Navigate to Food section

Tel Aviv’s Taste of the South

At NOLA bakery, Israelis sample pecan pie and buttermilk biscuits—with a side order of American culture

Dana Kessler
October 31, 2012

When Talya Rasner opened NOLA, an American bakery and cafe on Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Street, this summer, she wanted to pay homage to her late grandmother Nathalie Goldman. Grandma Nat was a Southern belle who lived in New Orleans almost her entire life, until Hurricane Katrina destroyed her home and forced her to move to San Antonio, Texas, where she died in 2010. Rasner considered naming her business after her grandmother but ultimately decided to name it after New Orleans, where her grandmother, mother, and Talya herself were born—an American city known for its food.

Despite its name, NOLA doesn’t look like it came out of an episode of HBO’s Treme, nor is it devoted to Creole cuisine; it’s more broadly American- than New Orleans-centered. For Rasner, NOLA is code for youthful memories and romantic fantasies of the country she left behind when she moved to Israel as a child, and her shop is solely dedicated to bringing her personal, and very eclectic, vision of America to Tel Aviv.

“American cooking has quite a bad name in Israel,” Rasner explained, noting that the general Israeli culinary consensus favors French baking, which is regarded as more sophisticated. “I wanted to open a bakery that would introduce Israelis to my favorite American baked goods. It wasn’t supposed to be specifically Southern or Jewish. I would describe what we have here as all-American classics.”

Rasner didn’t plan on becoming an ambassador of American cuisine, let alone culture, but NOLA has quickly become a mini-mecca of Americana. The music in the background ranges from Motown to Dixieland, and the customers often include American expats who gather for a quick fix of nostalgia. This week, Rasner has been busy planning for Halloween, a holiday that few Israelis celebrate. NOLA’s festivities will include traditional American holiday decorations like spiderwebs and carved pumpkins, and the bakery will make special cupcakes adorned with ghosts, all served by a staff decked out in Halloween costumes rather than their usual attire: retro-styled frilly aprons.

“It’s funny, everyone in Tel Aviv regards me now as ‘the American,’ ” Rasner told me. “I planned on opening a bakery, but I actually brought a piece of America to Israel.”

The first thing you see when entering NOLA is a pair of small framed portraits from the early 1940s, perched on a shelf: Rasner’s Grandma Nat, and her grandfather William Leon, who passed away in New Orleans two weeks before Katrina. Nat once dreamed of studying medicine, but her uncle convinced her parents that it was no profession for a lady, so she married a doctor instead. He became a surgeon, while she dedicated herself to the Jewish community: She was on the Hadassah board, organizing fundraisers, rummage sales, and the yearly “mitzvah dinner.” They were pillars of Jewish New Orleans, helping to found Tikvat Shalom, a synagogue that is now known as Shir Chadash, in suburban Metairie, where she served as Sisterhood president.

Elements of New Orleans can be found in NOLA’s display windows—the pecan pie, for instance. But as Rasner notes: “It isn’t a strictly New Orleans type of place. It’s a mish-mash of places I know and love.” As such, the baked goods hail from very different corners of America. New York-style bagels (which can be ordered with cream cheese and lox) live in harmony with black-and-white whoopie pie—traditionally associated with Pennsylvania’s Amish; gooey Mississippi mud pies co-exist with soft and dreamy Southern buttermilk biscuits.

Rasner, 33, is perhaps ideally suited to bridge American and Israeli cultures: Her American mother, Kathy Leon, met her Israeli father, Kobi Rasner, when she came to study in Israel as part of an overseas program of the Zionist youth movement Young Judaea. The couple got married after Kobi—who fought in the Yom Kippur war—completed his army service; they moved soon afterward to the States. Kobi opened a wholesale jewelry business in New Orleans, while Kathy became active in the Jewish community, teaching Hebrew and Israeli folk dance. Talya and her younger brother and sister were born in New Orleans.

