Eyal Lavy may not be a celebrity chef, but those in the know consider the former chef of Noah Local Bistro (Rokach 73) to be one of the best in the business. His latest enterprise is a new challenge, even for him: he was asked to be the chef of a kosher restaurant that would serve food of the Balkans. After spending a month traveling in southeastern Europe, and three months honing the menu, Balkan opened this winter, in the area previously occupied by HaShaked, a popular fish restaurant that had been in business for decades.
The interior of the restaurant has been completely redesigned, so that it resembles a classic American diner, with counter seating at the front of the kitchen as well as tables opposite. The light wood furnishings and placemats with handsome geometric Ottoman designs make it an attractive venue; al fresco seating will be added in the large square between HaHashmona’im and HaArba’a Streets.
The food is described as “contemporary Balkan cuisine,” inspired by countries ranging from Turkey to Bulgaria, but adapted to Israel’s climate and local palates. This influence extends to Balkan’s specialty cocktails (NIS 34-48) as well, which were listed on a separate alcohol menu only provided in Hebrew. The ones that we sampled blended yogurt with rum or gin and fruit juices, resulting in refreshing drinks that brought to mind sweet lassi.
The entire food menu, in English or Hebrew, fits on one page, yet comprises no fewer than nine categories: Tasty Small Plates (NIS 15-29), Kaymak Rainbow (NIS 38), Bread (NIS 18/22), Sharing (NIS 32-48), Salads (NIS 42-49), Bureks & Pastries (NIS 42-48), Flat Breads – Balkan Pizza (NIS 56-58), Soups (NIS 38/48), and Fish (NIS 42-132). Most categories itemize only two or three dishes. There are plenty of vegetarian options, but significantly fewer vegan ones.
We started with two small plates as appetizers. Tzatziki and skordalia are common Greek mezze that take on an extra dimension here: the thick yogurt with cucumber and dill was topped with roasted walnuts, while the garlic confit dip was enhanced with celery and roasted almonds. The word “tasty” in the category heading was no exaggeration.
Next was mangold (chard) burek, of the genre known to Israelis as burekas. This version consisted of long, thin tubes of delicate, flaky, sesame seed-encrusted phyllo dough filled with chard, steamed onions and goat cheese. The balance between the ripe goat cheese and the robust green vegetable was perfect, and the delicious burek was paired with a medium-boiled egg and leafy baby lettuce.
The pastries on the menu were actually just one pastry, and it was savory rather than sweet: shaped like a boat, the pide is a Turkish variation of the Georgian khachapuri, filled with a creamy blend of roasted eggplant and Bulgarian cheese. Baked golden brown in the taboun, the superb pide was served with ajvar, a zesty Serbian red pepper dip.
Kaymak is a rich Balkan delicacy that is like a cross between butter and cream cheese, and the rainbow is kaymak in an array of five different flavors. We were served two examples – smoked salmon and date – both sinfully decadent. They were meant to be spread on flat breadsticks, which unfortunately were so highly seasoned that they clashed with the taste of the kaymak.
The first of our two shared dishes was taboun-baked red cabbage that had been marinated in honey, alongside a slab of warmed bryndza cheese drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with toasted nuts. I don’t think I have ever used the adjective “succulent” to describe cabbage, but that is exactly the right term for this version. Not to mention the marvelous juxtaposition of the sweet cabbage with the savory white cheese.
The second intermediate dish was stuffed red bell pepper in a crispy coating on a bed of spiced yogurt; the gently fried chushka pepper, which oozed melted mild cheese, was topped with a poached egg and a Parmesan tuile. Of all the outstanding dishes we tasted, this might have been my favorite.
Of course, we still had to try at least one main course, all six of which were fish. First came the sea bream fillet with Chef Lavy’s unique plum chutney, plum marmalade and black pepper. The fruity chutney accented the fresh fish without overwhelming it, while the side dish of beet and potato gratin was excellent.
THE SEPARATE DESSERT menu consists of seven desserts (NIS 28-48), each more tempting than the next. We finally narrowed it down to two: sutlac and cherry strudel. The former was a soupy rice pudding studded with apricot, while the latter was an unusual -- and exceptional -- constellation of conjoined cylindrical tubes of pastry filled with tart cherries accompanied by a hazelnut crumble and ice cream.
Desserts are prepared by a dedicated pastry chef, with the help of two assistants. When I expressed surprise, Lavy revealed to me that the team currently turns out weekday business lunches and dinners, as well as Friday brunches, while weekday breakfasts are planned for the near future. Eventually, he says that Balkan will be open 24/6, serving morning, afternoon, evening, and night menus, with the exception of Shabbat.
It is rare enough to find a restaurant open at all hours that serves food at this level of quality; but to find one that is also kosher would put Balkan in a league of its own.
The writer was a guest of the restaurant.
HaHashmonaim St. 99, Tel Aviv
Tel. (03) 643-4517