Food festival – Nahalat Binyamin 3

In the last week there has been a mini food festival (Sorry, both links in Hebrew only), involving 7 restaurants in the Nahalat Binyamin St. in Tel-Aviv. This is the third such event (And the first I attended, or was aware of), which they have been doing at half-year intervals.

Officially (In practice some offered a wider selection) each of the involved restaurants offered, for the duration of the festival, a selection of three main courses, and one desert, for a fixed price of 20 ILS per serving. This is lower than the usual price at these places, but many of the dishes were also smaller, so this was more of a sampler than just a meal discount. Which is fine, given that this is the idea behind a food festival.

I have been in the nearby area in the past, but was not personally familiar with any of the involved restaurants. Some came recommended by people I know, and some were complete unknowns. Not a bad thing, given that this was a perfect opportunity to try them out.

When reaching the area, we (I went with a friend) started by walking around a bit to get a general impression of some of the places, and the crowds. We went on a regular weekday, not on the weekend, but the restaurants were still crowded. And we were amused to notice that the order by which the restaurants were listed on all the festival posters hanging on the streets, was the same order they were physically located along the street. Rather convenient, since you can plan ahead easily by simply reading the list of offered dishes, and glancing around.

One of the restaurants, L’entrecôte, was supposed to be a French meat restaurant. But it’s kosher. Now, and I cannot stress this enough, you do not want, under nearly any circumstances, to eat kosher meat. The exception being if you had the misfortune of eating only kosher meat your entire life, in which case you don’t know how much you’re suffering. But after eating meat that has not been so ruined, the thing is very hard to make edible. Kosher meat means that the meat was covered with salt, in sufficient amounts and time for all the blood to be sucked out. And then, because the left meat is salty and dry (nice for a jerky, not so nice for a steak or anything else), most distributors wash it (gets the salt out, but ruins the texture and the taste even further), and add all sorts of chemical softeners (so it’s not so hard, but it also loses whatever little meatlike consistency it had left, and gains a noticeable chemical taste). Scary stuff.

Not only that, but if the place is kosher, and serves meat, this means you won’t find any sort of dairy products around. Can’t mix meat and dairy when it’s kosher. That means no dish whatsoever, desserts included, will have stuff like cheese, butter, or cream.

So this one restaurant we skipped, and I don’t have any first-hand knowledge about the level of cooking there.

One item worth mentioning was that they put their security guard (sitting outside near the entrance) right in front of the festival poster for their place. So unless you knew they were a part of the festival, you could have easily missed the poster and assume they weren’t. And you couldn’t take a quick look at the dishes they offer without peeking behind the guard’s back.

A second item worth mentioning about them is that they seemed to have joined the festival as default, rather than out of any conscious decision. They had an unrelated page on the window with “seasonal specials” (or something like that, I don’t recall the exact phrasing they used), containing a much wider selection of dishes at the same 20 ILS price. All they had to do was to say they’re in, and randomly pick some of the already discounted dishes to be included in the festival menu.

The best place of the evening was Tahel. One of the places that also came recommended to me in advance, and generally have a very good reputation. There was a line of people waiting to be seated, but unlike the other places they also had an outside window where you could order the festival dishes in discardable plates, and walk with them (or, as we did, catch one of the outside chairless tables). This sped things up noticeably, and we didn’t have to wait at all.

They had their own menu of festival dishes there, which included more courses than those included in the official festival listing. Still, the ones we sampled were among the four on the official menu.

One of their dishes that we tried was a shrimp bisque, which was very good. The other was deep-fried risotto balls with lamb meat and pine nuts. According to the lists this should have came with a yoghurt sauce. But it came with tahini instead, which combined with the fried balls motif gave it a strong resemblance to falafel. Still, it was quite good as well. Certainly a place I plan to return to sometime.

Across the street was Chuka, a new Asian and seafood restaurant. There was a lot of clutter near the entrance, but I am not sure what exactly it was about, since once we went past the people we could enter the place easily, there was no line, and there were free seats. We were greeted by a host, and offered to seat either at a table, or near the bar. We chose the bar, which turned out to may not have been the best choice, as it took some time for the barman to address us, while waitresses were more actively running around the tables.

Here too we were presented with menus that had a wider selection that the officials. It was a bit unclear, though, whether it was something for the festival, or a general menu, since the menu mostly consisted of photos of the dishes, with labels but sans prices, and didn’t say a word about the festival. It was ambiguous enough that we asked the barman to make sure these were all the discounted dishes included in the festival, and not some regular menu of theirs.

We wanted to order a Calamari dish, but were told they’re out of Calamari (WTF?! How the heck does a restaurant dealing with seafood can be out of a major ingredient? That’s awful planning). We were told, however, that there is a new dish, of shrimps, in the festival menu instead. We opted for the replacement dish, and also ordered a second dish, a paella.

The shrimps were good, but the dish was very small. Four medium shrimps only, which makes it a little more than 1$ equivalent per shrimp. Steep price. The paella was also quite good, and we both liked it. We were a little amused by it having a shrimp inside as well, to compensate for the very few pieces of Calamari in it. I guess the last few went into the last batch of paella…

While we were eating, a couple of young women came over, and also sat at the bar. They looked at the special menu very puzzled, and when the barman approached asked him if that’s all that they serve there. The guy answered that it’s not, it’s just the festival menu. From the look of them, it was obvious that they had no idea what he was talking about, or that the festival was taking place. They asked if they can get a regular menu. The barman then looked very puzzled himself (Not used to having actual customers on regular days?), but went away and managed to come back a little later with a full menu.

Actually, the area is far from being dead, even in the middle of the week. Not only this street, but some of the nearby streets, are regular evening hangouts, with plenty of restaurants, coffee shops, and bars. So I guess there were quite a few more people who came for a quiet evening out, only to discover everything is crowded, and that there’s a festival going on. But most of the people around were clearly ordering the festival dishes, whether they came for them originally or not.

