Amidst the felafel shops and Mediterranean-style cafes near Tel Aviv's shuk is a new restaurant whose sign reads simply "Jeff."
In this latest undertaking by Jeff Lewis, a professional chef from England who lives nearby, all is homey - as is appropriate for a place subtitled "your neighborhood chef" and for a proprietor with as warm a personality as his. The bright red interior's knick-knacks include a pair of the owner's 1970s-style platform shoes, family photos and toys (both for show and for bored children).
In the center is the open kitchen, where the owner/chef chats with customers - usually in English, since his Hebrew is only serviceable - while stir-frying chicken and assembling salads.
A long way from his non-Jewish British upbringing, Lewis, married to a Sabra and a father of two, is a familiar figure around Tel Aviv, where he is known as a local version of Jamie Oliver, the well-known British host of The Naked Chef.
Lewis, 39, became interested in food while growing up in Kent, England. As a 14-year-old he was served a life-altering dish of chicken with wine and garlic by a half-Italian, half-Egyptian neighbor - in stark contrast to the bland British food he grew up on. After learning the recipe, he attended a local catering school, worked in French and Italian restaurants, and then took off to see the world. Possessing one of the world's most transferable skills, he extended his travels for 10 years, working his way through restaurants from Los Angeles to Greece.
One of his best experiences, he says, was working at the Milky Way, a multimedia center/restaurant in Amsterdam where he was asked to cook native dishes for musicians from Jamaica, Africa and Latin America. Lewis would go to libraries to find recipes - and fall in love with the exotic results.
By then he had also fallen in love with Ifat, an Israeli backpacker he met while waiting in a bank line on a trip to Turkey. Today Ifat is an internationally known video artist, some of whose work decorates the restaurant walls. Lewis readily agreed to come to Ifat's native country, even though all he then knew about Israel was that it was a place where "bombs were going off."
He quickly developed a genuine affection for the country and its people, and worked in a series of restaurants, including Taboon in Jaffa; Kashmir (a now-defunct establishment which he calls Tel Aviv's first fusion restaurant); and the Sheraton Hotel, where he learned the rigors of kosher cooking.
Jeff is not his first restaurant. Several years ago he and Ifat opened a unique establishment in the garden of their Tel Aviv apartment. Ten customers at a time, all strangers, would sit at one long table and get to know each other over a five-course vegetarian meal. The concept worked well until one day the assembled strangers didn't click and the couple decided the restaurant didn't, either.
From his cooking experiences, Lewis says he learned several rules that the applies in the restaurant that bears his name: Keep the menu and the establishment small; keep prices low (lunch for two at Jeff runs under NIS 100); don't hire too many workers; and cook the kind of food you would like to eat yourself.
That food is a fusion of Mediterranean, African, Caribbean and Latin American, with regular ingredients such as peanut butter, lemon, garlic and cilantro. Among Lewis's signature dishes are Zanzibar chicken with cloves, cardamom and coconut milk, a beet root and sweet potato curry, and a Latin American-style chili with barley.
Besides lunch (11 a.m. - 5 p.m., till 4 p.m. on Fridays), Jeff is also open on Tuesday and Thursday nights starting at 9, with a DJ and a menu of tapas.
Rehov Tchernichovsky 4, off Allenby; (03) 620-1253