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TRAVEL -- December 1995

Tel Aviv: Secular City

Where Israel Meets the Modern World

by Corby Kummer

"MY sister moved from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv so that she could sin," a Tel Avivian, Phyllis Glazer, told me recently. After I had toured Israel's religious sites, I had asked Glazer, a restaurant critic, to point me toward some of Jerusalem's worldly pleasures. "Jerusalemites visit each other," she told me, explaining why for the most part the original city on a hill has only very casual restaurants rather than places to dine. "It's a beautiful place but I could never, never live there."

During my stay I was surprised by how many people echoed her views. Jerusalem is for people who come to live on holy ground; Tel Aviv is for people who want to live in Theodor Herzl's vision of a cosmopolitan city and take part in the modern world. If you want to stroll down an Israeli street lined with quirky, forward-looking shops, or sit back and enjoy a relaxed meal in a restaurant that cares about elegance and service, Tel Aviv is the place.

It's also the place if you want to lie on the beach. "Rio without the crime" is how Geoffrey Weill, who has long done public relations for Israel, describes it. His claim is not outlandish. Tel Aviv may have no spectacular mountains (and no shantytowns either), but it has a clean crescent of beach lined with high-rise luxury hotels running the length of the city, and a wide boardwalk paved in the same swirling pattern of gray-and-beige stone as Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana. Strolling the boardwalk, which seemingly the entire city does at least once a day, either to look at everyone else or to sneak in an hour on the sand, is a way to see what both Weill and Glazer mean.

One Friday night, for example--in Israel the height of the weekend--a naked young man on the beach held aloft his clothed girlfriend, twirling as they kissed. A live band nearby played Latin dance music while couples, including many Ethiopian Jews, stood and drank and danced. Farther down the boardwalk loudspeakers played Lawrence Welk- style tunes while two young couples performed Astaire-Rogers dance routines, their expressions taut with concentration on the beat. A young woman hunching on a low stone wall stared at the water, perhaps contemplating her first, rocky love affair. Old couples walked hand in hand, and elderly women took late-night promenades alone, clearly unconcerned about who might be three steps behind.

The boardwalk is crowded with cafés, and so are fashionable streets like Dizengoff and Nahalat Binyamin. I don't think I've ever before seen so many signs for Illy, Lavazza, and Segafredo espresso outside Italy. The city has recently discovered ice cream and gelato, and home-grown chains rival the influx of Ben & Jerry's. I liked Blue Moon the best of the local chains, and the poppy-seed and date-and-almond ice creams at Shluk, a styleless ice-cream shop at 68 Dizengoff, best of all.

Tel Aviv's most charming outdoor setting is the old town of Jaffa, whose stone streets and houses the Israeli government aggressively restored (with mixed success) in the 1960s as an artists' quarter. Dining at the port, with its marina of fishing and pleasure boats at a short remove from the urban center, is reminiscent of dining in Piraeus--and so are the high prices for grilled fresh-caught fish. I'm not sure, though, that fishermen on the Piraeus dock wear cellular telephones on their belts.

Taboon is the fish restaurant that came recommended, but on the advice of friends I went first to Babai, just down the quay. The owner, Itzhak Finegold, displayed the famous native-born-Israeli arrogance by speaking dismissively of his competitors, and he forced dish after dish upon my table, all of which turned up on the bill. The food compensated for the braggadocio. Of the many dishes Finegold insisted we try, one of fried eggplant slices layered with diced tomatoes, mild goat cheese, basil, and a creamy pesto sauce was superb. On another evening in Jaffa, Taboon proved very pleasant, with similarly fresh fish but few attempts at culinary distinction.

Because Israelis have served the foods of the places they and their families came from, a separate Israeli cuisine doesn't exist. Several restaurants in Tel Aviv are cooking their way toward one, though. The most notable is Kapot Tmarim ("Palm Fronds"), which occupies the ground floor of one of the many Bauhaus-style houses in Lev ("Heart of") Tel Aviv, a fashionable neighborhood. (If only the city streets were as clean as the beach.) Sheinken Street, in the same neighborhood, is the city's chief thoroughfare for the kind of offbeat, design-driven boutiques and cafés one used to find in New York's SoHo before the rents went up.

