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Monthly Archives: June 2011

Nanuchka Puts Georgia On My Mind

I know it’s been a while since my last post, but before I move on to meals I’ve eaten more recently, let me return one more time to Tel Aviv. We sampled many classic dishes during our tasting tour, but one segment of the population of modern day Israel was underrepresented: people from the former Soviet Union. Jews left that country en masse in the 1990s, many of them coming to Israel. We soon set out to rectify that situation by sampling the cuisine of Georgia (home of in Tblisi, not Atlanta) at a surprising, delicious and totally happening restaurant called Nanuchka. Housed inside an old home, the restaurant’s decor is a funky mix of vintage velveteen furniture and collaged tables with antique china dishes and potted palms. The bar is known for being a scene in itself, but Dr. Shakshuka warned that it is not uncommon to have patrons dancing on the bar or breaking plates on any given night. Besides, we had come for the food.

I have to admit that when I think of food from the former Soviet Union, I think of Russian food: pierogies, borscht, stuffed cabbage and lots of potatoes. While I’ve had decent Russian food, I’ve found it heavy and a little bland (something like the food we ate on the Russian airline Transaero, which we took to get to Israel). I blame my one-dimensional view on the homogenization of culture created by cobbling together a country out of many, many, many cultural and ethnic groups. As it turned out, Georgian food was unlike anything I had imagined. Bordering the Black Sea and situated on a strip of land that extends to the Caspian Sea (via Azerbaijan), Georgia offers a cuisine that’s like a blend of that of Greece, Turkey and countries further east like Kazakhstan and Mongolia. How did this translate onto the plate? I will now elaborate.

We started by ordering a bottle of the Tulip Private Label, a Merlot-based blend made by an Israeli winery especially for the restaurant. After that came a beautiful appetizer platter, called phkali, which bore five different vegetarian dishes. Among them were lemony grape leaves stuffed with rice and a delicious beet salad, blended with sour plum sauce. There were thinly sliced roasted eggplant rounds stuffed with a chestnut puree and another, spicier, roasted eggplant dish with walnuts. The crisp kohlrabi salad was delicious; my first time consciously tasting this member of the cabbage family. Finally, there was walnut salad with swiss chard, spices and herbs. Having decided to stick to appetizers and share them family style, we ordered another plate of grape leaves, these stuffed with seasoned mutton and rice and accompanied by a tasty tzatziki-like dipping sauce. Then came a lush green salad scattered with dates and crispy soy nuts.

Our next course was a platter of plump khinkali— Georgian dumplings, which we ordered stuffed with a combination of goose and duck. These were tender and pillowy on the outside and incredibly moist inside. They came with a slightly spicy tomato-based dipping sauce, which added a nice kick to their velvety richness. We also got an order of lavash, a gloriously chewy bread somewhere between pita and naan, which we used to scoop up the salads and mop up the sauces.

For dessert, we ordered vashlinani: three crispy phyllo pastry tubes, stuffed with spiced stewed apples. This came with a tasty scoop of ice cream. It reminded me of Austrian or French desserts, making it a fitting close to our eclectic meal. As my first experience with Georgian food, Nanuchka successfully imprinted the cuisine in my mind as one that is fresh, vibrant, nuanced and surprising— a hell of a lot more appetizing than the image that the phrase “food from the former Soviet Union” had previously called to mind.

28 Lilenbloom St.
Tel Aviv, Israel

A Tasting Tour of Tel Aviv

According to my friend Dr. Shakshuka, if you ask 10 residents of Tel Aviv where to get the best hummus in the city, eight of them will say Abu Hassan. That’s about as close to consensus as you’re going to get when it comes to getting a bunch of Jews and Arabs to agree about the food that is so important to Israeli culture and cuisine that it is basically the mortar that holds it together. Empanada Boy and I had the good fortune to sample three varieties of hummus at Abu Hassan, the first stop on a culinary tour of Tel Aviv, led by Dr. Shakshuka himself. The good doctor (who gets his name from a popular Tel Aviv restaurant) runs Israel Food Tours, which takes participants on culinary tours of various cities and regions of the country. EB and I stayed with Dr. Shakshuka at his apartment in Tel Aviv for part of our recent 10-day trip to Israel and were allowed to tag along as he led two Swiss women on the tour they had booked.

We met at the Jaffa port where we learned about the orange trade and Israel’s astute decision to license the Jaffa orange trademark to growers in countries like Spain with more acreage to spare. We then walked through Jaffa’s old stone streets to the original location of Abu Hassan (there are now two more) where the line under the simple green awning was already out the door, despite it being before 11 am. Luckily for us, Abu Hassan is not the kind of place where patrons are encouraged to sit and contemplate their hummus after eating it; people get up when they’re done and leave their table for someone else. We soon got a table and Dr. Shakshuka ordered dishes of the masabcha hummus, the house specialty made with whole chickpeas mixed into it; a silken-smooth hummus with whole chickpeas added only at the end of the preparation; and the hummus with ful, an Egyptian style hummus topped with cooked fava beans.

