For visitors from Britain, M25 is an unfortunate name, recalling as it does their capital’s orbital motorway; but aside from being jam-packed, Tel Aviv’s and London’s versions have happily little in common. The Israeli M25 is a small restaurant in the noisy, cramped Ha’Carmel district, named for the distance – 25 metres – from the high-end butcher that supplies its meat. Starters like ara’yes, a juicy, charcoal-toasted pitta-half filled with a lamb kebab and pickled ox tongue and served with home-made horseradish sauce, embody the two prevailing elements of today’s Israeli cuisine: the staples of Middle Eastern cooking and the diversity of the Jewish diaspora – with, in the case of the pickled tongue, a cheeky nod to an Ashkenazi culinary heritage.
For nearly two decades, Tel Aviv’s restaurant scene seemed to be focused mainly on producing glitzy but ultimately underwhelming versions of what was available abroad. The gulf between hummus-chips-shwarma and air-freighted black miso cod seemed unbridgeable. But fortunately – for diners – economic downturns, allied with the success of Israeli cuisine and chefs such as Yotam Ottolenghi abroad, and the sophistication of well-travelled Tel-Avivians who are no longer impressed by wannabe Nobus, have led chefs back to their roots. In the city that famously “sprang from the sand”, roots can, of course, be interpreted in a liberal manner. M25, a meat-lovers’ mecca just south of the main financial district, is the most recent – and my favourite – iteration of what are called in Israel “market restaurants” and which are starting to pull in culinary tourists.
“With rising prices and a profit margin of under 10%, so many places have gone under,” explains Jonathan Borowitz, chef-owner of M25. The kitchen is in a converted market stall, and the diners sit by the meat-smoker in what was once a storage area. “This kind of place, with butcher’s paper on the tables but without three sizes of cutlery or any compromises on quality of products or preparation, makes economic sense and allows us to offer the best meat at reasonable prices.” Diners get to choose a particular cut from the glistening display, as well as the method of preparation. There are toothsome steaks, just about every flank of beef or lamb (most of Tel Aviv’s finest restaurants are not kosher, but there is a gesture here to Judaism in the absence of pork) and an almost obscene variety of offal, from testicles to brain. Salads, composed of produce from nearby stalls, are various so even vegetarians can leave satisfied.
If M25 is too full, there’s a selection of small places in the surrounding alleyways serving imaginative and generally not over-pretentious dishes – like Gedera 26, where Amir Kronenberg draws from his Iraqi roots and Swedish childhood to serve up an airy seafood kubbeh. Or, for a more sophisticated experience, head to Mashya, in the new Mendeli Street Hotel in the old north of Tel Aviv, where Yosi Sheetrit and Imri Bril meld their family traditions from Morocco and Egypt with ultra-modern techniques to offer new takes on Middle Eastern classics. Their kubanniye comprises raw chopped waisbraten encased in bulgur with a herb yoghurt; in their mafroum, the stuffed potato has been replaced with a nutty cauliflower in delicate potato foam. The silky warm oxtail terrine with garlic confit and baby fennel, and hamed soup – traditionally lentil and lemon but made in Mashya with shrimp and calamari – are earthy dishes suffused with bold tastes and colours. And even if some of the desserts, such as the coriander seed and pumpkin ice creams, sound a little far out, choose them over more traditional puddings: they taste like the love-child of a spice-shop in the Marrakech souk and a high-end Italian gelateria.
For a reminder that Tel Aviv is a Mediterranean city, Shila, with its sharply accurate tartare and sizzling shellfish, is the kind of place that made Spanish cuisine famous – only with an Israeli quirkiness. Shila has been around for a decade, but in its reliance on fresh, local produce, it was the harbinger of all that is good now on Tel Aviv’s restaurant scene, and remains among the city’s best.
If you can’t make it to Tel Aviv, try its food here:
London: Honey & Co, 25a Warren St, W1
New York: Timna, 109 St Mark’s Pl, 10009
Philadelphia: Zahav, 237 St James’s Pl, 19106