Tel Aviv, Israel - The 'NOW' City

The pulse races. The adrenalin rushes. Beauty abounds. The senses are in superlative. It is edgy. It is stylish. It is downright fascinating.

As my first exposure to Israel, Tel Aviv set the pace and tone for the time spent in the country. After spending a week in different parts across the country, I can easily say this is one place that beckons me back with the promise of more. Ostensibly, I was there to sample the cuisine and the food. But, what is food without culture and people?! Set against the interesting collage that makes the culture of Israel, food in Tel Aviv stands as an extroversion of its outlook and history.

Tel Aviv is without any hesitation an invigorating and entirely intriguing city. Not only does it offer the best landscape to study the congruence of diverse ethnicities, it does so with a remarkably calm composure. Given the geo-dynamics of the region, calm is hardly an adjective you would expect to connect with time spent here. Yet, on the surface of this city, in the faces and lives of the people who live here, you only see a sheen of unruffled normalcy.

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The day I landed, in November 2014, was the day after an incident in Jerusalem. Outwardly, there was nothing anywhere in the city that belied the tension that runs like a fault line in the region. For all one would see, Israelites were leading a normal, regular life as you would in, say, Barcelona!

Yet, beneath the veil of normalcy was something that makes this city, and, in extension the country, an interesting subject for cultural observation. Something that makes the place tick. You have a sense of it as you walk through the city, exploring its pleasures, inhaling its smells, tasting its delicacies. You feel it when you talk to people and discuss how they live.

And, then you realize it. 

The real passions run beneath like blood in the veins of the city. It is the knowledge of living in a ticking time bomb that fuels it. It makes the city a vibrant, social hub that to an outsider is amazing in its larger-than-life approach, its not understated love for fun and parties, its youth and its vigor. 

Those who live in Tel Aviv live with the full knowledge of their precarious position in world geography and politics. And, therefore, make the most of every day, almost as if, it may be their last. No, they don't live in fear but rather have chosen to embrace today with a passionate resolution of making it the best day of their lives!

Perhaps, that is the reason of their seemingly eternal youth and fitness. Imagine, waking up each day happy to be alive and thrilled that yesterday could not have been better because you made it so. Then, realizing you have all of today to do it over. Living in the NOW indeed!

This works in favor of the city. As an young city, this attitude lends it creativity, an ability to push boundaries, to be entrepreneurial (as evidenced by the number of start ups coming out of here) as much as it enables spendthrifts, frivolity, and overall inflation.

Tel Aviv is an expensive city. Let me make no bones of it. It costs as much as New York city to house and live in. It has the atmosphere of a San Francisco locked into the geography of Manhattan without the purchasing power of either. But, I will also tell you this; you will get more bang for your buck here. The city has that devil-may-care attitude that makes you forget and simply live in the moment.

The falafel from the stand below.

The falafel from the stand below.

HaRambam Falafel at Rambam alley, Carmel market where he makes and serves hundred of sandwiches through the day. The falafel balls have a distinct flavor, unlike any I have ever tasted and definitely none as freshly made. They come with an assortment of sauce that are all very tasty and worth trying, especially, the Amba, a hot sauce made with a mango base.

HaRambam Falafel at Rambam alley, Carmel market where he makes and serves hundred of sandwiches through the day. The falafel balls have a distinct flavor, unlike any I have ever tasted and definitely none as freshly made. They come with an assortment of sauce that are all very tasty and worth trying, especially, the Amba, a hot sauce made with a mango base.

The tropical climate, and, the leaps of progress that the country has come in its agriculture and self-sustainability only feeds this energy. Ostensibly, I was in the country to sample its cuisine. After the sights of my first morning's run along the promenade on the beach, my curiosity was even more piqued. The abundance of beauty was a sheer assault! As I panted along that first morning, literally, everybody looked stunning! Fit, tanned, active, stylish and sexy! 

For what it is worth, I was simply blown away by the food in the country. In its ~70 years of existence, it has managed to coax what lands it has, into producing dependable bounty. The freshness of everything was amazing. Yogurt was king and oh how real dairy tasted! 

Contrary to one's assumptions, Tel Aviv is very secular and most places do not follow kosher rules. And, some do serve pork. As to the cuisine, it is indeed a fusion of its immigrants. There are influences from Lebanon, Syria, France, Belgium, Egypt, Armenia and well, wherever else today's Israelis migrated from. There is also a strong Arab, Persian, Islamic influence and sometimes, in rather indistinct ways. 