The hummus with ful was excellent, the bright lemony base accented by the deeper stewed flavor of the well-spiced ful. The smooth hummus topped with cooked chickpeas was perhaps the silkiest, creamiest hummus I’ve tried. It was EB’s favorite, reminding him of a fresher more complex version of the Sabra hummus he buys back in New York. But my hands-down favorite of the three was the masabcha hummus. The cooked chickpeas integrated into the lemony, tahini-rich mixture gave it the perfect texture. Cumin, paprika and parsley were sprinkled on top, quickly becoming part of the mix as pieces of pita, onion wedges and forks came plunging time and again back into the bowl. The olive oil used in all three dishes was complex and delicious, and dunking the pita into a bowl of garlic, oil and lemon before scooping up more hummus ensured each bite was as bright and lively as the last.

Having cleaned every bowl we walked to an outdoor organic market, which is part of the newly redeveloped area that was formerly a run-down train station, known as Ha’Tachana, or “the station.” Now romantic restaurants and cafes dot the complex—gentrification mostly lauded by area residents. At the organic market, we sampled mulberries, whose plump juicy appearance belied their fairly neutral flavor, and kumquats cape gooseberries that were like a revelation. EB described it well when he said these tasted like the mango-coconut sticky rice served in Thai restaurants: lightly sweet with a haunting tropical twist. We brought our fruit to a nearby cafe where we drank beautifully foamed cappuccinos and perfectly pulled shots while Dr. Shakshuka discussed Tel Aviv’s longstanding coffeehouse culture. EB and I got our morning coffee from these locations as much as possible during our trip because, while Israelis obviously appreciate the European coffee tradition, they all drink instant coffee at home, a fact that continues to mystify us.

From the coffeehouse, we walked through the high-end Neve Tzedek neighborhood toward the Carmel Market, the main open-air market of Tel Aviv. We didn’t initially stop to look at the various stalls because we had a lunch appointment to keep. Dr. Shakshuka led the group to a tiny restaurant with an unmarked green awning off one of the market’s side streets. Inside, we were greeted by Irit, a Yemenite woman who runs the kitchen at this unnamed restaurant, which seems to be little more than an offshoot of her home kitchen. She was already preparing our lunch on a tiny apartment-sized stove, and soon the dishes started coming out to our tables.

There was more hummus—this time in the Yemenite style—and a traditional Israeli salad of beautiful tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and parsley, lightly dressed with lemon juice and olive oil. There was lachuch, a traditional, spongy Yemenite bread, folded with egg in the center and cooked on the stovetop to a toasty brown. Irit also made malawach, a fatty, flaky puff pastry circle, traditionally served with a spicy sauce called skhug. There was roasted eggplant, smoking in its crackling purple shell. And finally, the was shakshuka, a Tunisian dish in which eggs are poached in grated tomatoes, with hot peppers and other vegetables cheeses or meats. The egg yolks run into the tomatoes when stabbed with a fork or knife. Shakshuka is like the Israeli version of pisto manchego, one of my favorite Spanish dishes, and it is definitely entering my stable of delicious, easy weeknight meals. We finished this magnificent meal with a glass of cardamom and cinnamon-spiced Arabic coffee. It was an amazing experience.

Full and supremely comforted by Irit’s hospitality, we meandered through the market past stands of perfect red tomatoes, oddly shaped eggplants, hand ground spices, dried dates, fresh fish (including shellfish), eggs and more. As we exited the market, we passed two elderly Druze women who were making what’s known as Druze pita on an inverted wok-type cooking surface called a sajj. They took the thin-crepe-like circles of dough they had made earlier and filled them with a blend of parsley, za’atar and sour yogurt and wrapped them up into a burrito shape. The resulting handheld pocket was tangy and rich with a satisfying chew. Somehow EB, the Swiss ladies and I managed to eat one between the four of us, despite being near bursting with fullness.

The only thing that could keep us all awake at this point was to keep walking. This is when Dr. Shakshuka wisely turns the tour subject matter to architecture, taking us past numerous examples of Eclectic and Bauhaus architecture, the two most important styles in the city. As we learned on the tour, Tel Aviv has 3,500 Bauhaus buildings, more than any other city in the world. After we had walked a ways and discussed non-food-related material, we circled back around the block to finish off our tour with dessert. We all got ice cream at Iceberg, an artisanal ice cream shop on one of Tel Aviv’s tree-lined boulevards. The flavors here were like nothing I had tried before. I got tangerine basil, just for the novelty of it, and ended up with a fresh, peppery ice cream that tasted exactly like those two ingredients and was perfect for a hot day. EB’s choice of halwa with pistachios may have stolen the show, however; it was richer and more interesting than most pistachio ice creams I’ve tried. Unlike EB, I am not usually a big halwa fan, but this flavor had little of the irksome halwa texture with all of the halwa taste. It won me over, and it seemed like a very appropriate way to finish off a day of eating Israeli style. From hummus to halwa, Tel Aviv is a delicious place to explore.

Israel Food Tours
US: 503.616.2943

Abu Hassan
1 Dolphin St.
Tel Aviv, Israel

Between the beach and Neve Tzedek

Irit Restaurant
Off Carmel Market (Shuk Ha’Carmel)
Ha’Carmel 11
Tel Aviv, Israel

Ben Yehuda 108
Tel Aviv, Israel