'a': Original, innovative modern Japanese cuisine in Tel Aviv - review

Located on the second floor of the Sarona Tower, an elevator will take you directly from the car park into the lobby of the restaurant. 

 'a' (photo credit: ASSAF KARELA)
'a'
(photo credit: ASSAF KARELA)

It took him three years of planning and dreaming until about four months ago chef Yuval Ben Neriah (Taizo) opened his dream place ‘a’ in Sarona, Tel Aviv, which immediately became the new place to go to. We have been waiting to get a table in the restaurant which has a long waiting list since it opened. And it was well worth the wait.

“I believe that in every jump forward, looking to the future, you must connect to the origins,” says the chef. “In ‘a’, the star of the dishes are the ingredients that we pick very carefully and we research to find which method suits them best – smoking, fermenting and aging. On the other hand – the space is modern and urban. What happens in between is interesting,” he says about his new place.

Located on the second floor of the Sarona Tower, an elevator will take you directly from the car park into the lobby of the restaurant. 

The restaurant takes up a whole floor, of which about two thirds are dedicated to the kitchen and only a third to the seating area. At any moment of the service, there are more cooks, waiters and bartenders in ‘a’ than diners and the diversity of the ingredients and cooking techniques is unheard of. Of course all this is represented in the cost – but hey – I will be happy to return here even if it means skipping other places and not going out as often. Yes it is that good.

The decor is somber and minimalistic, or as it is called these days - contemporary and urban. The dining area is divided into two smaller curvy seating areas and a large oval bar, with windows overlooking the Sarona Templar houses on one side. The whole area of the oval bar is dominated by a back-lit wall with a grid of sake bottles, and opposite the windows there’s a peeping window that allows diners a see part of the kitchen, where cooks are busy running around - but you can’t really see the faces of the cooks or what exactly they are doing – the more you try to look in, the more the secrets are kept and the curiosity heightened.  

 CHEF YUVAL BEN NERIAH (credit: ASSAF KARELA) CHEF YUVAL BEN NERIAH (credit: ASSAF KARELA)

Ben Neriah uses a range of techniques, including fermentation, cooking over open fire, preserving and different methods of ageing of the fish and meat. He uses an unbelievable number of carefully chosen ingredients that most of us haven’t even heard before and are not sure how to pronounce their names, resulting in some of the best dishes we ever ate, certainly in Israel. 

‘a’ is a creative restaurant that serves up Instagram worthy plates but looking around I saw no one taking out their phones to take a picture – the food is so good that photos can wait.

The menu is divided into four parts - bites, first courses, mains and a sushi menu, divided also into cooking methods such as grilling and iron (pans). We sat at the bar and were helped by our waiter, one of six working in the bar, each responsible for a few diners. We had no idea where to start so we left the decisions to him and followed his suggestions.

To start we took three ”bites”, the ravishingly beautiful Pillows – crunchy pastry pillow filled with koji-buckwheat foam, fish tartar, mushroom garum (fermented fish sauce), macadamia garum, egg-yolk cream and charred eggplant powder. (NIS 18). Too pretty to eat, we took a picture and were dazzled by the richness of flavors. We then had two more of these tony bites – the Nigiri – cured fish with wasabi and Maldon salt (NIS 34) and the fish tartar – Bluefin tuna, koji butter, fermented kumquat aioli, pumpkin miso, soft egg and chilli (NIS 38). The flavors are gentle but deep. If you stop and concentrate you can taste different shades of sour and hot – different textures and temperatures. Bliss.

Unlike the bites, the starters and main dishes here are very generous. We got the tuna ”spaghetti’ –Bluefin tuna, white nigiri, ponzu, brown butter, koji rice, pickled carrot, pickled red shiso and flower furikake (NIS108). Another perfect choice. 

We didn’t have enough of the exceptional sushi – so we continued with sashimi three ways (there’s also sashimi 5 ways if you have room). The fish is line-caught king fish and yellowtail – dry aged, soy-cured, kombu-jima, shio-koji and beet, white miso tataki. My favorite any day.  (NIS 98/190). Don’t miss it if you love sashimi – I will never be able to go back to sashimi elsewhere. Maybe the best I ever tasted.

The food here is beautiful – but not decorated. Everything on the plate is a part of the dish and each element adds flavor, texture and interest.

Very full we couldn’t say no to one beef dish and again with the help of our gracious waiter chose the rump steak made from Holstein beef grown in kibbutz Ein Hashofet, served on bone marrow with pickled shiso and green onion, ginger, beef stock, mirin and sake. (NIS138).  My companion devoured this dish, while I could only look and wish I had room for more.

We had to give up our seats to others who were waiting – the waiting list for a table here is quite extensive – so we didn’t eat any desserts. But we did look at the list, which includes, for instance pumpkin cake or roasted pineapple, and decided to try them next time. 

I wanted more – there are so many enticing dishes on the menu – that I believe I will come back often. Maybe now that this restaurant opens also for lunch, getting a table will prove a little easier. 

By the way, the Japanese style continues into the toilets, where, to my delight, the toilet seat greeted me – like in Japan – with a warm welcome by rising as I entered the room. Fun touch.

If I have to choose, ‘a’ is certainly the best restaurant in Israel right now, serving up amazingly good, interesting original and creative food, with warm and efficient service and impeccable hospitality. Value for money? Well it isn’t cheap but boy do you get your money’s worth. We will definitely return here. 

‘a’2nd floor Sarona Tower, 121 Menachem Begin, Tel AvivNot kosherFor reservations call 074-7588818 https://ontopo.co.il/arestauranttlv

The writer was a guest of the restaurant