Ziona Café has become somewhat of an institution in that southern suburb of Tel Aviv, thanks to the pleasant ambiance of its “magical garden” and the excellence of its cuisine. Buoyed by its success, the small-town restaurant has now ventured into the big-time, opening a branch in Sarona Market.
Not surprisingly, the newcomer did not import the charm of its original venue; fortunately, however, the best dishes on its menu – along with talented Chef Haim David – have succeeded in making the transition.
Ziona Café the offspring – located close to the eastern entrance of the market, now accessible via a covered wooden passageway from Haarba’a Street – is not much more than a hole-in-the-wall storefront; its limited seating areas are a counter with several bar stools, and a few regular tables in the dining area shared with other eateries. Unlike the image commonly conjured up by the term “café”, this is hardly the kind of place for a first date or intimate conversation.
There is barely any alcohol on the menu: no cocktails, and but a minimal selection of wine and beer. To be precise, one Israeli craft brew (Malka) on tap (NIS 21), along with two house white wines and one house red – all imported, and available by the glass (NIS 36).
The food menu is more extensive than it looks in print, crammed in small fonts onto one page. There is an English menu, albeit not available in print: it must be accessed from your smartphone via QR code, and it is not very user-friendly. The good news is that our genial waitress made things easy with her excellent English.
The menu sections (half with English-language headings) are: Small Plates (NIS 44-56); Our Specials (NIS 42-72); Pizza (NIS 52-56); Pasta (NIS 66-68); Salads (NIS 62-66) and Fish (NIS 88-98). There are vegetarian/vegan – and even gluten-free – options in every category, including among the pizzas.
Bread, served with soft butter and olives, is included with every meal – and the house sourdough walnut was dark, crusty and outstanding. Especially noteworthy is the fact that there is also a gluten-free bread option – which my companion promptly declared among the best she has encountered in Israel, including from bakeries.
The Ziona Café Specials category comprises both starters and main courses, making for a plethora of choices for first courses (counting the Small Plates). We ended up starting our meal with one representative appetizer from each of the first two sections.
The Grilled Artichokes (from the former category) were seared perfectly, and accompanied by a most intriguing condiment: an almond-garlic-beetroot spread, seasoned with balsamic vinegar and Parmesan cheese. There were only two of the large and flavorful artichoke stalks, which disappeared all too quickly.
Our raw fish selection was the Tuna Tartare, small cubes of red fish intermingled with equal-sized chunks of fresh mango, all on a bed of mint aioli. There were times when the zesty combination of the aioli plus red chili and cilantro threatened to overpower the fish; overall, however, this mélange of tuna with seasonal fruit yielded a pleasing interplay of flavors.
We elected to stay in the Specials category for our main courses, beginning with the Beet Gnocchi in a cream sauce with notes of almond, basil, spinach and poppyseed. The two-toned, red-and-white gnocchi had the look and texture of small, dense matzah balls; but the potato-cum-beet pasta in the complex and savory sauce made for a delicious and filling dish.
The Fish Kebab as well was a hearty dish: four kubbeh-shaped mullet patties drizzled with tehina and arranged on flatbread (which the menu called focaccia). I have had a few fish kebab entrées in my time, and this was the closest the seasoning – redolent with cumin and coriander seed – ever came to the blend used with meat versions. The accompanying copious mound of coarse-cut fresh tomato, interspersed with greens, was an ideal pairing.
We wanted to sample one of the salads, and quickly found out that the Winter Salad could be a meal in itself. There are three major components arranged side-by-side: red and white quinoa flecked with stir-fried vegetables, feta cheese, and assorted cooked green vegetables served cold. This is a vegetarian feast to please all palates.
There is only one dessert (NIS 44), but it is worthy of its own showcase: bread pudding, topped with not just a scoop of vanilla ice cream but an entire sundae, featuring mixed berries. I would have been happy with just the rarely served bread pudding, but this creation elevated everything to the level of a decadent delight.
Ziona Café is quite reasonably priced for the quality of its food, and the weekday value lunch (a.k.a., iskit) is an especially good deal. According to Chef David, the restaurant also does a robust takeaway business (plus delivery, by Wolt).
The writer was a guest of the restaurant.