I’m often asked what I think the best restaurant in Tel Aviv is. If the questioner is looking for a highend chef restaurant I usually point them in the direction of either Messa or Toto, a couple of my personal favorites. However, after a visit to Popina in Neve Tzedek, I think my answer may be different the next time someone asks.
A relative newcomer to the Neve Tzedek dining scene, Popina has established itself as a regular haunt for all the foodies out there looking for something a little different.
Opened by chef Orel Kimchi and restaurateur Amir Turgeman, Popina is not just any restaurant. Instead of the traditional division between courses into starters, mains and desserts, Popina has a different approach. The menu is divided by cooking technique – pickling, steaming, baking, roasting and slowcooking.
In each category there is a cocktail, various dishes, as well as a dessert.
At 29, chef Kimchi has already achieved a lot. He’s worked at some of the best restaurants in Israel and the world. During his relatively short career he has already managed to attract the attention of the world’s food experts and in 2011 he was awarded the title of Youngest Chef of the Year at the S. Pellegrino Cooking Cup, which is a traditional “gourmet” regatta featuring international chefs.
The restaurant is housed in an old building that was renovated by architect Gadi Tzahor, featuring original bare brick walls combined with dark black leather chairs, making for a rustic yet modern atmosphere.
During the short walk from the entrance to our seats, we walked over one of the more usual design features – a section of glass-bottom flooring showing off the extensive wine cellar below.
One of the advantages of sitting at an open bar/kitchen is that you get the chance to be a little more intimate with the waiter. Our waiter for the evening was extremely charming, making a big effort to make sure we enjoyed ourselves.
In order to get the full Popina experience, we ordered a dish from each of the five sections. From the pickled section we opted for the gin and tonic tartar (NIS 58), which consisted of cubes of greater amberjack fish, shallots, cucumber, green tobiko and cubes of gin and tonic jelly.
Not only was the presentation immaculate, the flavors worked incredibly well together, even if the consistency of the gin and tonic jelly cubes scattered over the top did take some getting used to.
Next we tried something from the steamed section of the menu. The goose spring rolls (NIS 58) came in the form of steamed rice paper filled with goose confit, aromatic pumpkin, walnuts, demi-glace goose and oranges. A truly Asian-inspired delight.
From the baked category we shared perhaps one of the most unusual dishes on the menu – savory profiteroles filled with foie gras mousse, served with chestnuts and apple jam (NIS 44). The extremely rich flavors may not be everyone’s taste, but my friend and I were fighting over who would get the last mouthful.
The dish that was perhaps the most standard came from the roasted section. While the roasted corvina fish fillets with gnocchi, peas and asparagus (NIS 108) was excellent and everything was perfectly cooked, there was nothing about it that stood out in the same way as some of the other dishes did.
Before the visit, I was made aware of Popina’s signature dish, and I just couldn’t wait to try it. Hailing from the slow-cooked section, the pumpkin jam and almond ravioli topped with fois gras and truffle foam (NIS 72) was simply to die for.
Each mouthful was better than the last; it got to the point where we were eating extremely slowly because we just didn’t want the experience to come to an end.
We finished the meal by sharing a chocolate souffle with chocolate crumbs and brown butter ice cream (NIS 46) as well as mango soup with chopped fruits, sorbet and coconut rice pudding (NIS 44), the latter of which was a variation of a dessert that features on the menu. Both were excellently presented and sufficiently satisfied our sweet tooth.
While we went for an evening meal, for those visiting on a Saturday afternoon, a special lunch deal is on offer between 12:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. For NIS 95 - NIS 140 diners can enjoy a starter and main course from a range of dishes that don’t appear on the regular menu.
No matter when you visit Popina, you are guaranteed exceptional food in a charming setting, with excellent service to match. While not a cheap restaurant by any stretch of the imagination, for the quality on offer I would say it’s very good value for money. Next time someone asks where my favorite restaurant in Tel Aviv is, I’ll be pointing them in the direction of Popina.
Popina, 3 Ehad Ha’am, Neve Tzedek, Tel Aviv. Not kosher. Tel: (03) 575-7477. The writer was a guest of the restaurant.