Tel Aviv is an exciting city that embraces the oldest traditions of Israeli culture and melds them into an advanced, modern metropolis. Add strategic placement on the Mediterranean Sea and you have a spectacular coastal setting. But lately it has also become the holy grail for food lovers which is why it was chosen for Chapter 2 of “Celebrity Chef Birthright,” organized by chef guru Herb Karlitz who co-founded Harlem EatUp! with Marcus Samuelsson. Chapter 1 began in Jerusalem and now we were diving headfirst into Tel Aviv’s vibrant food scene, from street markets to 5-star restaurants.
It turned out to be a terrific time to visit, as 2019 marks the 100th anniversary of the Bauhaus, the German design school founded by Walter Gropius. Tel Aviv is a testament to this architectural style and home to the world’s largest concentration of Bauhaus buildings, around 4,000. As a result, it’s called the “White City,” and some of the structures have been designated UNESCO World Heritage status.
Atmosphere & Food
First, we visited the largest market in Tel Aviv, the Carmel Market, or “Shuk HaCarmel” in Hebrew. Hugely popular with locals and tourists alike, it’s always busy especially on Thursdays and Fridays, when people prepare for their sabbath meals. Everything is sold here, from food to clothes to electronics, and it was a big hit with our chef entourage. The goodies on display had us salivating, so a street food excursion was the obvious next step. We tasted some of the most common fast foods: falafel, shawarma, schnitzel and bourekas, a type of baked pastry filled with potatoes, cheese or mushrooms. Not to be missed is a sabich, a big, tasty pita sandwich stuffed with fried eggplant and hardboiled eggs. It was the yummiest thing I’ve eaten in decades.
Castel Winery & the Judean Hills Quartet
What’s a foodie trip without wine? We trekked to the Judean Hills Quartet where a group of four wineries have joined forces to establish the region as a serious center for winemaking. Wine has been produced here for thousands of years, and now the four – Domaine du Castel, Flam Winery, Sphera, and Tzora Vineyards – are known for producing some of Israel’s finest wines. We toured the family-owned Castel Winery, founded in the 1970s, and now producing around 100,000 bottles per year, most of it exported.
Lunch in Ein Rafa
Ein Rafa is a village of about 1,200 people not far from both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and what’s unusual here is their co-existence project where local Arab schoolchildren share joint activities and games with nearby Jewish children. The town is also known for Majda, a renowned restaurant with colorful décor and rooftop views where we had a delicious lunch. Owned by married couple Yaakov Barhum, a Muslim, and Michal Baranes, a Jew, it’s famous for its one-of-a-kind fusion cuisine and it really caught on after being seen on Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown. The menu features dishes such as shrimp falafel, but the star of the show again was the sabich, that heavenly eggplant sandwich. Majda’s version includes tangy amba, Israeli salad, tahini and parsley all wrapped in a pita. My mouth waters just thinking about it.
Dinner at HaSalon
Back in Tel Aviv, our culinary troop got to have dinner at HaSalon, the brainchild of Eyal Shani, one of Israel’s top chefs and the judge on “Master Chef Israel.” This place is unusual in that it’s open just two nights a week, and the menu changes each night. There are two seatings – the earlier formatted more traditionally with classical music and the later described as “performance art” with a DJ spinning louder music and a more innovative menu. “The first seating is dinner, the second seating is a party,” the chef has said. HaSalon, which translates to “living room” in English, just opened a branch in midtown Manhattan.
We toured Sarona Market, a one-stop shop gourmet food emporium, with 90,000 square-feet devoted to all things culinary. Set in a former Templar colony compound, there are numerous shops and eateries, including outlets of some of Israel’s most famous institutions – you’ll find hummus from Jaffa’s Abu Hassan, and delectable cheeses from Jerusalem’s Basher Fromagerie.
Gourmet Cooking Experience
With so many fabulous markets everywhere bursting with fresh ingredients, a cooking class is a no-brainer and you can recreate what you learn at home. We visited the Dan Gourmet Culinary Institute, one of Tel Aviv’s leading cooking schools, to meet students and sample their work. Classes offer step-by-step instructions for a wide range of dishes. At our meal, we had a Moroccan dish called chraime, fish in tomato sauce with couscous, kreplach (a type of Jewish dumpling), noodle kugel, and yes, chopped liver.
