaurant has. While striving to use local produce and products where possible, they do not shy away from importing excellent wines, vinegars and Japanese koji (used for fermentation). Dishes focus on a ‘star’ ingredient (always a vegetable), and many are notable for using the same ingredient in two or more different ways: an excellent example is their Jerusalem Artichoke dish, featuring the vegetable in jus, confit, fresh and dehydrated forms, or umami-packed smoked and steamed oyster mushrooms alongside a reduced port wine and raspberry glaze. Many dishes featured one or more fermented elements (cocktails included – ours included fermented habanero peppers) and the tasting menu is served alongside frequently-refilled, perfectly chewy fresh-from-the-oven sourdough bread.
The neutral-toned atmosphere is minimalist and understated, offering a refined experience from start to finish in a way so hard to find in Tel Aviv. Opa offers an oasis of calm in the middle of the bustling Levinsky Market and the crazy city of Tel Aviv in general. We sat near the bar and were amazed at how quiet and refined it was – everything running like clockwork, without the raucous yelling that characterizes so many Tel Aviv restaurant kitchens. Service is top-notch, with waitstaff well-versed in the many ingredients comprising each dish.
- Go there if: you’re looking for something truly unique (on a global level – not just ‘not another Israeli restaurant’) and aren’t scared of unconventional tastes and dishes
- Delicious Dishes: Anona, Oyster Mushrooms and Plum
The Middle-Eastern Twist: Magreb
You may have heard of Baraka House’s restaurants without knowing it: Mashya (a top on our faves list), Kitchen Market, and Onza are their this restaurant’s older, more famous siblings. The latest initiative from Baraka House is Magreb, a decidedly different take on North African food in Israel.
While Mashya and Kitchen Market feature high-end, Israeli-inspired fusion cuisine and Onza focuses on Turkish delights, Magreb is decidedly, well, Magreb. The entire restaurant is inspired by the North African Magreb region (Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria especially) where many Israelis and especially their grandparents hail. In Israel, this type of food is often thought of as “home cooking” or comfort food, rather than trendy or worthy of a more refined dining experience. Magreb fills a much-needed void of a Morrocan and Magreb-inspired restaurant that is not overly heavy or oily, and emphasizes fresh ingredients, high-quality products and a stylish atmosphere beyond the grill house standard.
Expect to find a menu full of rich flavors and vibrant colors that focuses on excellent skewered meats (we loved the spicy merguez sausage) on the grill, and North African taboon specialties. Spices (think za’atar, sumac, and ras-el-hanut) are used liberally, as well as dried fruit, rich tomato sauces and fresh herbs. No matter what dish you take, make sure not to miss the ultra-fluffy, housemade couscous perfect for soaking up rich sauces.
Magreb is not just a restaurant – it also offers an excellent selection of prepared foods and products at its delicatessen to be enjoyed at home. Like so many other Israeli restaurants, Magreb can’t resist adding a little fusion and bursting outside the confines of having one type of cuisine – this best manifests itself in the exceptional take on Israeli babka, with a savory version including za’atar and olive oil, but you should also try the Turkish lahmajun. The blurred lines of Israeli cuisine are what makes it so delicious, and we are here for it.
During the opening, Magreb mostly catered to the lunch crowd of the surrounding high-tech offices, and have recently opened for dinner. Like in the festive, food-filled Magrebi-Israeli feasts, expect all dishes to be large and served family-style to be enjoyed by the whole table at once.
- Go there if: you’re looking for a family-friendly, typically Israeli feast that has been upgraded to meet 2020 style standards
- Delicious Dishes: Za’atar ‘crunch’ babka cake from the delicatessen and lamb alongside delicate couscous.
The Resto Bar: Sakhi Sakhi
This ultra-stylish gastropub proves that the modern Tel Avivian doesn’t need to decide between upscale cocktail bars with excellent drinks and okay food, or restaurants/bars with great food and ‘just okay’ beverages. We can really have it all under one roof – or in this case, out on the sidewalk, watching the world go by. Sakhi Sakhi is not only a fantastic restobar, but also a self-described celebration of both the diversity that makes Tel Aviv so exciting and an emphasis on the highest-quality food.
Sakhi Sakhi is a relative newcomer to the Tel Aviv gastropub scene, having opened in 2019. The restaurant is the brainchild of Chef Yahaloma Levi, a former communications personality in Israel who left the media world to get back to her culinary roots. After closing her most recent venture, the much-loved, warm and homey Yahaloma’s Bistro in the Levinsky Market, Levi has returned with a decidedly higher-end approach to Levantine cooking with Sakhi Sakhi.
Located on quiet Tchernichovsky Street just off the edge of the Carmel Market, Sakhi Sakhi is easy to miss but hard to pass up. The small menu manages to fit in a balanced selection of raw and cooked fish dishes, vegetable-heavy fare, a few meat options, and a rotating selection of house specials. Dishes are all light enough to make up a romantic evening but satisfying enough to work as dinner, and are often creative – think silky Italian gnocchi with decidedly Middle-Eastern tahini sauce. We enjoyed the white sea fish crudo with tomato water and tomato dust (you read that right) and the decadent lobster challah. This is also a wonderful opportunity to try a renowned Arab dessert called atayef, which are sweet dessert dumplings.
The restaurant is relatively small, and diners can enjoy sitting on the spacious bar, a few indoor tables, or on street-facing sidewalk seating that rivals the best European sidewalk cafes. Dishes are all small-to-medium sized tapas. They also have a great wine list, and you can enjoy 30 percent off alcoholic beverages (bottles included) and the entire food menu from 17:00-19:00. Off the cocktail list, we particularly enjoyed the Peach Mule and the Pisco Sour, and waiters take the time to find the perfect cocktail for you.
- Go there if: you love great cocktails, people-watching and tapas-style sharing.
- Delicious Dishes: Levantine tartare and lobster challah.