Back by popular demand

Café Popular marks Chef Avi Bitton’s triumphant return to north Tel Aviv

A dish at Café Popular (photo credit: Courtesy)
A dish at Café Popular
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When I heard that Chef Avi Bitton would be helming a new restaurant in north Tel Aviv, I was transported back to a meal of his that I shall never forget: at Adora Bistro, less than a 10-minute walk from the current Dizengoff Street location of Café Popular. The meal, enjoyed more than two years ago, was memorable for two reasons: first, the food was delicious; and second, the restaurant closed for good very suddenly, just a few days later – before my review had a chance to be submitted, let alone published.
That is not to say that Bitton disappeared from the city’s culinary scene altogether: he has been turning out delicacies at his upscale Ramat Aviv deli, Sulica, and has been the chef of the Mazal Talle catering company – both enterprises kosher.
Café Popular, meanwhile, opened this June on the premises of the elegant boutique hotel Jacob Samuel. Situated at one of the city’s most strategic intersections, the entrance to the hotel is on Dizengoff, while that of the restaurant is on Arlozorov.
Café Popular has two very distinct components: the al fresco restaurant, furnished with comfortable leather chairs, and a cozy bar indoors (downstairs). Another notable difference is that the restaurant and bar have slightly different menus.
The separate Hebrew and English menus look remarkably similar, primarily because the section headings of both are in all-caps English. Unfortunately, the resemblance is partially due to the same silly typos in each. 
There are four specialty cocktails (NIS 44 to 52), of which we sampled the two with the most curious names: Dardar and Tzuf. The former – vodka with pineapple and passion fruit – was pleasantly sweet with a spicy finish, thanks to a colorful rim of salt and red chili; while the latter – two kinds of bourbon, with red grapefruit, honey and lime, garnished with lemon peel and celery – was sweet with considerable kick.
The food menu comprises six sections: Vegetables (NIS 38-44); Small Plates (NIS 16-32); Salads (NIS 38 to 54); From the Sea (NIS 52 to 88); Pasta (NIS 72 to 108); and Meat (NIS 58 to 138). As is evident from the headings of the first three categories, Café Popular offers plenty of vegetarian and vegan options. 
As we perused the menu, we nibbled on the house bread (NIS 18) – slices of a soft yet crusty rustic loaf, served with an intense garlic confit and a mildly spicy tomato dip. The excellent bread was also a fine accompaniment for the first two dishes to come.  
Our choice of “small plate” was the black-eyed peas massabha, with herbs, olive oil and tomato salsa. The chunky legumes were bursting with flavor, creating a hearty dish that was more filling than your usual starter (which is how the English title – on the Hebrew menu – defines “small plates”).
From the Vegetables section we selected the leek confit, with crumbled feta cheese and stalks of green herbs. The salty cheese was a perfect counterpoint to the slightly sweet overtones of the concentrated leek, while the fresh dill, parsley and coriander modulated the intensity of the combined flavors.
The fish category of the menu presented us with some difficult choices; we eventually settled on the crab toast, which arrived with an eye-catching presentation: half of the meat was spread on toasted sweet hallah, while the other half was still in the shell. The mixture on the toast contained Sainte Maure cheese and caramelized shallots, potent ingredients that threatened to overwhelm the delicate crab meat; fortunately, however, the robust result managed to please.
The limited selection of Pastas reflected admirable variety – including one al forno – and covered four different bases: vegetarian, seafood, fish and meat. The lamb cannelloni was a solitary, long tube of pasta that oozed a thick river of lamb shank, which had been slow-cooked to a treacly consistency; the golden brown cannelloni filled with savory lamb was a feast for the eyes as well as the palate.
The steaks in the Meat category tempted us, but the foie gras baklava was too intriguing to pass up: rich goose liver baked into the classic phyllo pastry of the Middle East, which was then drenched in spiced honey and sprinkled with chopped pistachio nuts. Our baklava had been in the oven a tad too long; but once we scraped away the tips of the burnt edges, we enjoyed a delicacy of sinful decadence.
Although we did not sample any of the vintages on offer, there is a very adequate international wine list, with wines available by the glass and bottle. 
Strangely, the separate dessert menu was only in Hebrew, although our waitress was able to explain the four entries (NIS 38 to 44) in English. Naturally, we had to try the eponymous Croissant Popular, the flaky pastry covered in powdered sugar, filled with almond crême pâtissière and served with a syrupy sauce containing fresh berries. This dessert sandwich, enhanced nicely by plump blueberries, was worthy of the restaurant’s name. 
Finally, although the menu did not say so, the crême brulée was actually semifreddo, which was quite refreshing on a warm summer’s eve. As if that were not enough, the cold crême brulée was topped with a cylindrical tuile filled with vanilla cream, and accompanied by a dollop of strawberry coulis. No one with a sweet tooth would be disappointed by this sweet extravaganza. 
The writer was a guest of the restaurant.
Cafe Popular
Not kosher
Dizengoff St. 197, Tel Aviv
Tel. (03) 555-2020