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Tel Aviv Trilogy | To Eat | ICONIC LIFE

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Tel Aviv Trilogy | To Eat

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Tel Aviv’s top restaurants: Opa and HaBasta delight diners with innovative flavors.

Some would say that these days cuisine is Tel Aviv’s most elevated art form, with a brash generation of chefs fostering a gastronomic revolution. In Tel Aviv kosher is gone; rather it’s farm-to-table, craft cocktail and fusion flings melding Asian, Italian, and North African influences in chic, hipster-approved eateries. With countless regional influences to add spice, local foodies are not lacking for options.

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Opa, Love letter to Israel’s Terroir

With accolades about Opa preempting our visit, we wait with anticipation outside this top Tel Aviv restaurant. The unassuming converted storehouse doors open at 7:00. Once inside, evening light floods the minimalist interior: neutral plaster walls, buffed cement floors, simple wicker furnishings and an open kitchen where the chefs gear up for the 11-course adventure. With options of tables or counter seating, my friend and I chose to be closer to the action where gregarious Elior behind the bar served us our herbal-infused cocktail, easing us into the evening. Soon after, the first course arrives in two prim bowls: a half-moon of green chickpea custard doused in almond yogurt, wild herbs and citrus reduction; bowl two was a mix of carpaccio and strawberries glazed with wasabi, aged amazake and sprinkled with cilantro flowers. The palate zings from salty to sweet, this zesty and creamy dish set the bar for Tel Aviv cuisine. 

Born in Jerusalem, Chef Shirel Berger was given free reign in the family kitchen from an early age, allowing her to experiment at her own pace. She graduated from the prestigious Culinary Institute of America and worked stints in several acclaimed New York City restaurants. Once she settled back in Tel Aviv, Berger dedicated herself to cooking almost exclusively with vegetables and fruits. While several Tel Aviv vegan establishments had already gained popularity, when top Tel Aviv restaurant Opa—named after her grandfather—arrived on the scene in 2018 it was an immediate sensation, garnering a faithful following. A year later, Time Out named Berger “Chef of the Year” and in early 2023 at a ceremony in Dubai Opa won the coveted “One to Watch Award 2023” by 50 Best Restaurants Magazine.

Eschewing meat substitutes such as seitan and tofu, Opa’s use of only produce pushes the limits of innovation and creativity, a challenge the team thrives on. Berger explores each vegetable and fruit to reveal its nuances and aims to use the entire veggie or fruit, including skins, stalks, seeds, etc. By using off-cuts such as tomato leaves or preserved melon rind she encourages diners to re-examine sustainable dining. For example, a latter course of almond and onion ice cream served on aged melon peel is a knockout.

Opa’s organic produce is locally sourced from a farm north of Tel Aviv, making its cuisine top-notch.  Each season’s bounty dictates the menu. Due to popular demand, some dishes are perennial, such as Jerusalem artichoke in reduced macadamia milk and oyster mushrooms sprinkled with crispy tapioca.

With each course, the server offers a brief description. Course 5 is an example of Opa’s intensive approach to a single vegetable, redefining gastronomy in Tel Aviv, Kohlrabi served on four small dishes: Dehydrated kohlrabi peels re-hydrated in kohlrabi stock; taking four days to prepare, kohlrabi carpaccio which is salted, steamed overnight, soaked and dehydrated for twenty hours and served with lemon zest; Fricassee, a traditional bread from Tunisia, but instead Opa utilizes sourdough made with Israeli Ilsar truffles from the Golan Heights. It is served with kohlrabi cream and pickled kohlrabi. Lastly, a tart from almond miso and dehydrated olives with compote of three-year-old preserved kohlrabi, fermented caramelized kohlrabi and kohlrabi foam. A truly delectable dish that highlights the luxury of Tel Aviv cuisine.

Israel is an incredibly casual place. That informality seems to inform the styles of even fine dining establishments. While a diner isn’t privy to what goes on behind the scenes, the vibe of the place is quickly evident and Opa seems genuinely cool, calm and collected. Not only was the food amazing, the place was fun too.

The 11th course is a brownie made from aged almond miso, topped with wheat ice cream, smoked dates and a blueberry liqueur drizzle; need I say more?

At Opa’s, each dish consists of just several bites and in truth, a ravenous hunger will not be satiated, but upon leaving not only did I feel perfectly full, I also felt I’d been on a sensory journey, one thought-provoking, innovative mouthful after another. It’s rumored that stealth Michelin reviewers will soon be scouring Tel Aviv for the next best cuisine; surely Opa will be in the running for a star, or two.

HaBasta – Fresh from the Market 

Spilling out onto the pedestrian street in front of the compact kitchen, café tables are occupied by groups of animated friends and couples enjoying a romantic evening over a bottle of wine. The boisterous, upbeat ambiance instantly transports me to the street scene in Barcelona or Madrid.

Top Tel Aviv restaurant, HaBasta, meaning “market stall,” is appropriately named because just fifty feet away is the Carmel Market. Opened in 2007 by chefs Itai Hargil and Maoz Alonim, HaBasta sources all their produce from the Camel Market, creating an extensive daily changing menu, hurriedly scribbled onto a piece of paper in both Hebrew and English. HaBasta emphasizes seafood; several recurring highlights are Shrimp or Calamari Plancha, Yellowtail Carpaccio, Octopus Freekeh, and the popular Crab burekas, which were sold out when I dined there.

At the adjacent table, a French-Israeli couple was audibly relishing their food. I couldn’t resist asking if this was their first time. They glanced at each other and laughed, “Oh no, we’ve lost count… This is our favorite place to eat in all of Israel.” One of their platters was easily identifiable as the 1/2 kilo of Mussels. HaBasta is a rare kitchen in Israel dishing out uncommon cuisines in Tel Aviv such as organ meats: beef hearts, lamb neck and lungs, bone marrow toasts, pork tail, etc.

I was in  awe of those lacking an aversion to the lesser regarded animal bits, but since I’m a food wuss I narrowed my choice to Paella with shrimp, bacon, and Sobrassada – cured sausage from the Balearic Islands. For a starter, I went with the recommended Spinach Fatayer, a deep-fried pastry with spicy dipping sauce, which I loved.

Not only does HaBasta serve the top cuisine in Tel Aviv, they also have an impressive wine collection. Behind the bar an impressive array of wine bottles fill the shelves. Chef Maoz Alonim is also a sommelier which explains HaBasta’s hundreds of international wines choices. For dessert I enjoyed the Apricot keskul, a Turkish take on brulee with a crumbly base, a not-too-sweet creamy center, topped with amber puree of apricot.

Though the place is bursting at the seams, the casually dressed staff don’t appear unduly stressed as they efficiently move about serving, clearing, wiping, re-setting, all the while taking time to engage with the guests. Despite its lack of outward “elegance” and pretense, HaBasta’s food is definitely “high-end” and is all about serving up the freshest, best tasting cuisine in Tel Aviv. Open seven days a week for lunch and dinner, Friday offers a reputedly amazing brunch menu, something I’d like to try next time I’m in Tel Aviv.

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