Israel presents quite the conundrum for me since it's not only host to some of the most gorgeous beaches (and bodies) in the world but the feasting opportunities are plentiful.
Falafel, hummus, shakshuka, couscous – all gastronomic delights characteristic of Israeli food incorporating elements of various styles of diaspora Jewish cuisine, particularly the Mizrahi, Sephardic and Ashkenazi styles of cooking. The question is: Do I choose to maintain a somewhat fit beach body or do I engage in ab-destroying bingefest of all the drool-worthy food to be found throughout the country?
For me, food will trump any and everything, every time but I've always been a "have your cake and eat it too" kind of person – or more accurately, "have your cake and everyone else's too" – so I've employed numerous strategies so I can frolic on the beach without impeding my compulsion to eat everything within reach.
Firstly, pack a lot of muumuus, sarongs, and stretchy-waisted pants. Secondly, take advantage of the fact that one-piece bathers are back in style. And finally, when all else fails, hire a stripper to create a diversion and run into the water for cover while everyone is looking the other way.
OR you could not give AF what other people think, embrace your healthy body, and willfully ignore your inevitable fate of being homebound once your legs can no longer withstand your weight. All great options.
In that case, here is a deliciously curated guide to help you feast your way through Israel:
Where: Bar Ochel
The tantalizing scent of grilled meat weaves it's way around Carmel Market, beckoning you to take a seat at a bar stool of this centrally-located, open-air spot out of the chaotic melee. Who needs a book when you can keep people-watch? The bonus is that your hands are left free to dig in to delectably vibrant dishes like the Jerusalem Mixed Grill of flavourful chicken breast, liver and onions with fresh grilled veggies, drizzled in rich tahini. The Balkan Shakshuka is another hit with eggplant and creamy feta cheese.
FOR 24/7 BREAKFAST
Whether you wake up with the sun or roll out of bed at noon suffering from a wicked hangover, around-the-clock breakfast is always a good idea. This Tel Aviv institution is a great pick to satisfy your eggs benedict cravings and to have your hair of the dog with a rejuvenating mimosa. If your tastes are more wordly, their menu also includes morning favs from around the world like the crunchy chilaquiles with tart sour cream and chunks of avocado. And don't you dare leave without trying their buttermilk pancakes with blueberry compote!
FOR AUTHENTIC CUISINE WITH HISTORY:
Venture into the depths of the Iraqi market of the Machane Yehuda shuk in Jerusalem to find authentic, homestyle Middle Eastern cuisine that will have you drooling for days after. This legendary spot was a favorite of the underground leaders of the Jewish community before Israel was made a state and has been serving up Turkish-inspired delicacies since 1952. Dine on the sumptuous oxtail stew with gigantic, glistening fall-off-the-bone hunks of meat in a spicy sauce and/or eggplant stuffed with meat along with tomatoes and onions.
FOR A COOL-CROWD VIBE:
Where: Port Said
Hang out with the cool kids at this bustling nighttime hub that's overrun with the attractive and trendy crowd of Tel Aviv. Grab a seat at the bar to watch the kitchen crew in action while delighting in paper-thin slices of beef carpaccio drenched in a refreshing blend of tomato seeds, spicy pepper and a generous pour of olive oil. The perfectly seasoned minute steak with tahini is another great option for meat-lovers but if you lean more towards the herbivore side, the mesabaha of lima bean is steller, especially if you're hummus-obsessed.
FOR YOUR LOCAL GO-TO SPOT:
If you lived in Jerusalem, this spot would become your much-loved local go-to spot to dine, not only for the gorgeous interior – all clean lines and marble tables – but for their culinary prowess and entrepreneurial spirit. It doesn't hurt that there is a 2-for-1 afternoon cocktail special either ;) All marble tables and teal leather booths, the interior is flooded with light and the food served is bursting with flavour.
Delight in the savoury crab risotto piled generously with parmesan shavings before tucking into ribbons of seafood pappardelle studded with succulent prawns and juicy mussels. The couscous salad provided a welcome contrast – a saturated melange of zucchini, pumpkin, cauliflower, hazelnut, cranberries and tahini.
