Housed in an old Templer building in the newly opened Sarona Compound in Tel Aviv, Branja (Spanish for a large group of close friends) offers some pretty solid fare in a trendy and modern yet casual setting. What isn’t Spanish draws inspiration from the Mediterranean – mainly Italy,Turkey and Greece with a nod to Tunisia and local Arab cooking.

This place is terrific, with chef Ofir Vidavsky conjuring up delicious and imaginative food in both smaller tapas type portions and full dinner size.

The downstairs dining area consists of a large open kitchen, a bar for those who like to eat while watching the chef at work, as well as cozy wooden tables. Upstairs there is a lounge area with a balcony.

I asked the wait staff to order for us and bring us a sample of the must-try dishes, along with some of their own favorites. We were the pleased recipients of an array of delicious and enticing selections.

We started with the panzanella salad (NIS 44) with tomatoes, artichoke and feta cheese. Together with the tasty homemade bread (NIS 18) and dips, it was an ideal way to begin our meal.

This was followed by a succulent red tuna tartare (NIS 56). Whenever I order tartare, I generally can’t eat too much of it because it gets sickening after a while, but with this one I could have kept going! I just wanted more. The mixture of fresh onions, avocado and a hint of lemon got my taste buds dancing.

We then tried the roasted beets (NIS 45). Crisp on the outside, moist and tender on the interior, the beets imparted a startlingly earthy, almost meaty, flavor which was cut through neatly by the zest of aged balsamic pears and Ha’meiri cheese.

Next up was a delightful homemade Turkish knafeh (NIS 48).

Normally served as a dessert, this savory rendition consisted of a crunchy potato crust filled with spinach and melted Turkish feta. It was out of this world! After we took a bit of a breather, a series of main dishes was served. First up was the calamari la plancha (NIS 56). Cooked to perfection, the dish was complex yet accessible. I should point out that I’m not usually a fan of calamari.

We were then presented with shish barak (NIS 55) – traditional Lebanese meat dumplings made in a soft and very thin dough smothered in a sheep yogurt sauce. The meat was juicy and well marinated, and the yogurt was creamy, rich and tangy.

With a large stock of wine, Branja’s choice is vast, so we left it up to our attentive and knowledgeable waiter to recommend something. The lovely Israeli Cabernet Sauvignon was equally comfortable with the fish as it was with the meat.

We were then served a filet mignon (price varies according to quantity). Cooked perfectly (medium rare), the steak basically melted in our mouths. My dining partner and I tried to eat it as slowly as possible so the experience wouldn’t end.

I went to Branja with pretty high expectations and they were met, perhaps even exceeded. This restaurant offers a fresh approach to fine dining. With its delightful atmosphere, good food and drink, Branja is the ideal place to go with close friends.

The writer was a guest of the restaurant.

Branja Not kosher 15 Rav Aluf David Elazar, Tel Aviv Tel: (03) 656-2626

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