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Tel Aviv’s Restaurant Scene Goes Kosher

Israel’s leading chefs are taking the city’s food in a new direction

Flora Tsapovsky
May 15, 2019
Photo: Grace Hilsley
Steak & egg at Yoram Nitzan's restaurant, Nomi.Photo: Grace Hilsley
Photo: Grace Hilsley
Steak & egg at Yoram Nitzan's restaurant, Nomi.Photo: Grace Hilsley

Tel Aviv has always been considered a “bubble” within Israel—voting differently, partying differently, snagging the Eurovision celebrations from the country’s capital due to its liberal, cosmopolitan nature. The food scene has always been a part of the appeal—particularly Tel Aviv’s non-kosher food scene; from the bacon-selling supermarket chain Tiv Taam, to myriad seafood and sushi restaurants, Tel Aviv is, without a doubt, Israel’s capital of non-kosher food.

Over the past couple of years, however, the city’s culinary landscape has seen an increase in kosher establishments, making a dent in its deliciously sinful image. What’s most surprising, perhaps, is the fact that behind Tel Aviv’s kosher movement are chefs previously associated with some of the most decadent, decidedly nonkosher establishments in town.

Kashrut, in Israel and beyond, is a complex concept, and an even more complicated institution when it comes to kashrut certificates, permits, and laws. In Israel, kashrut is largely supervised by the Chief Rabbinate, an official governing body that offers a course for anyone who wants to become a kashrut supervisor on its behalf. On supermarket shelves, products are equipped with its stamp, or with the stamp of Badatz, an ultra-Orthodox organization considered to be even more strict. In the food industry, if a business chooses to declare itself kosher and available to kashrut-observant customers, a paper from the Rabbinate needs to be present on the premises. A kosher establishment qualifies not only by avoiding the well-known forbidden items (pork, shellfish, dishes mixing dairy and meat), but also by using only kosher cooking techniques and products from kosher purveyors. Entering the kosher game is a costly, heavily bureaucratic process that many Tel Avivian businesses have opted to avoid over the years, listing ideological as well as logistical reasons for their choice. These days, however, the powers of the market are shifting, and new norms edge out old prejudice.

Take Yoram Nitzan, for example. Up until 2015, the experienced chef’s name was synonymous with luxurious oysters, octopus, and shrimp, which starred on the menu of Mul-Yam (In Front of the Sea, in Hebrew), the now-shuttered iconic restaurant in the Tel Avivian port where he served as head chef. Considered extravagantly priced compared to other Tel Aviv restaurants, Mul-Yam was, in its 20-year run, the ultimate hall of hedonism. This past December, four years after a dramatic fire at the restaurant led to its permanent closure, and following a short stint with an Italian restaurant in 2017, Nitzan can be found watching the waves again, as the head chef of Nomi, a new kosher restaurant at the David Intercontinental Hotel on the Tel Aviv beachfront. “After all my culinary life I’ve been cooking decidedly nonkosher,” he said. “I was looking for a challenge, a new audience, something I haven’t done before.” He was approached by the hotel management and accepted the offer, which came, he said, “with a great space, all the facilities, and total freedom—within the restrictions of kashrut, of course.”

With the right approach, Nitzan said, food restrictions turned out to be “not such a big deal.” On the menu, there’s vegetarian risotto (made creamy with the help of mashed sunchokes in lieu of butter and cream), a juicy short-rib hamburger with smoked goose crumble, and an elaborate (but pareve) chocolate dessert. The overall experience is fine dining, minus the forbidden ingredients Nitzan is so familiar with from his previous restaurants.

In addition to giving up seafood, the main challenge, according to Nitzan, appeared on the vegetable side of things, which he didn’t expect. “Apparently, you can only use white asparagus, and if you want to use the green one, you must cut the tops off,” he said. “It sounds dramatic, and I know many chefs in the city that would jump on the opportunity to use premium asparagus tops, but I told myself, I’m able to overcome this, I don’t want to give asparagus up.” Another challenge is cauliflower: “Only certain growers grow cauliflower in a kosher way that doesn’t allow insects to penetrate it,” he said, “so I get this gorgeous little cauliflower but it costs four times the price of cauliflower here in Tel Aviv.” In general, Nitzan isn’t aiming to be a rebel. “If I hear something isn’t allowed, I don’t ask why, I don’t argue, I just want to know what can I use,” he said.

