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Somewhere between the sizzle of the shwarma and the shake of the schnitzel on Rehov Ben-Yehuda is an unlikely treasure: Tel Aviv's first all-organic caf and restaurant, Humanature.
Instead of the kosher symbol tacked to the wall, the caf boasts the seal of the country's organic official, Agrior.
"We are the first caf to have gotten this certificate," says owner Sarah Hillel, a former lawyer and dive captain who commanded the 33-meter ship The Sea Surveyor on the Red Sea.
She and her husband, David, led dive expeditions but decided to make career changes when the politics on the water made it difficult for them to arrange dives.
In the past couple of years, the Hillels have gone from feeding sharks to feeding people. Sarah says the move was a natural transition in her life and that working in the restaurant business is a piece of cake compared to running a crew and taking care of guests from around the world.
"I brought my skills from the boat into building this restaurant," she says, offering an example.
"In Sudan, when you are at sea, you are alone. You can't go to the hardware shop across the street and get the supplies you need, so I learned how to fix mechanical and electrical parts and how to work with steel and wood," she says, while showing pictures of how she and her husband gutted the restaurant and transformed it from a travel agency into what it is today.
The project was a labor of love. They hired an architect and did much of the building themselves, including the woodwork out of a small workshop at home in Ra'anana. The two large round windows make a striking impression upon entering the restaurant.
Working in Tel Aviv, one could say, must be a lot safer than working on the sea. "There were pirates out in the south Red Sea. We even got shot at once in Yemen," says Hillel, a Yorkshire native who likes adventure.
Being British gave her the impetus to import organic beer to Israel. Now she supplies it to health food stores across the country.
The beer and the power shakes are flowing at Humanature. Take care not to drink too much, though - walking up the stairs to the restroom is a bit like walking the plank.
The good nature of the owner translates to the staff she has selected. Without much ado, they take it upon themselves to give guests little extras, such as taking one order of soup and splitting it into two bowls for couples who want to share.
As for the food, eating at Humanature doesn't come with a hidden agenda. Hillel and her staff are not attempting to educate people or to get them to change their lifestyles. The food is in some ways exotic - like the carambola fruit pasta - but not more than the average French restaurant.
"We wanted to give people food that tastes good and appeals to the man on the street," says Hillel.
Ingredients are purchased from across the country and must carry Agrior's stamp. Cheeses come from Arava Kibbutz Naot Smadar, while Moshav Harduf supplies the staples and a specially created organic cream. Hillel is frank and open with customers who want to shop for the home, and tells them where they can find the products she uses.
Hillel believes it shouldn't take much prodding to get Israelis to make the switch to organic.
"They will not really have to change their diets that much, unlike in England where people eat sausages and chips. Here in Israel, when I go to the supermarket I see people's carts already full of lettuce and vegetables."
Raw vegetables and salads are a big part of the menu at Humanature. Besides the popular tofu teriyaki, customers like the quinoa salad and the fresh fruit drinks. Coffee, of course, is organic and fair trade.
A dinner for two, including starters, wine and beer runs about NIS 230. Breakfast for one, which includes bread, cheese, omelet and drinks is NIS 41.
Lida Black was in town from Manchester visiting her daughter in Tel Aviv last Sunday. They came to Humanature for a late lunch.
Black was born and lived in Iran before she moved to the UK. Healthful eating was always something she considered important.
"In Teheran, if you got a cold you wouldn't get a prescription without the doctor giving you advice about changing your diet, too," says Black. In Manchester, she goes occasionally to all-organic restaurants and does her shopping in the organic section of her local supermarket.
In terms of taste, she says that organic food is better.
"I also notice the price difference," she says, noting that it costs considerably more to shop organic.
At Humanature she and her daughter ordered a quinoa salad with garlic and a dried fruit salad. One had a booster drink, which is a mixture of fruit juice; the other had an organic carrot juice. The bill came to NIS 115.
"The portions are small, though," commented her daughter.
"They are European portions," Black corrected. "I will definitely eat here again on my next trip to Israel."
With Agrior's backing or not (it costs about NIS 2,000 to get certified), other semi- and uncertified organic restaurants have begun sprouting up around Tel Aviv. One worth noting is Aba Gil's humous on Rehov Yehuda Halevi, which offers creamy organic humous for a nice price. To go, in a pita, costs NIS 10; NIS 6 for freshly squeezed apple juice. Gil also offers pita baking lessons on certain days of the week.
Another one is Taste of Life run by the Black Hebrews of Dimona, on Rehov Ben-Yehuda. The barbecue twist sandwich with the garlic yeast sauce comes highly recommended, though on the menu only the fresh vegetables are organic. Carob chocolate and tofu cheese are also popular and great for people who cannot have lactose and unrefined sugar. The service is slow but worth the wait. Staff dressed in colorful African-inspired robes and headdresses add to the atmosphere.
Not around as long as Taste of Life but a few years older than Humanature is LovEat, a caf that serves organic and fair trade coffee.
"We were the first to bring organic coffee to Israel five years ago," says owner Tal Bodenstein, who imports coffee from the Caribbean, Brazil, Mexico and the Dominican Republic. Bodenstein also runs a small factory where he roasts, blends and grinds his own java.
"You could say I am idealistic and that I do it for the quality and the taste," says Bodenstein, estimating that a kilogram of LovEat coffee is competitively priced at about NIS 150 to NIS 180. At the caf , much of the food is organic, such as the eggs, milk and a selection of vegetables.
Humanature is also a customer of LovEat. It is where Hillel buys her coffee, in fact. She says she is happy to support the organic cause, and she roots for other caf s and restaurants getting into organics in Tel Aviv.
"Israelis are always a few steps behind," says Hillel when asked if Israelis will support the organic trend. "Now, they are ready."
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