In a League of Its Own

Shiratoya gains unprecedented recognition from the Japanese embassy.

Shiratoya (photo credit: GOLDI DONSKAYA)
(photo credit: GOLDI DONSKAYA)
There are not many restaurants in Israel that have earned official certification attesting to the authenticity of their ethnic cuisine. Last year, the Italian restaurant Ernesto in Tel Aviv was awarded this distinction by the Italian Academy of Cuisine; and this year it is the turn of Shiratoya, barely six months old, to merit a similar honour, which will be conferred by the local Japanese embassy in a ceremony in August.
Shiratoya, located in the premises formerly occupied by Meir Adoni’s Catit and Mizlala, is the brainchild of restaurateur Ariel (Ari) Grossman, one of the pioneers of Japanese cuisine in Israel and one of the original ownership partners of Onami, which is still one of the city’s better Japanese restaurants. Grossman retired after some 30 years in the restaurant business – but his passion for Japanese culture and its food never waned, and he was persuaded to make a comeback after a nine-year hiatus from the culinary scene.
Grossman approached his new project with his customary zeal and attention to detail. The decor and ceramics of Shiratoya mimic a fine dining establishment in Japan, and he even installed a special filtration system in the kitchen in order to replicate the unique quality of water used in making the special rice for sushi.
Not that Shiratoya – the name means Tavern of the White City – is yet another good sushi restaurant, with which Tel Aviv is amply blessed. Instead, Grossman defines Shirtoya as a “modern Iyazaki” — signifying a place where food and sake are meant to complement each other. For his “swan song” as the dean of Japanese cuisine in Israel, Grossman scoured Japan for regional delicacies, and brought back with him a native chef who creates distinctive dishes, using cooking technique not employed anywhere else in Israel.    
The quality of the food did not go unnoticed for long: Japanese embassy staffers soon became daily regulars, leading to Shiratoya’s soon-to-be exclusive status.
Another attraction comes in the form of the surprisingly extensive alcohol and food menus. Many of Tel Aviv’s top-flight Japanese restaurants offer a broad range of premium sakes, but Shiratoya goes a step further, boasting a fine selection of imported Japanese whiskeys as well.
These spirits also form the basis of six intriguing specialty cocktails (NIS 42-45). Happily, a generous weekday “happy hour” (Sundays-Wednesdays, 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m.) feature 1+1 (buy one, get one free) offers not only on cocktails, draft beer and sake, but also yakitori – single bamboo skewers cooked over a charcoal grill. 
The house cocktails we sampled were the Godzilla and the Oyishi. The former – Schochu, Jasmine green tea, basil and matcha, served on the rocks in a tall glass – was deliciously sweet and refreshing, while the Oyishi – yuzo sake, Honey Jack Daniels and Benedictine, served neat in a martini glass – was smooth with a tart finish.
The food menu comprises nine sections, although four of them are in familiar categories of raw fish: Sushi (NIS 19-43), Sushi Station (NIS 22-60), Nigiri (NIS 10-34) and Sashimi (NIS 37-72). The other sections are Small Bites (NIS 18-56); Yakitori, seasoned with teriyaki or salt (NIS 18-26); Robata, slow roasting over a traditional grill (NIS 16-37, with a more expensive seasonal specialty); Hot Kitchen, including tempura (NIS 26-59, and sirloin steak for NIS 135); and Ramen (NIS 44-60). There are symbols on the menu identifying vegan and vegetarian dishes, plus those that contain seafood.
 We started with the Iburigakko cream cheese, discs of Japanese radish topped with cream cheese. As Grossman explains, the radish is pickled and then smoked in coffee, before being crowned with swirling mounds of chiffony cream cheese. Even his Japanese customers were astonished to find this dish on the menu, so it is not surprising that this is one of those rare treats not to be encountered anywhere else in the country. The delicate white cheese practically evaporates on the tongue, but the dish still packs a lot of flavor. 
Our second “small bite” was Banban-Ji, steamed chicken breast that had been marinated in Japanese soy sauce and sesame oil. The delicious chicken virtually melts in the mouth; and even though it is served at room temperature, it leaves behind a pleasant tingle of heat.
Our yakitori skewers were Momo, morsels of tender pullet, and Ozura Yaki, quail eggs in tare, a teriyaki glaze. Quail eggs are typically served here raw to be mixed in with tartare, so it was interesting – and enjoyable – to taste them cooked hard. These terrific yakitori were gone all too quickly.
From the Hot Kitchen, we were given a preview of a menu item about to be introduced: baby back ribs. The succulent meat was fall-off-the-bone tender, and managed to convey the sensations of salty and sweet simultaneously.
Also from Hot Kitchen is Nasu Miso – eggplant cooked in a slightly sweet miso sauce, with or without seafood. We chose the version with calamari and shrimps; together, the vegetable and seafood added up to a symphony of flavors and textures.
The tempura here includes the usual suspects – shrimp, a variety of vegetables – but Grossman had yet another surprise up his sleeve: corn tempura, the light batter studded with fresh yellow kernels. We had great fun alternating dipping this discovery in salt or dashi sauce.
Finally, another unparalleled specialty of the house: the Ebi Cream Croquette – a corn and shrimp fritter in bechamel sauce. Like its predecessors, it is almost indescribably good.
We were not allowed to leave without sampling some sushi, which is served as it is in Japan: mostly fish, with very little rice. Needless to say, the fish is extremely fresh.
Desserts here are not listed on the printed menu, as they rotate; instead, they are explained by the knowledgeable wait staff. Our matcha ice cream with Japanese bean paste and flan-like vanilla pudding (made from rice) were both light and not too sweet.
Not kosher
Nahalat Binyamin 57, Tel Aviv
Tel. (052) 544-3772
The writer was a guest of the restaurant.