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Kosher traditional Ashkenazi restaurants in Israel should be easy to find, but actually the only one in the Tel Aviv area we know of is Sender.
Established with only three tables in 1948 in Jaffa - when the port town was awash with Jewish refugees from Europe as well as North Africa - the tiny eatery became popular among the elite Tel Aviv crowd. In 1960, chef and owner Sender (who passed away many years ago) took in a partner, current owner Zami Shreiber's father, and the eatery moved to its current location on Levinski Street.
Zami spent his childhood in the restaurant and developed a taste for cooking. Zami perfected his craft at the Tadmor school in 1988 and joined his father in the kitchen learning his secret recipes and the tricks of the trade. After his father's death in 1995, Zami took over the restaurant.
The establishment is a family affair. Yael, Zami's wife and childhood sweetheart, runs the restaurant while chef Zami, together with three helpers, runs the kitchen. The menu, ethnic Eastern European food, is the same as it was in 1948, and the choices are listed (in Hebrew only) on the paper place mats on the table. The restaurant is spotlessly clean, friendly and welcoming. Everyone immediately feels at home.
The place is crowded with regulars. Some have stayed faithful since the original Sender's opened in 1948. Everyone seems to know each other, are on first name terms with Yael and Zami and order their favorite dishes without even perusing the menu.
I watched plates of gefilte fish, chopped liver, egg salad, cholent, meat balls, steaming soup, goulash, shnitzels, liver, and other unidentified entrees leave the kitchen. Luckily, we went there on a Friday, which affords a 'Friday only' menu which lists cholent with or without meat, with or without kishka (stuffed beef intestine skin), full and half portions and option of an egg that has been cooked with the cholent.
We started with a selection of the first courses: the chopped liver topped with fried onions was exceptional, the fried kreplach filled with minced beef, also served with fried onions, tasted just like my mother-in-law used to make; the egg salad was perfect and the minced eggplant with techina smooth and creamy.
It was rather late, and the kitchen had run out of gefilte fish. Never having tried stuffed pancreas (sweet breads), I decided to be daring and go for it. It came stuffed with the same filling as the kishka but its pungent flavour and taste was not to my liking.
The cholent with kishka and meat was absolutely delicious and the half portion was more than enough for two.
Before ordering, a basket of sliced white bread, a small bowl of chrain (horseradish and beets), pickled cucumbers and cabbage are placed on the table. Everything, except for the bread, is made on the premises. The chrain alone is worth a visit to the restaurant. Strong and perfectly textured, cleared the nostrils as it was meant to, and the dish was refilled whenever necessary. While meant to accompany the gefilte fish, we ate it with everything.
Desserts consist of malabi with rose water and nuts, a fruit compote the likes I haven't had since childhood and watermelon.
Gazoz (soda water and syrup) is the drink of the day although other soft drinks, beers and wine are available.
By the time the meal was finished, we were also on first name terms with the owners. I tried to get the chopped liver recipe from them but to no avail - it is a well kept secret.
Prices are reasonable. Soups range from NIS 16 to NIS 21. First courses are NIS 18; main courses, NIS 42 to NIS 50; desserts NIS 15 to NIS 19. Take away options are also available.
After the meal, I resolved to return to Sender and become one of the regulars myself.
Sender, 54 Levinski St., Tel Aviv, (03) 537-1872
Open Sunday to Friday; Noon till 5 p.m. (Kosher: Rabanut Tel Aviv)