Dinner at L28 Culinary Platform
We had an edgy meal at L28 Culinary Platform, a hybrid restaurant that acts as an accelerator for chef entrepreneurs, and an incubator for creating new techniques in Israeli cuisine. If L28 sounds like something new, its location gives a clue – it lies at the heart of Tel Aviv’s booming start-up sector. Up and coming chefs are given six-month residencies and the platform is mentored by top restaurateurs. It provides a full kitchen staff and experienced restaurant manager. The platform was founded by Start-Up Nation Central, a nonprofit organization serving as a gateway for Israeli innovation. So, yes, it’s a culinary “platform,” but you can make a reservation and have an elegant meal prepared by a chef who will soon be running Israel’s newest hot spot.
Dinner at Claro
Dinner at Claro, a farm-to-table restaurant run by Ran Shmueli, one of Israel’s most beloved chefs, is a must. One of Tel Aviv’s finest dining spots, Claro has a warm, inviting atmosphere and a menu strong on influences from around the Mediterranean, including France, Spain, Turkey, Greece and Lebanon. Located in the historic Sarona complex, this dinner was one of the highlights. James Beard award-winning chef Jonathan Waxman declared that the meal at Claro reflects the field-to-table culture espoused by Alice Waters. In fact, this was Waxman’s first visit to Israel, and he concluded that the use of market-fresh ingredients is the key to Israel’s vibrant food scene. “I’ve been happy to see that wherever we’ve gone, the kibbutz lifestyle of harvesting, working together, cooking and breaking bread together is alive and well,” he said.
Where to Stay:
The Dan Hotel – Tel Aviv’s first luxury hotel and the city’s grande dame. The beachfront location is central and perfect for exploring the city, as many of the best attractions, shopping and nightlife are within walking distance.
99 HaYarkon Street, Tel Aviv; Tel. +972-3-7408966 (International)
800-223-7773/4 (North America)
Where to Eat:
Ma’avar Yabok 8, Tel Aviv-Yafo
Tel. +972 52-703-5888
L28 Culinary Platform
Rehov Lilienblum 28 Tel Aviv-Yafo
Tel. +972 03 900 3560
Rehov Ha’Arba’a 23, Corner of David Elazar 30 Tel Aviv-Yafo 6107450
Tel. +972 03-601-7777
Carmel Market (HaCarmel)
St 48, Tel Aviv-Yafo
Sarona Market – Aluf Kalman Magen St 3, Tel Aviv-Yafo
Ness-Goyim St 53, Tel Aviv-Yafo
Tel. +972 72-394-5831
Where to Drink:
The Judean Hills Quartet
Domaine Du Castel- Yad Hashmona
Tel. +972 2 535 85 55
Sphera- Givat Yeshayahu
Tel. +972 54 6600595
Tzora Vineyards- Tzora
Tel. +972 2 9908261
Yaar Hakdoshim Eshtaol
Tel. +972 2 9929923
What to See & Do:
Explore Neve Tzedek
Tel Aviv’s hip neighborhood dates from 1887 and it was the first neighborhood built outside the walls of Jaffa. Picturesque and village-like, its narrow streets and restored buildings are abloom with boutiques, galleries and craft shops.
A short distance from the city center, the seafront promenade brings you to Jaffa, an ancient port city whose romantic labyrinthine stone alleys, colorful flea market and nightlife have long attracted artists and musicians. It’s lovely to just stroll and discover. Luxury hotels are suddenly sprouting up in reformulated spaces.
Just opened are the Setai Tel Aviv in a former Ottoman prison, The Jaffa, designed by John Pawson in a onetime hospice for malaria victims, and the Drisco, a re-do of an original hotel from 1940.
Take a Day Trip
Akko is an ancient coastal city situated on Haifa Bay, roughly 70 miles northeast of Tel Aviv. It’s known for its well-preserved old city walls. The Old City – within the walls – dates back thousands of years and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It’s beautiful, with the feeling of Dubrovnik, and the charming city is filled with narrow streets, and a terrific market famous for handmade sweets, and arguably the best hummus in all of Israel.
The “Kingdom of Knights” is a restored archeological site dating back to the Crusades. Filled with castle-like arched stone rooms, you’ll feel like you’re in an episode of “Game of Thrones”.
Artisans practice medieval crafts in the reconstructed market area, and you can traverse a Templar tunnel that connects the fortress to the beach.