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The Art of the Tomato

Visiting Tel Aviv at the height of summer can only mean one thing. Well, several things really, if you want to consider people walking around the seafront in the skimpiest of swimwear, epic water hikes, and dripping sweat on long bus rides. But to me, Tel Aviv summer is all about the gorgeous fresh produce. After spending four months eating apples and oranges, the bounty of stone fruits is most welcome. But the most iconic of the summer fruits is….the cherry tomato.

Let me explain. Israelis invented the cherry tomato and perfected it to the point that they make an excellent substitute for candy. At one point, they were irrigating the cherry tomato plants with salt water to ensure maximum sweetness but they took it too far and the fruits were sweeter than Coke. As a result, between the months of May and September, the market vendors literally throw kilos and kilos of cherry tomatoes into your grocery bags in exchange for just a few shekels, or for free if their customer has breasts.

Restaurants also fall victim to the cherry tomato craze, and that’s exactly what happened when my wonderful partner and I went to eat nice food in Dizengoff Square. Located right across from the rainbow fountain, La Shuk (“the market” in Hebrew) is at first glance yet another vaguely Israeli fusion establishment. But as the food arrived at the table, there was something different, and it wasn’t just that there was labneh cheese in my tuna sashimi. The Levantine influence that so often finds its way into Israeli restaurants was unapologetic, which could mean only one thing: the chef was making his mother’s food. The Arabic style calligraphy on the signage was a dead giveaway, but ten hours worth of jet lag excuses my daftness on the issue at hand. Having authentic Levantine style food in a city full of chefs that hijack other people’s cuisines without standing in line is somewhat of a rarity.

But again, that wasn’t quite the experience at La Shuk. Yes, every dish on the menu had Palestinian influences, no, there was no hummus to be found. This was Palestinian food as it deserved to be known: refined, sexy, and global.

Naturally my partner and I knew none of this as we wandered in the restaurant looking like tourists in our used beachwear. Wincing at the sand in unmentionable places, we were sat down by the large window and immediately felt something was different. The table wasn’t sticky or designed for Lilliputians, all four legs even touched the floor. How luxurious! Reading the menu alone made my mouth water, rarely had I seen so many of my favorite ingredients in one place. Ceviche and tzaziki, calamari and oxtail, I was filled with wonder as to why this magical restaurant hadn’t yet become my cafeteria.

There was but one minor snafu. My relationship with food is changing, and so it seemed inappropriate to order one of everything. And so my partner and I bickered about the disadvantages of ordering cauliflower in tahini sauce when every other restaurant in Israel served a similar dish, and finally selected four dishes that would each be as delectable as the next. Tuna sashimi and beef tartare would start us off, followed by mullet on eggplant and confit chicken and yogurt. Done. We chatted about plans for the future and waited for our food with high expectations.

Less than five minutes later the sashimi arrived, and I was amused. Yes, the slices of tuna were plentiful and fresh. But also yes-they were sat in a nest of labneh (think cross between creme fraiche and cream cheese) and topped with the essential Arab salad composed of tomatoes and cucumbers. We dug in with enthusiasm, knowing that hell, why wouldn’t you put cheese with raw fish? And it was gorgeous. The silky smooth texture of the labneh perfectly complimented that lush tuna, and the salad brightened up the whole experience with its generous amount of sumac and pickled red onion. So far so good!

Tartare came next, and since I’ve had some crazy experiences with what should be a fairly straightforward dish, I was a little nervous. What madness would be proudly displayed on my plate this time? Surely it wouldn’t be as bad as the ground beef surrounded by a clock of onions and paprika that triggered a highly folkloric scene by yours truly. Laughing at that memory and a little irked at how quickly this tartare arrived, we were surprised. It was plated in a regulatory ring mold and the meat looked to be of nice quality. But for some strange reason, a cold soft boiled egg was sat in a little cup next to that lovely tartare. Sure, topping food with a raw egg yolk might not be the best idea during the heatwave that punctuated my stay in the already hot and sticky climate, but still. There is something so erotic about puncturing an egg yolk and watching it drip all over a neat cylinder of tartare…I felt slightly ripped off. So I unceremoniously grabbed the soft boiled travesty and went hunting for that golden goodness. I found a reasonably well cooked yolk at the center and instantly ruined the plate by glopping it on the tartare. Good enough. Well. That tartare was one of the best things I’ve eaten in years. Perfectly well balanced with loads of lemon and olive oil and not a caper in site, this was the perfect Levantine adaptation to the French classic. Still, I was wondering-where were my cherry tomatoes?

Piled high on our mains was the crucial answer. The impossibly cute server somewhat grumpily brought over two plates of what epitomizes Tel Aviv food. Colorful, vegetable heavy, and with food coma worthy portions, I couldn’t wait to dig in. I naturally went towards the chicken and was absolutely blown away. Not only was it scrumptious with its unique blend of spices and roasted cherry tomatoes, but I had no idea how it was prepared. The menu mentioned something about it being confit, but I got the feeling the original Hebrew term got lost in translation because there was very little of such characteristics about the meat. Sure, it was soft and tender, but there was also a fascinating char about it that I simply could not place. This was a question for the chef, so I asked the server if I could speak with him about the food. Unfortunately, language barrier was a thing and so this mysterious cooking method would forever remain as such.

I told myself it wasn’t worth obsessing about the chicken and instead focused on the fish, which was cooked to perfection. Lovely crispy skin protected flaky flesh and a bed of yogurt and eggplant caviar. The plate was finished with a small and tangy cherry tomato salad that woke up our palates from the torpor caused by the outside air temperature. We finished every last morsel on that plate and tried scraping the last bites in the most undignified fashion possible. Hey, compliments to the chef.

My partner and I hobbled out of the restaurant quite full but not heavy, as is typical of a Levantine meal. We spent the rest of the day wandering around Tel Aviv’s famous Carmel market and were handed cherry tomatoes with every step.

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