When I was 7 my family moved from the Midwest, in the dead of winter, to Israel and everything shifted. Our snow boots gave way to sandals, blizzards turned into salty sea breezes and food that used to arrive wrapped in plastic came alive, in very real ways. On Friday mornings the poultry vendor would chase our Sabbath chicken around the market yard, until we heard the last strangled squawk. The oranges from our neighbor’s tree would spray juice when we halved them, and hummus was always spilling out of pita and running down our bare arms.
We left Israel before I entered high school and returned for short visits in the years that followed. But I hadn’t gone back for an extended visit until last year, around the same time the rest of the world was busy discovering the tastes I remembered. Israeli cuisine is having a huge global moment, from Jerusalem-born chef Yotam Ottolenghi’s network of Middle-Eastern restaurants in London to Alon Shaya’s Shaya, currently one of the toughest reservations in New Orleans. And all that excitement isn’t just an Israeli export. The Tel Aviv I knew, a relatively quiet, provincial town, has morphed into Israel’s largely secular trendsetter; new restaurants are debuting weekly. “We’re open to the world now,” chef Eytan Vanunu later told me, “in fashion, art, music and, of course, food.”
On this return trip, the proof of that voracious appetite, and Tel Aviv’s ascendance as style maker, were obvious my first day in town. I passed the Tel Aviv Museum of Art’s glossy new contemporary wing, and the warren of boutiques and galleries crowding the Neve Tzedek neighborhood, before my cab deposited me in the hipsterized Florentin district at Halutzim 3, the restaurant Mr. Vanunu runs with his partner, Naama Szterenlicht. Housed in a small renovated warehouse, the bistro is anchored by a recycled wood counter and filled with flea-market-find tables. But if the dining room’s casual design doesn’t suggest the dynamism of Israeli food, the amped-up menu unequivocally does. The parents of Mr. Vanunu and Ms. Szterenlicht variously came to Israel from Argentina, Poland, Germany and Morocco. A decade ago northern European Jewish (Ashkenazi) and southern (Sephardic) recipes would have ended up in different pots. But Mr. Vanunu and Ms. Szterenlicht, representing a new generation of Israeli chefs, bring all those international accents to the freshest local produce and turn out a coherent tumble of flavors. At Halutzim 3, my bowl of black lentils, true to Israel’s abiding vegetarian palate, came tossed with coriander, cured lemon, tomatoes, roasted almonds and goat yogurt. Unabashedly non-kosher, the kitchen also serves a challah loaf stuffed with minced pork and a calamari salad brightened by lime and parsley.
‘When you look at a national cuisine, it’s usually the history of a people. But we come from all over.’
“Israeli cuisine,” Mr. Vanunu told me, as he dished up the lentils, “is a dialogue that starts now. When you look at a national cuisine, it’s usually the history of a people. But we come from all over. The flavors on your plate aren’t just Naama and my own personal heritage. They also blend in lots of other strands of Israeli culture—Palestinian, Lebanese, Russian, Tunisian, Turkish, Algerian, Romanian, Bulgarian.” Add the growing number of French and Iraqi immigrants and Tel Aviv’s border-hopping food, taking shape before our eyes, is driven by an exuberant flavor profile that won’t be confined by any rigid tradition.
The lesson got reinforced that night when I dined at Yaffo Tel Aviv, an industrial-cool restaurant sitting at the base of downtown’s sleek Electra Tower. The standout hybrid dishes included a puffy focaccia that read more like pita, and an Italo-Israeli gnocchi with shavings of local goat cheese, for a taste of Tel Aviv on the Tiber.
The next morning, though, the very idea of another restaurant seemed claustrophobic. In a city where the sun rarely dives behind clouds, nobody stays inside too long, and Tel Aviv’s dense network of markets and street vendors do a brisk business. The choices are legion. Determined to recover a nostalgic taste of my childhood, I started just down the block from Halutzim 3 at the Levinksy Market, where the fruit stalls displayed pyramids of pomegranates and the market’s long-running Yom Tov Deli was selling cream cheese-stuffed hibiscus flowers in a dollhouse-sized storefront. “What’s good?” I stupidly asked the sale clerk. “Everything,” he said, with a classic Tel Aviv shrug, as I popped a rice-filled grape leaf in mouth, “We’re a deli.