I was impressed and even moved by the efforts that the young and ambitious owner of Kapot Tmarim--Offer Gal, a French-trained chef--has made to create a restaurant of international distinction, commissioning farmers to grow herbs and raise Muscovy ducks and produce foie gras, and using local fruits in desserts and between-course herbal sorbets. (I usually dislike these, but the rosemary sorbet I tried was potent, refreshing, and barely sweetened.) Israel exports foie gras--to France, even--and the foie gras terrine served with meaty farm-raised quail was especially good. The attractive young waiters and waitresses were clearly unfazed by the many linguistic demands presented nightly; young people behind the counters in a surprising number of the shops and cafés I entered spoke little or no English. Before dessert a waitress brought a small plate of melon balls and slices of prickly pear, or sabra--the national fruit, possible source of the name for native-born Israelis, who are also prickly without and (some of them, anyway) soft within.

Forel, a similarly spare and modern restaurant near the Sheraton (the Hilton, where I stayed with great pleasure, and the Sheraton are thought to be the city's top hotels), also features Israeli products. Its leanings, though, are more Italian, which is the mode in Israel as in America. A countertop covered with oval dishes of antipasto salads greets the visitor, along with the smell of garlic. The salads, based on fried zucchini and eggplant and roasted peppers, were fine, especially one with beets and dill. But the fish--the local sea bass, and the trout that gives the restaurant its name--was the standout. The bass was perfectly grilled; the farmed trout had more flavor than farmed fish usually does and was big and meaty. Unexpectedly, the fish bettered that served by the port restaurants in Jaffa.

Visitors usually want ethnic specialties, and two recommended places in the decayed Yemenite quarter are Zion, one of the first restaurants in the country to gain fame, and the more recently opened Maganda. Both serve hummus and skewered meat and many eggplant salads. I tried Zion, which looks something like a coffee shop with red flocked wallpaper (there's outdoor seating too) and serves big portions of wonderful salads and meat at an alarming speed. As soon as you ask for a basket of grilled pita, which comes in big rounds, or one of the stuffed vegetables, each containing a different rice, fruit, vegetable, or meat stuffing, or more of the unctuous, not-garlicky, extremely fresh hummus, it appears on the wood-grain laminate table. Even the mixed grill that a friend and I devised--turkey, chicken, lamb, and the inevitable foie gras--seemed to arrive in an instant. If you can slow the staff down, you can savor a copious meal that won't cost more than $20.00 a head (fancier restaurants cost $30.00 to $50.00 a head), including either of the two Israeli beers; I preferred the lighter Maccabi to the sweet, heavy Goldstar.

The meal I liked best was the cheapest and simplest. On my dining expeditions to Jaffa, I wondered at the constant crowds lining up at a garishly lit bakery on the town's short main street, just beyond the clock tower, with its whimsical stained glass. Did so many people want doughnuts and croissants, which I saw stacked in pyramids at each of the three arched ordering windows, so late at night? I found out what they were after when I read the excellent chapter on Tel Aviv in the Lonely Planet guide to Israel, and begged the friend driving me to the airport for my late-night departure to stop first in Jaffa.

The Said Abulafia & Sons bakery, currently run by a fourth generation of bakers, is a pita paradise. Behind those windows is a constantly active oven into which go racks of dimpled pita bread, sprinkled with olive oil and za'atar, a mixture of sumac, sesame, salt, and the lemony wild marjoram that gives the blend its name. (You can order an excellent version of the mixture from Greater Galilee Gourmet, at 800-290-1391.) Pita dough is rolled into straight-sided tart pans to become a kind of deep-dish pizza, filled with eggs sunny-side up and sometimes mushrooms or olives (plain eggs are the classic). A sweeter, spongier dough is filled like a calzone with chunks of creamy, not-too-salty Bulgarian feta and sprinkled with sesame seeds; it emerges golden and puffy, the cheese just warm. Big, airy rings of sesame-coated beigele (bagels)--insipid in the hands of most Israeli bakers, it must be said--are split, filled with feta and olives, and heated to become ethereal sandwiches.

The only hitch is that the bakery doesn't have tables. My friend and I went to a modest and brightly lit outdoor restaurant toward the port, where I had earlier seen a handlettered sign, NOUS AVONS DU FOIE GRAS, and asked if we could have some beer and spread our freshly baked dinner on the paper tablecloths. The answer was yes. The farewell supper made me wonder how soon I could return.

Link to Cullen Murphy's article "Hallowed Ground" (December Atlantic)

Copyright © 1995 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; December 1995; Tel Aviv: Secular City; Volume 276, No. 6; pages 60-62.

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