FOR A GRAB-AND-GO SNACK:
Where: English Cake
You don't always have the luxury to sit down and savour a meal but that doesn't mean your tastebuds should suffer! On the way to a walking tour of the Old City in Jerusalem, we didn't want to risk being late so we stopped by this bakery for some pastries that were so fresh they were still warm from the oven. Opt for the local treat of bourekas – heavenly triangular pockets of flaky perfection stuffed with cheese. Bite in to this buttery parcel and know that all is right in the world, especially on a full belly.
FOR THE HEALTH NUT:
Where: Neroli Healthfood
Not getting enough fruits and veggies on your travels? Do you body a solid by dropping by Neroli Healthfood Store and Diner while wandering the Neve Tzedak neighbourhood for juices and smoothies loaded with heaps of vitamins to set your body right. This is ideal to offset the excessive alcohol consumption expected of those fully immersed in the Tel Aviv nightlife. Chose from an extensive and colourful list of drinks and peruse the glass case counter brimming with energy-boosting treats like protein balls.
FOR A CHILL AFTERNOON MEAL:
Where: Café Puaa
No list of places to eat in Tel Aviv would be complete without this beloved iconic spot in ancient Jaffa. Lounge on retro floral couches amid vintage flea market finds and cool down with an iced americano while munching on chilled and grilled eggplant with crème fraîche and sprinkled with finely chopped herbs before ploughing into roasted cauliflower accompanied by garlic aioli. Banish any lingering hunger pangs with fluffy gnocchi with a rich chestnut sauce.
FOR THE BEST HUMMUS:
Where: Abu Hassan
You can't go to Israel without trying their hummus even knowing full well that it will ruin you for life. No other hummus that you can find back home will ever compare to this creamy tahini bomb, served with raw chunks of onion and warm pita. It's considered a breakfast staple so Abu Hassan closes at 4pm or whenever they run out of this glorious chickpea blend.
FOR A GASTRONOMIC PARTY:
Dining at this lively spot is a boisterous affair – equal parts gastronomic delight and festive celebration. It's widely acclaimed as one of the best (if not THE best) restaurant in Israel, helmed by celeb chef Asaf Granit and boasts a menu that changes twice daily to feature fresh produce from the nearby market it’s named after. Jump on the tables and dance alongside the servers with music blaring in the background before settling to munch on a refreshing fish tartare on a square of watermelon or the cured sea bream with apricot, creme fraiche, grape honey, and drizzled with rich olive oil. Don't miss out of the expertly cooked mushroom risotto with fragrant truffle and thick parmesan shavings.
FOR THE DESSERT-LOVING NIGHT OWL:
Where: Cremerie De L’Éclair
If you have a sweet tooth, there's no way you can pass by the heavenly scent of baking pastries and sugary, creamy ice creams wafting all over the Dizengoff bar scene (till 4am no less, to accomodate the late night crowd). The inexplicable "sauce udders" hanging from the ceiling are a bit concerning (albeit practical?) but you'll be too distracted trying to choose between 60 flavours of ice cream to go with your French pastry of choice. Eclairs and croissants and brioche, oh my!
FOR THE GRAB-AND-GO DINER:
Sometimes you don't have the time or the energy for a fancy sit-down establishment and but crave more than disappointing, lackluster fast food options. Grab some grub at the popular snack bar, Jasmino, doling out pitas that are literally bursting with drool-inducing, charcoal grilled meaty goodness – including kebabs, chicken, housemade sausage, and spicy veal heart – smoky onions, hot peppers, and drenched in saucy tahini goodness.
FOR A STYLISH BRUNCH BUFFET:
Where: Café 65
Take advantage of the bright blue skies that dominate the weather in Tel Aviv by snagging a spot on the patio at this hotel café. Select from a list of brunch entrées like the decadent green shakshuka with plump eggs cooked in a creamy mixture of marigold and spinach or the buttery croissant with gouda and topped with a fried egg. Don't forget to peruse the extensive buffet inside and treat yourself to chocolate babka and a glass of chilled beet juice.