The cuisine of Israel is finally having the moment it deserves. Chefs are showcasing the eminently shareable, elegantly rustic fare at restaurants that embrace the traditions of the Holy Land, as well as its neighbors in the Middle East and North Africa. If you can’t travel there this summer, take a trip here in the states by way of one of these Here five gadol (awesome) modern Israeli restaurants to dine at right now.
Zahav, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Since opening in 2008, James Beard Award winner Michael Solomonov’s restaurant has been setting the gold standard for modern Israeli restaurants in the States (its name even means ‘gold’ in Hebrew). The menu is stripped down, straightforward, and supremely satisfying. You must begin with salatim; whatever they have on hand will be more than delicious. Yes, you must order the hummus. Scoop all of this up with warm, toothsome laffa bread fresh from the wood-fired oven. Then proceed to mix and match the small plates and grilled goodies. If you can’t make up your mind, the Tayim menu offers a little taste of everything. Make a reservation at Zahav.
Sababa, Washington, D.C.
The latest venture from serial restaurateur Ashok Bajaj (Rasika, Bibiana, The Oval Room, and others) takes its name from the Hebrew word for “cool” – and it lives up to its moniker. Executive chef Ryan Moore, a veteran of Minibar and Rogue 24, presides over the kitchen turning out dishes close to his heart; he spent time working in Dubai and his stepmother is Egyptian. Salatim – a collection of five dips and spreads, including thicker-than-Greek-yogurt labneh enriched with garlic and sweet, earthy beetroot relish – is a must. So is the super svelte hummus served warm with puffy pitas dusted with za’atar spice. The remainder of the menu is divided into small plates, large plates, and kebabs. Make a reservation at Sababa.
Shaya, New Orleans, Louisiana
The restaurant’s namesake is no longer in the kitchen, but Alon Shaya’s vision still shines brightly at the James Beard Award-winning spot. Start with an array of salatim, making sure to include ikra (paddlefish caviar spread), lutenitsa (roasted peppers, garlic, eggplant, and tomatoes), and labneh. Obviously, you need to order hummus. A version topped with lamb ragu and crispy, crunchy chickpeas is the way to go. Small plates are delightful, full of flavor and color, like challah toast dressed up with foie gras and tomato jam, and halloumi cheese brightened with lemon and fresh herbs. Those in search of a heftier proposition would be well served by ordering the bone-in lamb shank or the grilled chicken thigh. Make a reservation at Shaya.
RAY, Portland, Oregon
Chef Jenn Louis was named one of Food & Wine’s “Best New Chefs” and been nominated twice for a “Best Chef: Northwest” James Beard Award. Once the food starts arriving, you’ll know why. An epic egg-dotted, tomato-rich shakshuka for four can be amped up with merguez sausage or Israeli salad. The shawarma burger features a pair of lamb patties, crunchy sheets of iceberg lettuce, and harissa with a slow after-burn (don’t forget to order the skin-on, shawarma-seasoned fries spotted with garlic cloves and jalapeño rings). There’s hummus three ways, including a clever carrot hummus with braised lamb. And there’s a rainbow of small plates worth exploring, such as olives marinated in sesame and almonds, a coffee-braised egg zipped with za’atar spice, and a hearty lamb flatbread. Make a reservation at Ray.
Jack’s Wife Freda–Lafayette Street, New York, New York
New York magazine dubs it “South African Israeli Jewish Grandmother Cuisine.” The ever-bustling bistro’s diverse menu reflects these sprawling roots. Those options with Israeli pedigree include everything from grilled halloumi cheese and spiced beet dip to green shakshuka and matzo ball soup. There are choices with more American lineage: a burger topped with grilled tomato and fried onions, crab cakes, and a play on avocado toast featuring cherry tomato jam, pickled carrots, and za’atar. And then there’s just clever comfort food, such as rosewater waffles coronated with Lebanese yogurt, an egg sandwich buttressed with duck prosciutto and cheddar béchamel, and sirloin steak with maître d’hôtel butter and frites. Make a reservation at Jack’s Wife Freda.
What are your favorite modern Israeli restaurants? Let us know in the comments or over on Facebook, G+, Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter. And, remember to snap + share your #dishpics with us on Instagram for a chance to win in our weekly giveaway.
Nevin Martell is a Washington, D.C.-based food and travel writer and the author of several books, including Freak Show Without A Tent: Swimming with Piranhas, Getting Stoned in Fiji and Other Family Vacations. Find him on Twitter @nevinmartell and Instagram @nevinmartell.
Photo credits: Michael Persico (Zahav); Randy Schmidt (Shaya); Greg Powers (Sababa).