(photo credit: Courtesy)
Birthday dinners for a significant other are always difficult to plan. Chosen wisely, the coattails could work in your favor for months, but choose poorly and your own birthday might find you at a table for one. Such celebrations must be planned with care, something out of the ordinary, perhaps fulfilling or creating a certain fantasy.
Recently, I was faced with the task of planning such an occasion, which called for a venue that was both sophisticated and new, while at the same time, comfortable. Research and recommendations from friends led me to decide on Toto, the realm of the precocious twenty-five year old chef Yaron Shalev.
A professional chef since age sixteen, Shalev's resume is as impressive as his entrees, having worked all around the world. He also spent several years as Sous chef at Tel Aviv's Raphael Bistro. He molds every aspect of the restaurant in his own image, from the swanky dÃ©cor to the pricing of the daily specials.
Approaching the restaurant, we knew immediately that we were in for a treat. Greeted by a cute outdoor seating area, my dining partner/birthday celebrant and I just had to try it out. With cigarette in hand, we sat down to enjoy a final moment of anticipation before beginning what was guaranteed to be a culinary experience.
The interior decoration consisted of brown and white furniture, the lights dimmed over a spacious room. On the way to the table, patrons can feast their eyes on elaborate dishes already served to others, serving to whet the appetite. The dishes are far from classic Italian cuisine, rather closer to an Italian-inspired modern gourmet with fresh insight on old favorites.
For starters we had the green herbs and amberjack salad with sheep yogurt and the beef tartare served with capers, cilantro, Dijon mustard, chopped white onions, chili peppers, cognac and the always alluring quail egg. Both dishes were very good, but it was the oxtail tortellini that truly blew us away. In a cream of celery and veal stock, the oxtail was so tender it simply melted in my mouth. An absolute must-eat dish, it titillated our senses leaving us giddy for what was to come.
Before the entrÃ©es appeared we cleansed our palates with a couple of refreshing cocktails, which displayed the same nuanced flavors that make the dishes so impressive. My date had a special blend of cava and cointreau, with a squeeze of orange juice while I enjoyed a Remy Martin, Drambuie and ginger ale with a pear on the side. Each of the drinks invoked images of sipping a cold beverage outside on a lazy summer day, despite the winter chill outside.
Toto's selection of entrees is in continuance with its unique dining experience. The menu offers several dishes under the fish, meat and pasta categories. I can attest that the lamb chops with garden peas, green broad beans and artichokes, as well as the gnocchi with chestnuts, truffle butter and aged Parmesan are two options with which you cannot go wrong.
However, I recommend taking advantage of Shalev's inspiration with his ever-changing specials. We enjoyed a slow-cooked beef stew marinated in a beef stock and red wine sauce mixed with diced bacon and vegetables. Shalev adapts his choices to the season and, from this evening's creation, proves to be a trustworthy chef indeed.
For a birthday cake we had the broken apple tart with whiskey ice cream and we toasted another year over a dessert cocktail - the Espressotini (espresso, vanilla vodka and kahlua). The cocktail was a fittingly creative coda to a dynamic dining experience and a unique birthday.
Toto (4 Berkovitch St., Tel Aviv, (03) 693-5151) is open Sun. to Sat. from 12:30 p.m. till midnight. A business lunch is available from opening till 6:30 p.m. and a business dinner from 6:30 p.m. till closing. Toto also operates a cafÃ© open from 7:45 a.m. till 7 p.m.; not kosher. The writer was a guest of the restaurant.