Another place we decided to skip was Dinitz. It’s more of a coffee shop than a restaurant, so while the food may be good (I have no idea how is their level of cooking) there was nothing on the menu very appealing. One of the festival dishes was fish&chips, for example. Could be quite decent, but not my idea of interesting gourmet cooking. If they had any extra dishes not on the official festival menu, they didn’t put the list outside, so we had no way to find out about it.

The next one we sampled was Fabiana, an Italian restaurant. It actually took us a bit longer than intended to get there, since while all the other places are right on Nahalat Binyamin St., this one is slightly to the side into one of the side streets. So we just kept walking down the street, not seeing it. Not a long detour, it’s not such a long street, and as we went all the way back we discovered it was directly across the side street on the corner Dinitz was on, and we could have saved ourselves the time had we bothered to look around a bit instead of starting to walk.

We ordered two dishes here as well. The size of the portions was quite impressive for the reduced price, which was very nice. However the waitress was a bit confused, or not paying attention, and we got one of the dishes we asked for, and one that we didn’t. We notified the waitress, who apologized and went to replace the dish with what we actually ordered. As an interesting observation, it took them quite a few minutes between our order and the time they delivered the dishes, yet it took about half a minute to replace the one we didn’t ask for with the one we did. The jury is still out on whether they have everything ready and were delaying to make it appear like they’re making a fresh plate, or whether they exchanged our order with another one and this was simply a matter of exchanging them back once both errors were noticed.

One dish was Strozzapreti (aka Priest Chokers. No, seriously) pasta in spinach, Gorgonzola, and nuts. It was very nice, but the Gorgonzola was hardly noticeable. True, Gorgonzola isn’t the strongest blue cheese out there, but if it’s in a sauce the taste should be distinct and obvious, it wasn’t.

The other was one of their deserts, Ricotta ravioli in Cinzano and caramelized fruits (In this case being Mango, Kiwi, and something else that was in small quantities, and delicate taste, so I didn’t recognize. Maybe peach). The sauce was very nice, and the dish is an interesting (in a good way) idea for a desert. My only problem with it was that the ravioli filling was a little bit too dry. Had it been a little softer and smooth, and maybe a little sweeter, the dish would have been excellent.

Overall a nice place, though the waitresses seemed quite unused to the amount of people. Interestingly enough, we also saw a large number of people eating, and drinking, things that were not on the festival menu. As I mentioned before, it did happen sometime on the other locations, but here it was more apparent. This could be an indication that their regular menu is much better, and maybe those people were returning customers and so decided not to take advantage of the festival menu. If so, the place warrants a second visit.

We tried to enter another one of the restaurants, Betty Ford. Another place that has a good name. Unfortunately, they have good enough a name that there were long lines each and every time we passed nearby. Not that we were in a hurry, but waiting for 20 minutes (estimate of their own guy at the entrance. I’d expect that they usually try to underestimate the time, even, so as not to scare people away) in line just to taste their dishes strike us as a bit too much. The long lines, and the fact that the lines were maintained all through the evening, are probably an indication that the place is worth visiting as well, though.

And last, there was Brown, on which I also received some personal recommendations. Including one on a dish they had on the last such festival, though it wasn’t on the menu now. Actually, none of the main course dishes they had on the menu seemed unique or appealing this time, so we only tried their desert, a chocolate cake with ice cream. It was nice for a chocolate Soufflé, but not amazing. Especially considering that due to simple unplanned timing issue I ate over the past week a few mini-chocolate-Soufflés I made myself, which were better in both taste and texture, so they lost by comparison.

The place was very crowded, and so it took a relatively long time to get the attention of the waitress. There were also a few people at the bar who looked decidedly drunk, but still at the level where they were having good fun.

Food isn’t everything, though, and they also had festival-wide deals on drinks. A selection of wines could be had, with the first glass costing 20 ILS (like the dishes), and subsequent refills by any of the inlcuded wine types costing only 15 ILS. And yes, refills mean that you take the glass with you (Let me tell you, walking down the street holding a wine glass in the hand is a strange experience). The wine glass is included in the price of the first glass. A potentially good deal, but the selection of wines was far from impressive, including mostly some mediocre local wines. For some odd reason they also decided to be confusing, letting each restaurant name the wines by its own preference. Some gave more details, some less, some gave different partial details from each others. It was quite confusing, and while the wines were pretty much the same in all the places, it took us a while to be certain of that, instead of assuming that they managed to find an incredibly large amount of uninteresting wines.

We did have a glass each of the only one there to our linking, a very nice Cabernet Sauvignon from Argentina, from the La Consulta brand of Finca La Celia. Which it took us a while to realize was there, since true to the inconsistent descriptions, almost none of the restaurants we’ve been through bothered to write “Finca La Celia” on it in their menu.

They had a similar deal with beers, different prices for 1/2 litre or 1/3 litre, where the first glass costs more but includes the glass, and refills are cheaper (The prices weren’t high for beers, but I do know some nice bars, even not so distant from there, that normally serve good beer at similar prices). However the beer offer was limited to only one brand, Goldstar, which can best be described as insipid. About the only good thing I can say about this beer is that it’s not as horrible as the other two local brands (Nesher, and Maccabi). Then again, some people disagree with me on that, as was evident by the fact that we did see people drinking it. Most peculiar, but you can’t argue about taste. Especially not with people who don’t have it.

Some of the restaurants in the Nahalat Binyamin area seemed really nice, I’ll be going there again to give them a more personal examination. All in all it was a fun evening, though not as culinarily interesting as something like a really big food festival. But hey, can’t have everything, and it certainly matched up to my expectations.

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