Nitzan is not the only one tempted by a prime location and smooth sailing: Meir Adoni, the Israeli mega-star chef and TV persona behind past Tel Avivian hits like Catit and Mizlala, made waves in the Israeli media when, a few years ago, he changed course and went all-in on kosher dining. Under his ownership, the Catit Group operates two restaurants in Tel Aviv within the Carlton hotel chain: Lumina and Blue Sky. Dunya, his chain of kosher street food eateries, launched in late 2018 and currently has three locations: two in Tel Aviv and one in Kiryat Bialik, with full intention to expand further. “At some point we reached a conclusion that the kosher market wasn’t living up to its full potential,” said Lilach Sapir, the group’s CEO. “There’s always been a hunger for good kosher food, but there weren’t any choices. With modern-day technology and excellent ingredients, there’s no reason not to offer premium kosher food anymore”

Eyal Lavi, another chef whose name, for years, elicited thoughts of steamy bouillabaisse, recently opened Balkan, a kosher casual eatery in the center of Tel Aviv. Falling under the category of “kosher fish and dairy,” the meat-free restaurant is inspired by the cuisines of Croatia, Turkey, Greece, and other countries in the Balkan region. “Which is funny, because when you think of the Balkans, your first association is meat,” said Lavi. In the past, he owned Rokach 73, a fine-dining establishment famous for its seafood soup and other bistro-inspired, utterly nonkosher dishes. For the past few years, Lavi has been operating a consulting firm, and Balkan is one of his clients, with his name at the forefront. “I won’t say this isn’t challenging,” he said. “All the ingredients are more expensive, I can’t import cheeses, but I manage.” The payoff? Being exposed to a new clientele that may have heard of him, but wasn’t able, until now, to try his dishes. One major advantage from a marketing standpoint, he said, is that “if one person in a group keeps kosher, you must accommodate them. This used to be a constant compromise, but now everyone’s happy to go to a good, delicious restaurant like Balkan.”

In addition to Balkan, Lavi is currently working on another project: a chain of kosher hamburger eateries, commencing in Tel Aviv. Until a few years ago, the idea would have been more at home in a city like Jerusalem, but in 2019 no one in Tel Aviv raises an eyebrow. Even Eyal Shani, the unofficial “bad boy” of Tel Aviv cuisine and the man behind the international sensation of Miznon, recently opened Malka, a kosher Tel Aviv restaurant on a quiet side street near Ha-Kirya, the city’s famous army base.

Why the change in Tel Aviv’s restaurant scene? Nitzan, Sapir, and Lavi all point to a demand in the market that, in turn, leads to more places like theirs. “There’s a new sector of religious clients who all of sudden view dining out as a cultural foodie experience,” Nitzan said. Lavi added: “In the past, the religious customer used to be more conservative, but people evolve. No one wants to keep living in the stone age.” According to Sapir, exposure to cooking shows, social media, and international travel have led the Israeli traditional sector to stop viewing dining as a necessity, but instead to expect an experience that matches everything nonkosher eaters get to enjoy on a night out. “We give them the whole thing—the atmosphere, the great food, nothing is missing,” Sapir said. This new audience is present in Tel Aviv more than ever, since the city is already considered a culinary destination among Israelis.

“Tel Aviv is a great, pluralistic city that accepts all extremities,” Lavi said. “The fact there are more kosher spots to eat at doesn’t hurt anyone. The problem is on a larger scale, as the country keeps leaning right and more and more religious parties aim to take over our lives, be it in schools, in public transportation, and maybe, in the future, in the restaurant world, too. But that’s the problem of whole Israel, not just Tel Aviv.”

Flora Tsapovsky is a San Francisco-based food and culture writer.