My impressions of eating out in Israel during my first visit are still very strong. Falafel, pitta bread and a very cold Coca Cola – all of this dispensed to me by an Arab street vendor in Jerusalem in 1971. The price I cannot quite remember but it was only a few shekels.
My second visit, just completed, took place on an altogether more professional plane. Firstly, there was the company – Jancis and another couple of wine- and food-loving friends. Then there was the long list of recommendations from friends from the world over as Israel seeks to convince the world that it is home to the best of Middle Eastern cooking. And finally there was my own personal curiosity – quite how much has changed, why and how, in the intervening 46 years.
Our first two days in Tel Aviv were most impressive. The city was blindingly hot. Everyone seemed to be attached to some form of mobile device, including many cyclists, one of whom I saw being booked for some offence although it took three policemen to manage it. And then there was everyone else who, or so it appeared to me, seemed to be exercising quite strenuously in some form or another on the beach.
Fortunately, there are many in Tel Aviv who share my enthusiasm for food and wine. Still in their thirties; still tremendously passionate about the essential elements of what makes a great restaurateur – a love of food, wine and your fellow human beings; and still incredibly curious about what goes on around the rest of the world. The three individuals, or partners, behind the first three restaurants we enjoyed all shared the same unparalleled enthusiasm.
They also shared the same attention to detail. What impressed all of us was the temperature at which each bottle of wine was served. Perhaps the most challenging aspect of wine service today in any large city, Paris, New York or London, as refreshment becomes an increasingly important requirement in fuller bodied white wines and in lighter reds, it seemed to present no problem to the waiting staff at Basta or Garrigue or even the smallest, Halutzim 3.
Perhaps in the case of Basta, this is because of its focus on the wines of Burgundy. It was certainly quite a shock for all of us, after our early morning start, to walk through the last throes of the Carmel Market and find ourselves at a rickety outside table presented with such an overwhelmingly comprehensive list of red burgundy – grands crus aplenty at very fair prices. The super-relaxed sommelier Aviram Katz, bearded and wearing blue shorts, a striped shirt and a red and white cloth over his shoulder, explained. 'The switch began about five years ago when the prices of red bordeaux began to rise so much. We really had no alternative.' We were also to learn that there are two extremely proficient burgundy specialist importers in Israel (one of them apparently run by the reserve goalkeeper, burgundy connoisseur Daniel Lipschitz of Maccabi Tel Aviv), a clear influence on the wine lists we encountered at all the places mentioned here.
Yet this switch has as much to do with a lacuna in Israeli winemaking as anything else. Pinot Noir is now particularly appreciated by those who embrace the modern Israeli cooking movement of vegetables, salads and fresher flavours, because typical Israeli reds tend to be a bit too heavy for this sort of food and, often, for the weather. An excellent lunch with wine writer Adam Montefiore at The Norman Hotel, revealed that there is in fact very little Pinot planted in this country and that the climate is probably too hot, and growing hotter each year, to make it feasible. And yet this grape variety remains the winemakers' holy grail.
One other restaurant where wine is treated with as much seriousness as the food is Garrigue, a neighbourhood restaurant founded 18 months ago by its chef Ido Feiner and its wine importer front of house, Uri Caftori (the pair are pictured above). Caftori is easily recognisable with his tight curly hair, constant energy, irreverent opinions on all things vinous and his desire for his customers to have a good time while they are on his premises.
This may be easier to achieve in principle than in practice as Caftori and his partner have chosen to follow a decidedly non-moneymaking principle: a small space which has to include a smart, glass-fronted kitchen and painfully few tables while allowing enough flexibility to accommodate most of his customers, the majority of whom all want to come at the same time, a worldwide phenomenon. There is some outside seating but this appeals only once the weather cools.
We began in style with a bottle of 2010 Schoenenbourg Riesling from Domaine Bott-Geyl in Alsace, one of those flexible wines that acts as aperitif and accompaniment to a variety of first courses as well as a spur to conversation. And while we continued with two fully mature Israeli wines that Uri had kindly kept for us, we would have been spoilt for choice from what is a first-class wine list: lots of reds from the Languedoc and Roussillon; Chablis from Dauvissat and Raveneau; some fine Austrian Rieslings; and a whole range of interesting Israeli wines.
This finesse is matched by that of the kitchen. We began with an exemplary bread basket that included beetroot grissini and a very moreish anchovy bun, and followed this with two types of raw fish, one slightly spicier than the other, and some sautéed calamari on bruschetta. We followed this with a very good rendition of black pasta with seafood and in my case a plate of bratwurst with mashed potato. This was to prove my second of three pork dishes in a row, an unlikely occurrence given that this was Israel but pork is an ingredient that is surprisingly common on the menus of certain restaurants in Tel Aviv.
We ended with three desserts, of which the chocolate popsicle was undoubtedly the best (although the watermelon and panna cotta was a close second) and, as was to prove a common factor again, a glass of eau-de-vie, in this case from Alsace. The bill for four came to just over 1,000 shekels, £250 excluding service.
I came away most impressed by the quality of the cooking, the friendliness of the service and most of all perhaps by the quality of the wine service in these three Tel Aviv restaurants.
Basta 4 Hashomer Street; tel +972 (0)3 516 9234
Garrigue 15 Ahad Ha'Am Street; tel + 972 (0)3 903 0677
Halutzim 3 3 Hahalutzim Street; tel +972 (0)3 523 1016
The Norman Hotel 23-25 Nachmani Street; tel +972 (0)3 543 5555