Published On: Sun, Mar 27th, 2016

Open Restaurants gives diners behind-the-scenes access

Now in its third year, the Tel Aviv experience, which allows patrons into restaurants’ kitchens, often with chefs in the midst of actually preparing dishes, attracts a record number of participants. It's Amsterdam debut is already in the works.

Wine garden bar Par Derriere. (2)

 

Tel Aviv’s popular Open Restaurants event has become an annual rite of spring in the city that is rapidly becoming famous worldwide for the quality of its cuisine. Over the course of the four-day event, patrons get access to restaurants’ kitchens and/or recipes, often joining with chefs in the actual preparation of dishes. Similar workshops are also held by culinary artisans, such as bakers, chocolatiers and ice cream makers.

According to a promotional video shown at the cocktail party signaling the start of Open Restaurants 2016, this year’s numbers set new records for the event: 80 chefs and artisans participated, a 30 percent increase over the previous year. Over the course of the multi-year history of Open Restaurants, 118 restaurants served some 9, 500 dishes to approximately 2, 600 participants. These impressive numbers have prompted the organizers to “export” the enterprise to Amsterdam.

Four events this reporter attended during Open Restaurants week this month reflect, at least in part, the gamut of activities offered.

 

Wine garden bar Par Derriere.

 

My first experience was at Aria, the upscale two-storey bar-restaurant of Chef Guy Gamzo. We gathered at the long handsome bar because this was an 8-course tasting menu with a twist: Each food course was paired with a cocktail. Thus, the bartender took center stage along with the chef, mixing and pouring the drinks with an explanation of the ingredients.

Interestingly, the processes of mixology and cooking at Aria share an important trait: Everything the restaurant serves or even uses in food preparation is made from scratch, including condiments. For this reason, the staff is busy working all day, even though the restaurant is open for dinner only.

For example, Aria makes its own limoncello liqueur, even though excellent brands can easily be imported from Italy. In fact, Aria’s version is unique: A frothy limoncello made with milk. We got tastes of both the exceptional liqueur on its own, and in the cocktail whimsically named Sesame Street, which tasted like a delicious citrus-vanilla adult milkshake.

Among the standout dishes Aria served us were the creamiest eggplant tehina imaginable, a delicate beef carpaccio with Jerusalem artichoke chips, and Coquille St.-Jacques featuring melt-in-your mouth scallops that are the best I have tasted in Israel.

 

Scallops at Aria

Aria offers all its customers a similar tasting menu (minus the cocktails) on weeknights at a very affordable price.

The next day started off with a visit to the Herbert Samuel restaurant inside the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Herzliya, the only Open Restaurant option outside of Tel Aviv-Jaffa. This is the kosher sister of the famous Herbert Samuel founded by Master Chef Yonatan Roshfeld – and indeed, the event was billed as an inside peek into how a kosher kitchen can still turn out gourmet food.

Our visit started off with a relaxed discussion over cheese and fruit by the side of the appealing rooftop pool. Our host chef explained that the restaurant’s food is based on three cuisines: Italian, primarily for its contribution to the world of pasta; Asian, which has become popular in Israel; and Mediterranean, to take advantage of the freshest local ingredients.

We then embarked on a tour of the kitchen, which was a real eye-opener: For example, a whole room dedicated to sifting flour, which must be done for every recipe in which this staple is used, so that bugs – a kashrut no-no – are screened out. I thought I knew something about kosher kitchens from my childhood, but there were gadgets I never would have imagined – like a “traffic light” of sorts for the Shabbat use of ovens, with the red, amber and green lights signaling the stage of the ovens’ operation, so staff know when they can or cannot put food in without desecrating the Sabbath.

 

ISRAEL- FOOD 2

 

We were then invited to actually take part in preparing some food, literally getting a hands-on lesson in rolling tortellini. Herbert Samuel was extremely generous with its information, giving Open Restaurants participants untrammelled access to the recipe books used to train sous-chefs.

We also spent some time in the open kitchen area, where – in full view of the restaurant’s patrons – the final touches are put on food before it’s served. Interested diners can even come back and inspect the cut of meat and fresh fish they have ordered before it is cooked. One of the fun things we did in the open kitchen was put spoons right into the sauces warming up on the stovetop for tastes.

The final part of our visit was sitting down to enjoy the restaurant’s daily two-course business lunch, priced at a reasonable NIS 89. We partook of a number of fish and meat dishes, including an Asian-Mediterranean fusion rendering of salmon in a ginger-soy sauce with a tahini-cashew glaze, and nicely seasoned lamb kebab.

Actually, however, the desserts stole the show: The presentations were beautiful, and the flavors outstanding. One of the house specialties is its outstanding tehina ice cream; there was also a decadently rich chocolate bar (We learned that chocolate desserts are favored by kosher restaurants, as they lend themselves easily to being pareve).

That evening was a change of pace: Wine-tasting at Par Derriere, a self-styled “garden wine bar” in a quaint courtyard near Jaffa’s iconic clock tower. Our moderator, the sommelier of the Asian restaurant Taizu, led us through a progression of wines, from lighter to more full-bodied, starting with sparkling white and pink champagne-style wines, moving on to whites, and finally to reds. He led the group through exercises involving bouquet, terroir and wine-tasting technique, finally challenging us to try and match certain wines with the different types of cheese on the platters before us.
ISRAEL- FOOD

Par Derriere sells a variety of cheeses, meats and other specialty foods during the day, and morphs into a restaurant serving meals in the evenings.

Interestingly, Friday and Saturday had much fewer Open Restaurants events than the two previous days, despite the fact that ostensibly, people have more free time on the weekends. The limited choices became even fewer when a key Friday tasting event was cancelled just the day before – one of several last-minute cancellations that may have had the unfortunate consequence of possibly leaving some people without the one activity they had counted on. This situation was aggravated by the fact that the Open Restaurants website kept showcasing events even after they were cancelled. Nor was the published phone number any help: The staffer that answered my one phone call could not answer my questions; and the return phone call I was promised immediately did not come until a full 24 hours later.

 

ISRAEL- FOOD-3

 

The major Saturday events were multi-cultural ones involving Arab cuisine. Both took place in Jaffa, one of which was conducted in English: A walking tour of the Ajami neighborhood, led by the personable, multi-lingual, licensed tour guide Suleiman Wissam. The tour started off at a shop that had gone from a kiosk to an organic produce grocery to its present incarnation as a store that also serves homemade meals cooked by local personality Umm Ali. We tasted two of her mahshi delicacies: Potatoes stuffed with meat, and zucchini filled with rice.

There was quite a bit of walking involved – something that should have been mentioned in the description of the event – but fortunately, the weather was good, and the guide’s narrative focusing on history, demographics and architecture held everyone’s interest.

Our next stop was at the home of a couple who served us an unusual combination of vegetarian food: stuffed grape leaves from his Arab background, and Jerusalem kugel from her Jewish background, washed down with fresh minty lemonade.

Finally, we ended up at the home of Doris Hiffawi, whose family owns Anton Coffee, something of an institution in Jaffa. Over coffee and baklawa, Doris told the fascinated group about the role coffee plays in the local culture, as well as the generational changes she has observed in her society.

On the way back to our original meeting point, Wissam pointed out some of Jaffa’s leading restaurants, which were packed. Tel Avivians will always find good places to eat – and Open Restaurants provides a welcome opportunity to discover them.

Via Ynet News, by Buzzy Gordon

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