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Maybe because it was founded in 1878 by religious pioneers, Petah Tikva is often perceived as a city with a large religious population when in fact, according to estimates, only about 30 percent of its 200,000 residents define themselves as Shabbat and kosher keepers. In the past few years, new neighborhoods have been built and the city has experienced an upsurge in intercity immigration, with young couples - religious and secular - moving in for the more affordable suburban life.
According to Ronen Melinger, 29, a city native and restaurant entrepreneur, Petah Tikva hosts a sizable secular population but only a few of the city's restaurants, bars or fast food joints cater to a crowd seeking more than just pizzerias, falafel stands or Middle Eastern grills. Like many of his secular friends, he would always venture to Tel Aviv or Herzliya for upscale and cosmopolitan culinary and nightlife experiences. But rather than abandon the city further, he and his brother, Alon, decided to bring a touch of Tel Aviv and Herzliya to Petah Tikva, and they opened Oyamaa.
"They say the best street in Petah Tikva is Jabotinsky, because it leads to Tel Aviv," joked Melinger while sitting with Metro for dinner at Oyamaa. Melinger is a newcomer to the restaurant business, having worked in the diamond industry before acting on inspiration to add more life to his home city. "We opened the place because it filled a need. Petah Tikva can be a very gray city."
Oyamaa Asian Grill Bar is outfitted with an up-to-date, minimalist design that could make it seem at home in any modern metropolis. Designed by architect Doron Menin, who traveled from Barcelona, where he works, to undertake Oyamaa, the restaurant consists of clean lines, Japanese motifs and funky lighting fixtures.
Oyamaa means "Oh My God!" in Japanese, and was created to elicit such a reaction, says Melinger. Any religious person who looks at the menu will certainly have that reaction. The menu consists of a large selection of sushi, sea food appetizers, Asian rice and noodle dishes, and classic Asian entrees - many of the dishes clearly offensive to the kosher eater. It's the only restaurant in Petah Tikva serving crab, pork, shrimp and calamari. Sushi connoisseurs, however, will be satisfied with the quality and presentation of the dishes.
Since Oyamaa is located in the Yehin industrial center - far away from religious population centers - its opening has not drawn any fire from religious locals, says Melinger. However, it took a while even for the secular residents to get used to the idea of a place like Oyamaa in their midst. Despite its being built especially for them, Oyamaa wasn't a runaway hit when it first opened.
"The problem is that in Petah Tikva we're the only ones who are doing what we're doing," says Melinger. He thinks that once more restaurants like Oyamaa open, local going-out habits will change. "In Petah Tikva people are not used to this type of place. They're very skeptical, so it took them a while to understand what they have here."
In the same compound, branches of Aroma, Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf and Tal Burgers recently opened, but Melinger envisions more stylish, boutique-style gourmet and less commercial establishments. Plans are underway for his newest venture, an Italian fast food place with a touch of (non-kosher) gourmet and deliveries on Shabbat. It will open next month.