If you’ve visited Israel on an organized tour, you likely have fond memories of eating falafel on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem or sitting on a Tel Aviv restaurant’s waterside deck enjoying grilled meat and salatim. Those are certainly the images that come to my mind—particularly when I think about kosher dining during my last visit to Israel in 2010.
In the United States, Mediterranean and specifically Israeli cuisine is growing in popularity. The media focus on Israel as a dining destination is on the rise, with articles in the New York Times, Travel and Leisure and Forbes. Then there’s the film In Search of Israeli Cuisine narrated by Michael Solomonov and the Tel Aviv episode of Somebody Feed Phil on Netflix. If you’re paying attention to any of this, it’s likely that your next visit to Israel will include a focus on food.
As I read, watched and listened to all this attention on Israeli food, my hunger for a visit grew. When an opportunity arose to accompany my daughter, son-in-law and infant granddaughter to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv over Thanksgiving, my husband and I rushed to the computer and began planning. My head spun as I tried to narrow dining decisions for what was to be a heavily food-centric vacation.
In particular, we researched kosher venues, which are far more compelling compared to eight years ago. There are more fine dining options, more international cuisines represented, more street food and an increase in the number of markets and cafés with eclectic offerings that extend beyond the traditional.
According to an April 2018 article in Haaretz, there is a growing trend for new restaurants in Israel to be kosher. Popular Israeli celebrity chef Eyal Shani opened Malka in Tel Aviv earlier this year (after opening Miznon—not kosher—in New York’s Chelsea Market). A spurt in French-Jewish tourism to Israel has also made an impact.
Here is my own version of the Michael Solomonov and Phil Rosenthal explorations of Israeli food. I call it In Search of Kosher Cuisine or Somebody Feed Lori.
Mahane Yehuda Market, Jerusalem
For a food-enthusiast on vacation, nothing compares to the thrill of exploring the sights, smells and tastes at a local market.
In Jerusalem, there is no better place to explore a wide and worldly variety of kosher food than the Mahane Yehuda Market. The market is perfect for a food crawl, where you can share small bites at multiple stalls and sit-down venues.
Nearly every country has a version of fried or baked dough stuffed with meat, cheese or vegetables and accented with their own unique seasonings and sauces. At Ishtabach (1 HaShikma St.), Chef Oren Sasson-Levi cooks up Kurdish meat pies known as shamburak. The word Ishtabach has two meanings: “The man is a cook” and, from the Kaddish, “May He be praised.” Both are fitting. Boat-shaped dough is filled with savory meat like brisket, chopped beef, veal cheeks, beef tongue or chicken and cooked in a clay oven. Flavors are as likely to reflect Indian or South American influences as they are Israeli or Kurdish.
Move over falafel and shawarma. Sabich is a credible competitor for the most crave-worthy street food in Israel. Aricha Sabich (83 Agripas St.) features this Iraqi sandwich, which packs crispy fried eggplant into a pita along with egg, tahini, pickles and Israeli salad. If you are intent on a serious food crawl, beware: it’s nearly impossible to limit yourself to just a few bites.
For a Latin take on fried dough, don’t miss the empanadas at Argento Empanadas (6 Mahane Yehuda Market). Chef Lukas Zitrinovich put down his fine-dining toque in 2016 to focus on this classic pastry from his Argentine homeland. The menu includes several versions including a classic with beef, olives and egg; vegetarian; and Israeli with lamb, dates and ras el hanout.
There are more doughy treats to savor in the market at Marzipan Bakery (44 Agripas St.). Marzipan serves up world-famous chocolate rugelach (which people are known to lug back to the US), tasty Turkish bourekas and, if you visit around Chanukah, an endless array of sufganiyot or doughnuts.
Levinsky Market, Tel Aviv
Levinsky Market in Tel Aviv is not as well known as the Carmel Market or shiny and new like the indoor Sarona Market. Delicious Israel, a company that offers food tours in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, describes Levinsky Market as the place to go for “foodies, chefs and visitors who want to bring home the best spices and sauces.” Their two-hour walking tour of the market is a delectable journey.
