Shalom, Serafina

Israel welcomes the newest international outlet of an Italian-American chain.

Serafina (photo credit: AMIR MENACHEM)
(photo credit: AMIR MENACHEM)
When a group of seasoned Israeli restaurant entrepreneurs invests millions in launching the first Tel Aviv branch of a fast-growing global franchise, the grand opening generally takes place with great fanfare. Yet this was not the case when the trendy Serafina quietly opened its doors this month on a tranquil, upscale street in residential Ramat Aviv.       Serafina is a chain of Italian restaurants that first gained prominence in New York City, where it has 11 eateries, and has now grown to encompass 37 restaurants around the world. Israel’s venue has a sleek, modern look, with interior mirrors and floor-to-ceiling glass walls overlooking the street. There is no al fresco seating area yet, but one – as well as a smoking area – is planned. 
Talking about future plans, there are no specialty cocktails yet, although they are in the works. Similarly, the restaurant is open only evenings, for dinner, to start. Serafina’s soft opening was preceded by invitations to small groups of journalists to sample a limited tasting menu.
According to the chef – a sous chef plucked from one of Tel Aviv’s top restaurants, then trained in a Serafina restaurant in New York – the menu is modeled on the chain’s standard one, “with adaptations to accommodate Israelis’ tastes.” Apparently, however, no one remembered how widespread veganism has become here, since there are no vegan options once you get past the house focaccia (NIS 22), a simple affair served with unremarkable dips of mild tomato salsa, and olive oil with balsamic vinegar.
The food menu comprises no fewer than eight sections: Appetizers (NIS 46-68); Intermediates (NIS 48-76); Pasta (NIS 62-112); Pizza (NIS 62-98); Mains (NIS 74-138); Sides (NIS 22); Kids (NIS 52-56); and Desserts (NIS 28-44). The intermediate dishes include two pasta variations – risotto and gnocchi – while the pasta category has not a single one al forno (from the oven – not even that perennial favorite, lasagna. 
Our tasting menu started off with the beef carpaccio, which would not have been something I would have ordinarily chosen. But I was to be more than just pleasantly surprised: the razor-thin slices of prime beef, dusted with the merest hint of Parmesan cheese and freshly ground black pepper, plus rocket leaves for a refreshing counterpoint, added up to the best beef carpaccio I have had in recent memory. 
Our second appetizer was the sea fish crudo: morsels of raw yellowtail, marinated in an intriguing combination of olive oil, pistachio nuts, mint and chili – a mélange that added up to somewhat less than the sum of its parts. 
Our intermediate dish was the gnocchi – pillows of potato pasta that skillfully incorporated mascarpone cheese into the potato dough, creating an especially light, fluffy and tasty version. My only quibble was that the gnocchi was served in a spicy arrabiata sauce, which in and of itself was excellent, but which slightly overwhelmed the delicate pasta; in my opinion, a cream sauce would have been better choice. 
The pasta chosen to represent the category of the same name was the Lamb Strozzapreti. The savory red wine and butter sauce with shredded lamb, sun-dried tomatoes and goat cheese was outstanding, although the thin tubes of pasta were overcooked practically to the point of being soggy. On the other hand, it was pointed out to us that Israelis, unlike Italians, tend not to like their pasta al dente; evidently, therefore, this was a case of local preferences winning out over classical cuisine.
The Serafina menu boasts that the restaurant’s pizzas are made in “the best pizza oven in the world" and will be served the minute they are ready. It was all the more disappointing, therefore, when the pizza crust emerged tasting more like a thick, soft cracker than a properly leavened Neapolitan-style base. The good news is that the cheese and toppings were very good, whether it was the piquant pepperoni, or the truly inventive fish pizza: tomato sauce, sardines, anchovies, capers, baked potato and goat cheese. 
When we got to the Main Courses category on the menu, we were in for another shock: There was not a single Italian dish listed – no eggplant parmigiana, no veal scaloppine, nothing of the sort, only Israeli staples, like schnitzel and meat on a skewer, as if it were just another neighborhood steakiya. Needless to say, we passed. 
The desserts, for the most part, represented a return to an Italian theme. There was a tiramisu described as “classic,” which was anything but, since it was deconstructed, and topped with a thin wafer of chocolate candy. The torta caprese, meanwhile, was chocolate cake accompanied by chocolate ice cream – a real chocolate extravaganza. 
The wine list is another work in progress at Serafina. We were able to enjoy a Pinot Grigio from Italy, but a California Cabernet Sauvignon was also served chilled.
There is reason to believe that with a reputation to uphold, Serafina will work out its early kinks, perhaps around the time its English menu is ready to debut, in a couple of weeks.