Alice in Wonderland brought to cuisine life in Tel Aviv restaurant

From a Burger Wellington to a Grey Stuff cocktail - a mix of six potent spirits - Tel Aviv's Fantastic brims with playfulness and quality.

 Dishes at Tel Aviv's Fantastic. (photo credit: ANATOLY MICHAELO)
Dishes at Tel Aviv's Fantastic.
(photo credit: ANATOLY MICHAELO)

Fantastic is one of the jewels in the crown of the Monkey Business Group, headed up by master mixologist Ariel Leizgold.

The decor of this particular bar-restaurant – which has just about co-opted the lobby of the Port and Blue Boutique Hotel – is inspired by Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland, down to the “looking glass” atmosphere in the unique restrooms and the fuzzy pink rabbit ears that women customers are encouraged to don.

Fantastic has managed to survive the most difficult days of our vexing pandemic, but not without major streamlining. The establishment still maintains two separate dining areas – the funky Mad Hatter Tea Room (reached after going down a “rabbit hole” passageway) and the Ballroom – but the former is now open only on weekends.

More importantly – and most lamentably – the Tea Room menu has been eliminated altogether. Previously, this restaurant section served gourmet food on a par with Tel Aviv’s fine dining establishments. Now, the Ballroom menu is the standard fare throughout Fantastic.

Fantastic restaurant in Tel Aviv. (credit: ANATOLY MICHAELO)Fantastic restaurant in Tel Aviv. (credit: ANATOLY MICHAELO)

Nevertheless, I still recommend sitting in the Tea Room: it is not only greener, with more of an al fresco feeling, but also a bit quieter and more conducive to conversation. The lighting in both sections is very much on the dim side, reflecting the emphasis on a bar atmosphere.

The printed menus also underscore Fantastic’s bar origins. The cocktail list is named The Fantastic Shortlist – clearly tongue-in-cheek, since it is the longest such list I have encountered anywhere, featuring no fewer than 20 cocktails (NIS 54-72), two punches meant for sharing (NIS 115-260) and two virgin cocktails (NIS 36). This “short list” actually takes up more physical space than the food menu and [very limited] wine list combined!

It also takes longer to read the cocktail than the food menu, especially if you don’t want to fall into the trap of choosing something because of its intriguing name rather than on the merits of the ingredients. Thus, I ended up passing on the cool moniker Dead Man’s Hand and settled on the much less appealing appellation Dog’s Bollocks, because I figured I would prefer the taste of Havana rum with jackfruit, pineapple juice, ginger, winter spices, chili and lime. I must have guessed right, because I really enjoyed this refreshing cocktail with a spicy kick.

My companion, meanwhile, ordered The Grey Stuff, a concoction that packed the combined punch of six potent spirits – bourbon, cognac, rum, gin, mezcal and amaro – along with rosewater, jasmine, lychee and guarana. The result was a complex balancing act of sweet and bitter – but that was not the most interesting aspect: this very adult drink was served in an incongruous, yet smile-inducing, child’s tea party service of small cup and fat pitcher, both decorated with cartoon faces.

With such unusual and creative components making up the cocktails – and the above examples are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg of the marvels of mixology that are de rigueur here – we were thankful that both the alcohol and food menus are completely bilingual.

THE FANTASTIC Food menu consists of three untitled sections that may loosely be categorized as appetizers (NIS 48-68), intermediate courses (NIS 48-72) and main dishes (NIS 65-135). There are two vegetarian options in each section, but only one vegan option in each of the latter two categories.

We started with the Fantastic bread (NIS 22): a small basket of two slices each of soft brioche and fresh sourdough bread, served with soft butter seasoned with extra salt and black pepper. There is no gluten-free alternative.

Fish (and seafood) constitute a plurality of the intermediate dishes, so our first courses gravitated in this direction. The Sea Fish Sashimi of the evening was red tuna, with charcoal and fermented chili creams, lime and crunchy pastilla chips. It disappeared all too quickly, in comparison with the Gravlax Salmon Carpaccio – a generous plate of cured salmon topped with morsels of orange, leafy mizuna (Japanese mustard greens), pine nuts and dollops of labaneh. All in all, the diverse ingredients formed a delicious interplay of flavors and textures.

There are fewer main courses than intermediate dishes, and half of them are variations on beef. The filet was two sizable medallions on a bed of a delicate potato cream studded with shallots confit. The very chewy and slightly crusty beef, grilled a bit longer than had been requested, was not steakhouse quality, but certainly adequate for a bar restaurant, particularly when enhanced with the red wine cum winter spices sauce.

The Burger Wellington was something of a novelty: a hamburger cooked inside a pastry shell rather than served in a bun. Unfortunately, the end result bore little resemblance to what was promised in writing: there was no hint of either goose breast or cherry tomato jam paired with the overdone – albeit substantial – beef patty.

The dish was somewhat salvaged by the two sides: a zesty coleslaw, redolent of caraway, and golden brown onion rings, made from scratch. (Full disclosure: At first, the fried onion rings were served burnt to a crisp; but when we returned them, they were replaced quickly, with a smile.)

The limited wine list – actually, an appendix to the food menu – features a few whites and reds, along with one rosé. All are available either by the glass or bottle.

The dessert menu is that strange Israeli hybrid of English names with the descriptions only in Hebrew. Our choice of sweet dessert (NIS 48-56) was an excellent lemon mousse, while the cheese plate (NIS 68) – identical to the same platter listed as one of the two appetizers – was unremarkable.

FantasticNot kosherPort Blue Hotel, 1 Tzidon Street, Tel AvivTel. (03) 516-4700The writer was a guest of the restaurant.