Many of the shops in Levinsky Market in the Florentin neighborhood of Tel Aviv have been passed down from generation to generation. The benefit of participating in a food tour is hearing snippets of the stories. The market was originally established by Greek Jews who came to Israel before World War II. Then Turkish and later Iranian and Iraqi Jews moved in, and with them came an aromatic array of spices and other delicacies. This is where you want to go to stock up on za‘atar, sumac, olives, smoked fish and halva.
Not to be missed are these kosher venues:
Arama Café (spices), 51 Levinsky St.
Levinsky Burekas, 46 Levinsky St.
Halva Magic, 49 Levinsky St.
Lupo (smoked fish and herring), 6 Merkhavya St.
Shawarma Falafel Eli, 13 Merkhavya St.
Cafe Levinsky 41 (gazoz, soda with homemade fruit syrup and locally grown herbs), 41 Levinsky St.
Mapu, 9 Mapu St., Tel Aviv
Chef Nir Zook has built a following in Tel Aviv with previous restaurants. This is his first foray into kosher dining, with a concept of creative Mediterranean fine dining that’s not too stuffy—or, as he and his team call it, “Fun + Fine Dining.” Entrees like goose breast with mulberries and sea bream in eggplant with tomato salsa and crispy gnocchi are beautifully prepared and presented. The cocktails are almost too pretty to drink. Almost.
Meat Kitchen, 65 Yigal Alon St., Tel Aviv
Elegant, imaginative and bold flavors are all on display at this kosher meat-focused restaurant. Chefs Nadav Natsar and Elad Levi are masters of meat, but a starter of red tuna tartare with watermelon, citrus champagne and lime cream, hot pepper, chives, basil, lemon zest, lemonade foam and watermelon granita show off their range. On the beefy side is a revelatory entrecôte with mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, bone marrow, chimichurri and garlic confit. Desserts are artfully presented and as well thought out as mains. Lemon tart with berries, citrus coulis, meringue tuile, vanilla crumble and lemon sorbet is a splendid finale.
More in Tel Aviv
Dunya, 89 Ben Yehuda St., Tel Aviv
Celebrated chef Meir Adoni (also of Blue Sky and Lumina) takes on street food at Dunya. Look for shawarma, sabich and an applause-worthy lamb burger.
Gourmet Shop, 148 Ibn Gvirol St., Tel Aviv
This kosher gourmet shop offers over 100 types of kosher cheese from local dairies as well as from France, Switzerland, Holland and Italy. Kosher foie gras and charcuterie make this a fabulous spot to stock up for a Shabbat meal. While you’re there, stop in for wine tastings.
Bino, 73 Rothschild St., Tel Aviv
Somebody Feed Phil features a visit to Dr. Shakshuka, a restaurant from Bino Gabso that focuses on the North African dish of poached eggs in tomato sauce. We opt for his shawarma spot in the alley behind the restaurant, which some call the best shawarma in town.
Cà Phê Hanoi (Vietnamese food), 3 Malkhei Yisra’el St., Tel Aviv
More in Jerusalem
Station 9, David Remez Square, Jerusalem
A deserted railway station is renovated to serve as a destination for dining and shopping. These kinds of transformations are common in the United States, and Jerusalem has its own version in First Station, which opened in 2013. Nine of the restaurants/cafes at First Station are kosher.
Station 9 is an Asian fusion restaurant featuring dishes from Thailand, Vietnam, Japan and China. Create a mix and match meal that suits your taste with bao buns, chicken wings, ramen, Pad Thai and miso salmon. If you’re a heat-seeker, make sure to ask for extra spicy, as food takes a walk on the mild side here. The décor is described as “Tel Aviv-Berlin style” which translates to neon lights on the ceiling brightening up an otherwise crisp, modern design. Outdoor seating offers a view of the First Station pedestrian walkway.
There are a rapidly growing number of restaurants in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem responding to diners clamoring to expand their horizons with diverse cuisines and creative cooking. Kosher restaurants are keeping up with these trends, and the results are wholly—or should I say holy—satisfying.
Top photo: Lemon tart at Meat Kitchen in Tel Aviv (Photo courtesy of Meat Kitchen)