Ever since the popular Sarona vegan restaurant Miss Kaplan closed last year, the considerable vegan community in Israel has been wondering when and where talented chef Shirel Berger would surface next. The wait is now over: Berger is currently helming the kitchen at Opa, a vegan fine dining restaurant on the fringes of Levinsky Market.
The new restaurant is a small, attractive and bright venue that makes brilliant use of its limited space. Many of the tables offer a view of the open, modern, streamlined kitchen and energetic staff that turns out meals for the limited capacity of 35 diners per service.
Opa’s mission is to deliver a “plant-based culinary experience” that appeals to the eye as well as the palate. To accomplish this, Berger sources all of her vegetables from a single, family-run farm that grows only the highest quality produce.
There are but two specialty cocktails (NIS 42): Habanero and Mancini tonic. The former – tequila with fermented habanero pepper – is overwhelmingly spicy, while the vermouth-based latter managed to underwhelm.
The wine list is similarly selective: 15 organic and biodynamic wines, with very few available by the glass. Interestingly, there are no soft drinks – only sparkling or still mineral water. The menu is short and simple: just six dishes (NIS 42-63), each bearing the name of the vegetable or fruit that is its main ingredient. Our waitress recommended the sharing menu for two: all the items on the main menu plus one dessert for NIS 320.
The house bread is crusty sourdough with just a hint of drizzled garlic, served with a tiny saucer of delicate olive oil. It goes well with all the dishes to come.
The first two dishes were both fruit-centric. First was razor-thin slices of plum with tiny dollops of ginger and black mustard compote, white onion purée, and a scattering of granules of toasted almond. There was a lot going on this dish, yet somehow it added up to less than the sum of its parts.
This was followed by two small morsels of guava buried under frothy bubbles of macadamia milk. The foam, along with sourdough crumble and betel leaves, enhanced the fruit nicely, but in four bites each, the entire dish was gone.
Next was fennel prepared in two ways: marinated in aged apple cider, and fermented. The resulting texture was amazing; somehow, the vegetable managed to be meaty, yet also melt in the mouth. Unfortunately, the taste of vinegar was a little too dominant.
The most substantial dish comprised three different kinds of mushroom – king trumpet, oyster and shiitake – in a foam made from sake, shiitake and pecan and topped with sage and tapioca chips. This turned out to be our favorite dish of the evening.
The eggplant dish yielded the purest essence of aubergine that I have ever tasted. Combined with potent caper berries, fried caper leaves and a mellow smoked pine nut purée, it was a gourmet version of a commonplace Israeli vegetable.
The last main course was Jerusalem artichoke with dehydrated Dijon mustard in a purée of Jerusalem artichoke and macadamia. Once again, it was the texture that was the most incredible feature: the mustard was like a soft cracker. The vegetable itself, however, was unappetizingly mushy.
There were three desserts listed on the menu (NIS 34-36), but only two were available; regrettably, the sole chocolate option was not one of them. The fresh raspberries and macerated strawberries were accompanied by vegan coffee ice cream that was a far cry from the real thing; the tangerine sorbet, meanwhile, practically exploded with fruit flavor.
The service was attentive throughout the meal, as our plates and cutlery were cleared and changed between courses. In fact, the whole experience was one of fine dining – which makes Opa a vegan restaurant that fills a niche in Tel Aviv.
Zakaim is a different place that is very much the same
There have been some significant changes at Zakaim since the veteran vegan eatery was last reviewed on these pages (December 30, 2016). It has changed ownership and is now certified kosher. This latter change of status has led to Zakaim attracting a great many private events.
The description of the cuisine has also been modified: Zakaim is now styled a “vegan boutique” restaurant inspired by the flavors of the Silk Road. The new owners have also created a pleasant rear patio garden, while retaining the same familiar decor in the main dining room: a rustic open kitchen, simple furnishings and colorful oilcloth tablecloths.
Similarly, the menu has kept many of the drinks and dishes that continue to attract Zakaim’s regular customers. There are still very unusual specialty cocktails (NIS 42-49), and now there are six sections on the food menu: Good Start (NIS 24-42), Fresh and Roasted Vegetables (NIS 36-55), BBQ (NIS 49-85), Pots and Pans (NIS 57-64), In Our Oven (NIS 49-119), and Something Sweet (NIS 33-39).
The new owner brought me the dishes he wanted me to taste. First was a holdover from the previous menu: Zakaim’s classic hand-torn fries, served with three creamy homemade dips – soy milk mayonnaise, a mellow yellow matboukha (white sugar and soy milk change the color of red tomatoes), and a garlicky aioli. It was great fun pairing the perfectly cooked morsels of potato with the various condiments – including the Heinz ketchup.
Next was black lentil pâté, which may not have been as rich as liver, but still flavorful and satisfying, especially when paired with the delicious chili and cherry tomato jam.
From the vegetables section came roasted green beans, which were cooked well past the al dente stage, but liberally seasoned with garlic, olive oil, lemon and sea salt.
The main course was called “Baz” burger – an acronym for Beyond Meat plus Zakaim – since the vegan burger is not made from scratch, but rather ready-made patties imported from the USA. Indeed, it tasted rather industrial, while the sides of oyster mushrooms and pale eggplant were unremarkable.
There are only three desserts, with one chocolate option: chocolate almond truffles, which were rich, creamy and quite good. The writer was a guest of the restaurants.
Opa. Not kosher. HaHalutzim St. 3, Tel Aviv. Tel. 052-583-8245
Zakaim. Kosher. Simtat Beit HaSheva 20, Tel Aviv. Tel. (03) 613-5060
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