Tel Aviv Cuisine: Ambitious chef Shay Tene opens Leyla bar-restaurant

Leyla focuses on Israeli-Middle Eastern cuisine, drawing inspiration from the Yemenite neighborhood it abuts.

A table at Leyla bar-restaurant in Tel Aviv (photo credit: Courtesy)
A table at Leyla bar-restaurant in Tel Aviv
(photo credit: Courtesy)
At the very edge of the Kerem HaTeimanim quarter in Tel Aviv, close to the rear entrance of Shuk HaCarmel, sits a tiny bar that could easily be described as a neighborhood dive. Consisting primarily of a long, fully-stocked bar, the dimly lit premises contain just four tables flanked by the same kind of low-backed leather stools that line the bar. 
The space was filled with loud music, which we had to ask be lowered. As Leyla fills up, it can also grow noisy from the voices of other patrons. Although it is not an unpleasant venue, neither is it necessarily the intimate kind of place for a romantic date.
Leyla is the domain of chef-owner Shay Tene, who also owns and runs the kitchen of Hakovshim, a cafe-restaurant located right across the street. Tene has expanded the range of his cuisine along with the scope of his operations. While Hakovshim serves sandwiches and classical “Jewish food,” Leyla focuses on Israeli-Middle Eastern cuisine, drawing inspiration from the Yemenite neighborhood it abuts.   
In fact, spices typical of the Yemenite quarter feature rather prominently – uniquely, even – in some of the house’s five specialty cocktails (NIS 46-52). For example, we sampled the Daiquiri Gat – rum, lime juice, gat syrup, molasses and fenugreek – and the Kerem Fizz – vodka infused with sage and lemon grass, lemon juice, za’atar syrup and ginger beer. The former was served neat in a martini glass, and was redolent with the flavors of its distinctive spices and the syrup containing the stimulant gat plant, while the latter was served on the rocks in a tall glass and garnished with a large sprig of sage, and which was pleasantly refreshing.    
As we sipped our drinks, we perused the bilingual food menu, which was rather perplexing in its discrepancies between the Hebrew and English. Moreover, the fixed-price dinner menu, like the cocktail menu, are in Hebrew only. Unlike the reaction of most restaurants, which is to be defensive, Tene apologized, explaining that they had been taken by surprise by an unexpected influx of tourists. He promised to fix the English menus soon, with the problems soon rectified.
THE menu comprises five sections: “Open a table,” a literal translation of the Hebrew expression signifying appetizers (NIS 19-62); “From the grill” (NIS 58-150); “Skewers” (NIS 44-68); “From the kitchen” (NIS 29-41); and “Desserts” (NIS 21-38). There are not many vegan/vegetarian options, but the ones we tried were very satisfying. 
We started with the charcuterie – duck breast, pastrami and bresaola, all cured in-house and served with a generous dollop of Dijon mustard and several cornichons. All three dried meats were bursting with flavor that belied the appearance of the thin strips of dark meat. 
The charcuterie was accompanied nicely by the house bread, actually thick poppy seed bread sticks, served warm and fresh, with three dips: tehina, mild tomato salsa and pickled lemon. There are free refills of the dips, but it is likely you’ll run out of bread first. 
The intriguingly named Grilled Garden was actually assorted vegetables – mushrooms, parsnip and onion – threaded on a skewer and served alongside a wedge of lettuce and scorched tomato. The fresh vegetables were lightly grilled to a perfect al-dente texture, and drizzled with an outstanding thick dressing of poppy seed, honey and lemon. 
The ceviche at Leyla is unlike any other you are likely to encounter. The tiny morsels of marinated raw fish seasoned with tiny slivers of chili were buried in a mound of green herbs slathered in a dressing of raw tehina and silan. Surprisingly, the fish was more of an afterthought than the main event, but the dish as a whole was eminently satisfying.  
In the “From the grill” category, we were dismayed to learn that two of the five dishes of lamb and beef were not available, precisely the ones we were planning to order. Fortunately, the rosemary lamb chops we ordered instead more than compensated for our temporary disappointment. The two lamb chops were positively succulent and were polished off in short order. 
There were only three desserts on the menu and the descriptions were short on detail. We eventually chose the Coco pecan and the Malabi tapioca: the latter was unremarkable, but the former – a ball of coconut milk sorbet smothered in a crust of caramelized chopped pecans – was a delightful finale to a fine meal. 
No coffee is on the menu, but Leyla will bring it in from its neighboring sister restaurant upon request. Over a closing chaser of Don Julio Tequila, we toasted the efforts of the energetic Tene as he and his diamond-merchant partners launch their latest venture.  
The writer was a guest of the restaurant. 

Not kosher
HaKovshim St. 55, Tel Aviv
Phone: 03-656-1636