At Dr. Shakshuka, the makings of Israel's favorite breakfast/brunch foods!

At Dr. Shakshuka, the makings of Israel's favorite breakfast/brunch foods!

Clearly makes for good contemplation!

Clearly makes for good contemplation!

Tel Aviv has a culture of eating out, having fun, socializing and in general, living life to the full. People are out at all times of the day and night. 

Tel Aviv has a culture of eating out, having fun, socializing and in general, living life to the full. People are out at all times of the day and night. 

Hummus, Falafel, Burekas, Labne, Kadai'f, shakshuka.... The list of everyday and special dishes that are common between borders in the region is long and possibly endless. But, there is one thing very jewish that you will see here and tastes really good - pickled fish for breakfast! I always associated it as being Russian but that is not so surprising. I usually see it in Russian delis and perhaps, they were also Jewish delis. Odd, as it may sound to have fish for breakfast, it is a better way to start the day than with meat. Besides, if you are kosher, you can still have pickled fish with your yogurt topped granola bowl!

I ate in several places in the city; in markets, from street vendors, in eclectic restaurants, in ethnic restaurants. They were all different experiences and I favored the ones that are of the region's cuisine. There was one common theme. The quality of the food itself was spectacular. The flavors were sharp and defined. The tastes as fresh and delicate as the dew on the herbs used in the dishes.

A walk through the several standard and pop-up farmer's markets is proof of the superlative produce that the region produces. Indeed, Carmel Market was my favorite place of the city. It was one that offered the most opportunity for me to study the average person's life. It afforded a real insight into the heart of the city. The colors, the personalities, the activity. It beckons, it draws you in and does not fail to impress.

Stands of color are all over you, selling everything from spices (I recommend getting z'atar from every market you visit. They all are different) to cured olives, to vegetables and herbs of course, cooked food, meat, knick knacks, stuff for the house, pretty much anything you would expect from a bazaar.

If you are on a budget, the market is a fantastic place to taste local flavors. Most of the stands buy their produce from the market itself and, as such, create a micro-system. There are some stands that you simply cannot pass without eating at whether you are a first time visitor or a local. I would highly recommend the HaRambam Falafel at Rambam alley, and fresh juices from the lady in the adjacent stand (first photo) with her unique creations.

As to restaurants, the general theme I found was that the chefs here have travelled and worked around the world, come back, found their own exclusive style and creativity and have been pursuing their signature flamboyance without remorse and with great success. My favorites run the gamut of traditional and warm to eclectic and eccentric that manage to show unique style and flair without diluting the focus on food in any way. 

Ha'achim, The Brothers ($$$) was a warm, traditional Israeli 'steakhouse' that is now run by the 3 sons of the original owners and has a quirky 21 century young adult vibe with a good natured, traditional heart. Asaf Doctor the oldest and the executive chef traveled extensively in the region and beyond, came back to the family restaurant with new ideas that are rooted in the flavors of the region. Their restaurant is perfect for family style meals and quite affordable. {for more photos from the place, check this post on Telavivan}

Tzfon Abraxas ($$$$) by Eyal Shani is perhaps as notorious as famous depending on how much drama you like with your meal. The chef is considered an eccentric genius and you should not be surprised if he comes over to personally pound the carpaccio table side or shuck oysters for you just because. You definitely cannot say he is not involved and some may say he is perhaps too much. But, what makes all the antics fun is that it creates an inclusive atmosphere where the staff and diners connect and resonate and most importantly, the food is singularly brilliant. If you are looking for a quiet, romantic meal, go somewhere else though. The place shout in ambience what it's approach to food is - loud, in your face, amazing, unique and highly memorable. My best bite of the entire trip was here, the final course, a family style dish of charcoal roast whole sea bass cooked with onion, tomato and garlic to create a natural sauce served with a burning sprig of sage for a smoky finish, akin to a feeling of dining by a campfire. I still remember how it smelt, tasted and felt. Exquisite. Yet, sublimely simple. 

Tel Aviv was an amazing experience. It is a city that is built on hopes, dreams and promises of better. I can without a doubt say, there is none other like it. And, I would love to go back and explore more!

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Disclaimer: I was invited to sample the flavors of Israel, as a guest of the Ministry of Tourism with a few other food and lifestyle bloggers. Oddly, it was not a fully paid trip as press visits typically go. Nevertheless, all opinions and impressions are my own and I have received no remuneration.