Tel Aviv is a foodie's paradise - a fine fusion of European and Middle Eastern cuisine. And low-cost flights have made a weekend discovery tour for the taste buds affordable
Israelis are fond of western favourites like super-fresh seafood(the local bream is outstanding), sizzling steaks and particularly, inventive salads and starters served mezze style - but familiar-sounding menu choices inevitably come with an exotic twist. Local chefs invariably use native ingredients like home-grown olive oil, tehina(sesame paste, usually mixed with lemon juice and garlic) and spices or spice mixes popular in the Middle East like zattar and sumac. Wherever you eat, always look for what may prove the ultimate dish of hummus, as every establishment puts its own twist on this national favourite.
The place to start culinary explorations, after an appetising morning stroll through the food stalls of Carmel Market, is Natalie Portman’s favourite eatery, Orna v’Ella on Sheinkin Street (33 Sheinkin Street; 00 972 3620 4573). Even if you don’t order their signature yam pancakes with creme fraiche they will be delivered to your table by waiters who know that, once tasted, they become an addiction. They are a perfect accompaniment to the salads and other light dishes this fashionable lunch spot fields. Expect to spend around 100 NIS.
At dinner time you’ll want to head for the miles of beach which line this buzzy city accurately dubbed Manhattan-on-the Med. There can be no better place to start a Tel Aviv dining odyssey than Manta Ray (Alma Beach; 00 972 3517 4773; www.mantaray.co.il), which adds the vibe of a California beach restaurant to a menu which fuses the best of European and Middle Eastern cuisine. You’ll see this in the platter of up to a dozen mezze they bring to the table for your perusal, with a loaf of the best home-baked bread in town. Although they also grill steaks, seafood is the great glory of Manta Ray, and my own dish of local crabs roasted and served on a bed of creamy, crab-laced polenta was absolutely memorable. They do brilliant breakfasts, too - this place jumps from 9am till midnight. Expect to pay around 150 for a good dinner.
Heading north up the prom towards the lively port area, the low modernist Dan Tel Aviv hotel building houses a free-standing gourmet eatery, Raphael (87 Hayarkon Street; 00 972 3522 6464). Considered by many as the best restaurant in Tel Aviv, it sets the tone beautifully with a little gourmet bottle of Israeli olive oil on every table to accompany the fabulous bread-basket - great bread is of prime importance to Israeli diners. I enjoyed a mosaic of Arava tomatoes - tiny, sweet jewels of many colours from deep in the desert - punctuated with slices of buffalo mozzarella - followed by their signature “fat cow” steak with marrowbone: absolutely yummy.
Night owls may prefer the clubby bar, which has its own menu, stays open till 1am and is welcoming to smokers - this diner prefers the elegance of the dedicated restaurant, with its ocean views. You're unlikely to spend less than 200 NIS per person in the main restaurant, a little less in the bar.
The prom itself is dominated by hotels, many serving a spectacular buffet breakfast comprising dozens of hot and cold dishes including local specialities like tahina salad. The finest spread of all is in one of the most affordable hotels, the Dan Panorama Tel Aviv Hotel, a budget relation of the Dan Tel Aviv which is almost opposite Manta Ray, a reason for booking in itself. But the main reasons I like this hotel are the efficient service, the fact virtually every room has a sea view, and the proximity to Neve Tzedek, the newly-happening neighbourhood just a couple of minutes walk inland.
The Panorama’s buffet includes shakshuka - a moreish dish of fried eggs in a spicy tomato sauce as good late as night as for breakfast. If you get the taste for it, explore authentic versions at Dr. Shakshua in Jaffa (Beit Eshel 3, Jaffa; http://drshakshuka.res-e.co.il), whose ancient Arabic alleys are an atmospheric place to spend the evening. Get there before midnight and expect to shell out £8 for your dish of eggs, tomatoes and chilies.
One eatery really worth going inland from the beach to explore at night is the Montefiore (36 Montefiore Street; 00 972 3564 6100), which also happens to be Tel Aviv’s best boutique hotel. Not that there’s a reception desk in what is really a restaurant and bar with rooms tucked into the trendy area of art galleries, restaurants and modernist buildings behind Rothschild Boulevard - whose bauhaus buildings have won the city World Heritage Site status.
Hotel Montefiore's cuisine is eclectic, Thai-inspired and heavy on seafood - Tel Aviv’s foodies absolutely adore their sushi. Solo travellers will particularly enjoy the big bar you can eat at and feel right in the heart of the action. For those who can afford the steepish prices, the rooms upstairs are a haven of contemporary chic, with some of the best toiletries in the world, including scrub and other extras. But they’re not soundproof, so this is strictly a hostelry for party animals - or those who travel with earplugs.
Wherever you stay and eat, do explore the local choices on the wine list. Israel is making some sensational wines, and reliable mid-price labels include Barkan, Dalton and Yarden. For connoisseurs, Castel, Flam and Yatir are the makers to look for.