Riding a Culinary Wave
With its award-winning cookbook Seafoodpedia, Tel Aviv restaurant Mul-Yam brings a world of fish to Israel
In an episode from the sixth season of The Office, Michael tries to impress a potential buyer of Dunder Mifflin by getting reservations at Cooper’s Seafood and telling him they make the best Maine lobster in the world, to which Computron—actually Dwight using a robotic voice over the P.A. system—duly corrects him: “Mul-Yam in Tel Aviv is better.”
Computron knows what he’s talking about. Mul-Yam—a high-end restaurant located in the port of Tel Aviv—is Israel’s only representative in Les Grandes Tables du Monde, a French listing of 158 exceptional restaurants from 22 countries and four continents. It is at the top of the list when you Google “Top 10 seafood restaurants in the world.” And GaultMillau Israel awarded the restaurant its highest rating for five consecutive years. Now Mul-Yam has accomplished another feat: Its art-cookbook Seafoodpedia recently won a Gourmand World Cookbook Award—the most prestigious international award in the field—something no Israeli cookbook has ever accomplished before. Mul-Yam’s book won first place in the Fish and Seafood category, surpassing books from China, the Netherlands, Portugal, and the Dominican Republic. (Israel’s Arab/Jewish duo Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi won first prize, too, in the Mediterranean Cuisine category, for their book Jerusalem.)
Seafoodpedia, designed by Dan Alexander and Yair Yossefi and published in Hebrew last year by the designers’ publishing house, à point books, is a grand and very heavy coffee-table book, divided in two. The first part is a spectacular photographic encyclopedia, offering information and anecdotes about different species of seafood and fish—from brill and sea urchins to dog cockles and abalones, including their names in seven different languages. The second part consists of recipes created or adapted by Mul-Yam’s chef Yoram Nitzan. “The competition organizers said that Seafoodpedia is intriguing and positions Israel in the center of the culinary global map,” noted Alexander, adding that the book was described by the judges as “the most comprehensive fish and seafood guide that has been published in recent years.”
Shalom Maharovsky, Mul-Yam’s owner and the man behind the book, dreamed of compiling such an encyclopedia for many years. “About 15 years ago I was in a restaurant in the North of France,” he recalled. “There I ate a fish that I didn’t know. They told me the name in French, and it didn’t mean anything to me. They told me the name in English, but that didn’t help either—I never heard of it. Then they took out a huge and very old encyclopedia of fish and seafood and showed me what it was. That’s when the idea was born. I immediately understood the need for a book like this. We use our book a lot in the restaurant. When tourists look at the menu and encounter fish they don’t recognize, we open the book and show them. It’s a great ice-breaker.”
Seafoodpedia took two years to finish. (It is currently being translated, and it hopefully will come out in English before the end of the year.) American photojournalist Clay McLachlan, whom Maharovsky considers one of the best food photographers in the world, took the pictures for the first half of the book at Rungis—the largest wholesale market for fresh produce in the world, located in the southern suburbs of Paris. Then he traveled to Tel Aviv to photograph Mul-Yam’s dishes for the second part.
The fact that the book is full of pictures taken in France is no coincidence. The restaurant, which Maharovsky established in 1995, might be located in the port of Tel Aviv, but its food is mostly non-Israeli. With a cosmopolitan seasonal menu that includes dishes like crab soup velouté with herbes-de-Provence, Norwegian salmon carpaccio tropical salad in balsamic vinaigrette, cold lobster salad New-England style, and shrimp and scallops with tartuffe agnolotti pasta, a meal at Mul-Yam intends to mentally transport you to faraway shores. Although most of the fish on Mul-Yam’s menu is imported, some is locally caught, like the grouper, which might be served as a fillet with cauliflower puree and Pinot Grigio sauce.
Mul-Yam’s internationality reflects Maharovsky’s vision and lifestyle. In Les Grandes Tables du Monde he is described as “gourmet and traveler extraordinaire.” Mul-Yam’s official website paints a similar picture: “Searching for Tartufi-bianchi on the slopes of Piedmont, the valleys of Napa and Sonoma, the vineyards in Alsace and the Marlborough highlands, Shalom is a globetrotter, always in search of the ‘holy grail’ of the gastronomy.”
Maharovsky was never a cook; as an entrepreneur he was always on the business side of the plate. He started his ventures in the culinary world 35 years ago as a partner in the Me&Me steak-house chain. “Working in a steak-house chain, I didn’t know anything about fish and seafood,” Maharovsky confessed, “but I started to learn and to travel to seafood shows, in Boston, Brussels, etc. Up until 1991, Israeli law permitted only the import of kosher frozen fish. In 1991 the law changed, and for the first time in the country’s history it became legal to import fresh fish and also non-kosher seafood. I was the first importer of fresh non-kosher seafood—and for a few years I was the only one.”
To make the best use of his imported crustaceans and mollusks, in 1995 he opened Mul-Yam—a pun of sorts, literally meaning “across the sea” in Hebrew, as well as being spelled the same in Hebrew (without the vowels) as the word for mussels, mulim. “At that time there was no gourmet fish and seafood restaurant to be found in Israel, and that’s what I wanted to do,” Maharovsky said. “The only way to serve fish in Israel up until then was either on the grill or deep-fried. We started serving fish fillets, steamed fish, pan-fried fish. Our recipes were, and still are, mostly French, but also Spanish, Italian, and American. We serve our lobster American-style.”
“We serve haute cuisine for almost 18 years now, and no other restaurant in Israel has done it for so long,” said Nitzan, Mul-Yam’s chef, who studied at Israel’s Tadmor Cooking School and worked with some of the world’s top chefs, from Joël Robuchon to Daniel Boulud and Eric Ripert. “There are many gourmet restaurants in the country, but the hard work is keeping the high level, year in and year out, which is what we pride ourselves on.”
If it seems strange that a Mediterranean country like Israel isn’t typically considered a fish-and-seafood country, Maharovsky can explain why this is so with a list of reasons: climate issues, overfishing due to lack of regulations, and the impact of Egypt’s Aswan Dam. Apparently the dam, which opened in Egypt in 1970, caused fishing in the Mediterranean to decline because nutrients that used to flow down the Nile to the sea are trapped behind the dam. Although Israel has great locations for fish and seafood restaurants, it doesn’t really have a lot of fish and seafood.
That’s why Mul-Yam receives regular shipments of fresh seafood from around the world: Lobster and scallops arrive once a week from Canada, mussels and salmon twice a week from Denmark, oysters once a week from France, and tuna twice a week from Sri Lanka. Taking this into consideration, it’s no wonder that dining at Mul-Yam is not a cheap affair. But while the restaurant is undoubtedly pricey, its fans deem it worth every penny. “Mul-Yam keeps its high quality over time, doesn’t ingratiate, doesn’t compromise, and doesn’t give in to passing culinary trends,” Amir Kaminer, a restaurant critic from Israel’s Yediot Aharonot newspaper, told me, describing the place as a “shrine for Israel’s financial and style elite.”
And now, after almost two decades of enjoying the best the sea has to offer, Israel’s financial and style elite also have a beautiful book to display in their homes.
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The Sephardi Voices history project collects testimony from Jews who fled Arab lands after Israel was founded