The family moved back to Israel when Rasner was 8 years old. Except for four years studying industrial design in Milan, she spent most of her life in Tel Aviv but could never get the sweet smell of her formative years out of her mind. “It’s not that you can’t get a muffin or a cupcake in Israel—you can, but a lot of times they’re not exactly right,” she said. “In Israel, a lot of muffins just look like muffins, but they’re actually way too rich and heavy, and not light and fluffy, like a muffin is supposed to be. The chocolate chip cookies you get in Israel usually aren’t crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside. I wanted to open a place where you can get American baked goods like they are supposed to be.”

Still, she knew that not everything about American treats would work in Israel: “I didn’t go overboard with American over-sizing,” she said, “and even my large cookie isn’t the size of your head.

Rasner, who from an early age baked at home, isn’t a professional baker, and it was by chance that a mutual friend introduced her to Harriet Sternstein, a Jewish pastry chef from New York who recently made aliyah after having lived in Paris—where she opened Europe’s first gourmet dog bakery, Mon Bon Chien. Rasner found in Sternstein her culinary soul mate, who understands what it is to wax nostalgic about Pop Tarts and Peppermint Patties. Now NOLA’s head baker, Sternstein happily prepares Rasner’s treasured family recipes, like Grandma Nat’s poppyseed cake, made with sherry, or “Lea Jean’s munchies,” which are Talya’s mother’s cousin’s version of mandelbrodt. “My mom’s cousin, Lea Jean, lives in Memphis, where she’s locally famous for her special mandelbrodt cookies, which she makes with pecans—popular in the South—instead of the traditional almonds,” Rasner explained. “Whenever she’d bring my grandmother a box, she would hide them in the freezer and nosh on them straight from the freezer, because if anyone in the family would have known that she had them, they would vanish in 10 seconds. For years, I tried to get Lea Jean to give me the recipe, but she never did. Finally, when I opened NOLA, she conceded the recipe. I promised to name them after her and to never reveal her secrets to anyone.”

NOLA is also a café, serving breakfast and light meals: sandwiches, salads, and even the ultimate American comfort food, macaroni and cheese. The house specialty is called blackstone biscuit, NOLA’s version of eggs benedict, in which poached eggs, bacon, and fried tomato, dripping with Hollandaise sauce, rest inside a Southern buttermilk biscuit, instead of the usual English muffin. Not all Israelis are partial to NOLA’s use of bacon. “It’s this Israeli thing that even nonreligious people have something against pork,” Rasner said. “They don’t mind eating shrimp, but they shudder at the thought of bacon.” Nonetheless, NOLA has already acquired a loyal fan base, including observant Americans living in Jerusalem, who drive all the way to Tel Aviv for a taste of home. “They don’t eat bacon, but the fact that they even come here is impressive,” said Rasner. “They tell me they never eat in restaurants that aren’t kosher, and that NOLA is the only exception.”

Because Rasner had also studied design, she was very deliberate in planning the look for her bakery: “Since the beginning, I had a very clear vision of what the place would look like, what it would smell like, how it would feel,” she said. NOLA’s dining area spreads out to the backyard and has a distinct romantic feel, mixing new furniture with natural wood pieces and vintage findings imported from American flea markets to create a haven of old-time America in the heart of Tel Aviv. “Some people tell me that the place looks European,” she said with a giggle, “but they only say that because it doesn’t subscribe to the stereotypical America that many Israelis have in their mind.”

NOLA’s Chocolate Chip Cookies

NOLA’s Chocolate Chip Cookies

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs
2 cups chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 375° F.

Combine flour, baking soda, and salt in small bowl. Beat butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar, and vanilla extract in large mixer bowl until creamy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Gradually beat in flour mixture. Stir in morsels and nuts. Drop by rounded tablespoon onto ungreased baking sheets.

Bake for 9 to 11 minutes or until golden brown. Cool on baking sheets for 2 minutes; remove to wire racks to cool completely.

Dana Kessler has written for Maariv, Haaretz, Yediot Aharonot, and other Israeli publications. She is based in Tel Aviv.