Move over bacon and shellfish. The moment for kosher cooking has arrived with a cadre of Israeli chefs, who were once more accustomed to treif, now separating their milk from their meat.
Celebrity Israeli chefs Meir Adoni, Yoram Nitzan, Eyal Shani and several others have moved into the kosher sphere over the last few years, accommodating the growing number of kosher diners seeking fine dining, and the ingredients (and wine lists), that go with it.
Adoni is at the helm of Blue Sky and Lumina in Carlton Tel Aviv as well as Dunya, his chain of kosher street food eateries in Tel Aviv and Kiryat Bialik; Nitzan, who spent 20 years concocting shellfish specialties at Tel Aviv’s beloved Mul-Yam is now at the new Nomi in the David Intercontinental Hotel; and Shani, known for Miznon and his whole roasted cauliflowers, recently opened Malka, a kosher Tel Aviv restaurant in the city’s center.
“I kept on hearing that good kosher food couldn’t be found,” said Adoni of his decision to open Blue Sky back in 2013.
At the time, Adoni owned Catit and Mizlala, two highly popular but non-kosher, Tel Aviv restaurants.
“I wondered why, because I thought that if I was doing kosher food, I would do it in a way that wouldn’t be different from the food at Catit,” he said.
Adoni grew up in a kosher home, and remembers how much it upset his parents when he began cooking non-kosher foods as a young chef. At the time, he didn’t want to limit himself to only kosher ingredients. (He won’t cook or eat pork, however, calling it a food that doesn’t have a place in the Middle East.)
“The kosher thing was just so obvious to me — it’s about how to do it correctly and well,” he said.
Some eight years ago, Jimmy Zohar, the general manager of Carlton Tel Aviv, approached Adoni about opening a kosher restaurant there.
“I thought it was the right time to do good, kosher food,” said Adoni, who also owns two non-kosher restaurants abroad — Nur in New York City and Layla in Berlin. “You have to be willing to invest money and buy the best fish and meat and vegetables, and take kosher cooking to the limit in order to provide the best food.”
Blue Sky and Lumina, Adoni’s two restaurants in Carlton Tel Aviv, have been a tremendous success in the six years since they were opened.
Blue Sky, on the hotel’s rooftop, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and the rooftops of Tel Aviv, serves citrusy fish tartars and smoky eggplant carpaccio, lightly grilled fresh fish and Thai chraime, a take on a traditional Moroccan dish. It’s served alongside a menu of fresh, bright cocktails that provide for a divine rooftop dining experience.
Lumina, a few floors down, is for the true carnivore, with “unbelievable cuts” from the best butcher in Israel, said Adoni, and a mix of classic and modern dishes that often draw from his grandmother’s kitchen.
“The fact that it’s kosher isn’t the focus,” said Adoni. “The food is amazing by itself.”
Blue Sky is something of a legend in the religious Jewish world, and even in the non-kosher world, said Adoni, where it’s always listed as one of Tel Aviv’s best restaurants by the French embassy in Israel.
“The fact that it’s kosher is the bonus,” he added.
For several chefs, their turn to kosher cooking brought them directly to the hotel world, where their kind of cooking and knowledge is in demand and where they’ve found a comfortable home.
Nitzan once spent his days handling crustaceans at the beloved Mul-Yam restaurant, a Tel Aviv stronghold that burned to the ground in 2015.
Now he is the head chef at Nomi, his new gastronomic restaurant that opened this past winter at Tel Aviv’s David Intercontinental, a hotel which caters to a high-end clientele.
The menu at Nomi is primarily Israeli, featuring the spices, flavors and produce of the Middle East, and it also includes different cuts of beef as well as fish. While it took a while to adjust to the restrictions and changes, Nitzan said he likes the challenge.
“I’m now in a situation that all the boundaries are familiar to me,” said Nitzan. “I’m on to the next stage, to look for more ingredients, to see if they allow me to do more complex things.”
It’s the new customers, the kosher diners who never got to eat at Mul-Yam, who have many expectations about eating dishes they’ve never had before.
And so Nitzan offers them salmon sashimi with ginger granite, blackened onion powder and miso twill; a sea bass fillet on a bed of shallot puree, green vegetables and sea foam or his steak and eggs; a veal fillet topped with a poached egg, arugula foam and smoked goose crumble set on a brioche.
It’s a curated dining experience that can feel slightly precious, with Nitzan’s vast attention to every detail on the plate, but appears to delight his new customers.
There’s also Nitzan’s signature white root vegetable soup, his homemade pastas and risotto, now slow-cooked and creamy with mashed Jerusalem artichokes rather than butter and milk.
“I hadn’t touched a lot of cuts of beef for a long time,” said Nitzan. “The variety is much wider here and it’s nice to work with something that was new to me, the cuts of lamb and beef that I hadn’t handled for a while.”
While his Mul-Yam clientele wasn’t necessarily looking for a kosher restaurant with him at the helm, they still followed him to Nomi.
“It’s not Mul-Yam, and they shouldn’t expect that,” said Nitzan. “But they know it’s Yoram Nitzan’s food.”
What makes Nitzan feel good is the challenge of being more meticulous in his food craft, creating more complicated dishes in his next menu.
“That makes me really happy,” he said.
For some of these chefs, working within the confines of a hotel is actually freeing, making it easier to navigate the strictures and demands of kosher food preparation.
“A hotel restaurant has amazing logistics,” said Chef Nir Elkayam, the head chef at Jerusalem’s Inbal Hotel who coordinated the menu design of 02, the new restaurant that opened this winter within the hotel. “I have a second kitchen that can help the restaurant, I have people who just wash vegetables, with forty chefs working for me. The kitchen is one and a half times the size of a restaurant kitchen.”
When Elkayam and the Inbal management were thinking about what kind of restaurant to open, he requested the help of an outside culinary team to design the menu.
They chose the staff behind Mona, a well-known, non-kosher Jerusalem restaurant that also owns Anna, a kosher, pasta eatery in the refurbished Anna Ticho House.
“I wanted to learn from someone and we wanted something a little bit less hotel-like,” said Elkayam, who looked to Carlton Tel Aviv’s partnership with Adoni for inspiration. “And it was a great collaboration.”
Elkayam knew that 02 would have a meat menu, and they settled on a menu that included slow-cooked beef dishes as well as skewered cuts of meat, more common in casual Israeli restaurants, but elevated with high-quality cuts of beef, homemade salsas and local flavors.
“We really wanted to do something that would feel like Jerusalem, so there’s also maklouba [an Arabic chicken and rice dish], dishes with chickpeas, the local flavors,” said Elkayam. “I wanted the Israeli kitchen and the Arab kitchen represented. My chefs are locals, those who know how to cook local food.”
There were some complications, like when the Mona team suggested certain fish dishes for the menu, but Elkayam knew the Inbal kosher supervisor wouldn’t allow fish and meat in the same oven.
“They have Anna, which is kosher, but dairy, so they don’t have to worry about things like fish and meat together,” said Elkayam. “But they got it.”
Ultimately, said Elkayam, while they had to work to achieve a menu they were satisfied with, it wasn’t an impossible feat.
“We use olive oil, never margarine. We never had to be embarrassed of our raw ingredients,” he said. “We have what we use, our local flavors, and we don’t need more than that. This is a great kosher kitchen with wonderful ingredients.”
But when asked if he only eats kosher, Elkayam gave his stock answer: “I always say ‘yes, I also eat kosher.”