Tel Aviv may be one of the world’s great food cities, but according to Brisbane-based Israeli chef Roy Ner, it’s also a dynamic town that doesn’t rest.
“When I visit Tel Aviv on a classic summer day, I like to start at the beach in the morning, then go through the markets,” Ner says.
“In the early evening, the city shifts gear.”
A summer’s day at the beach will start at 10am, but end in massive beach parties and in bars, he says.
“It goes all the way to 6 o’clock in the morning. You can eat any time of the day. Tel Aviv doesn’t stop.”
The seaside Israeli city is the inspiration behind the restaurant Ner helms, ZA ZA TA. It is tucked to the side of Ovolo The Valley in Brisbane’s revitalised Fortitude Valley.
The menu is Middle Eastern and Mediterranean, but if you’re willing to travel a little further, and venture to the country that inspired the venue, the 37-year-old Israeli-born executive chef offers his top tips for making the most of a trip to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem – from where to get the best falafel to what exactly makes Israel so special.
The first thing to know is that the two cities are “completely different”: “It’s like asking in Italy, what’s the difference between Milan and Rome?” Ner says.
“Tel Aviv is very forward, very loose …It’s a city that doesn’t stop.”
In Tel Aviv, HaSalon (meaning ‘living room’ in Hebrew) is a must-visit, he says. The 40-seat restaurant is one of the best venues in the country and truly captures the city’s vibe.
“It’s kind of rock’n’roll for foodies,” Ner says. “Very loud music; amazing food; amazing wine. You get the best chefs in the country cooking for you. And then after 10, you dance on the table.”
Book a month in advance, he says, but even then, “you have to be really lucky to get in.”
Then there’s HaKosem (‘magician’ in Hebrew). A staple casual eatery, it serves some of the best falafel and shawarma (a meat or veggie wrap) in town, but there’s a good chance you’ll have to wait for it, Ner says.
The line outside can often be 30-people deep.
“They’re both like an Israeli bistro,” Ner says. “They’re using local produce. A lot of traditional food, done classic and nicely. They change the menu every couple of months.”
If you’re headed here on the weekend, he says it’s best to make a booking.
Next to Santa Katarina is casual drinks spot Port Said – another recommendation.
“It’s in the bottom of the largest synagogue in the country, funnily enough,” he says.
“It’s sitting on milk crates, eating amazing pizza. It’s where the cool cats of Tel Aviv hang out.”
Beit Romano is also worth visiting. “It’s like where Berlin meets lounge-y Tel Aviv,” Ner says.
For a day spot, consider beach restaurant Calypso Beach Club, which is where Ner heads the minute he arrives in Tel Aviv.
“It’s literally on the water. You can order your beers to your seat on the beach. It’s pretty cool.”
And when you’re not sitting down to eat?
“In Tel Aviv, come 4 o’clock, the markets slow down and then there’s many, many restaurants around the markets and you can basically hang out there all day,” Ner says.
“Everybody comes. We’re talking like 10,000 people will come to Carmel Markets.”
And then there’s Jerusalem …
A 90-minute drive inland from Tel Aviv lies Jerusalem. Ner recommends spending at least three days and two nights there “just to absorb the actual city”.
“There’s some sort of magic in that city,” he says. “It’s one of the oldest cities in the world.
“Any empire that ever ruled the world was trying to get a piece of the city for some reason and you see it and you can feel it,” he says. “I can’t explain it.”
To get a good feel for the old city of Jerusalem, Ner recommends a day tour.
“There’s a lot going on,” he says. “Architecturally, it’s crazy. It’s where all the stories, basically everything started – what’s wrong, what’s right.
“You’ll see four religions coming together, and they’re all the holiest and [have] the biggest momentum in that city. And it shows.”
Finally, Ner says, exploring Jerusalem’s food culture should be a big part of your trip. The city’s history of various reigning empires can be seen in the food it serves today. The enormous Machane Yehuda market is a must-see.
“You have more than 600 types of tahini” Ner says.
“Throughout history, Jerusalem was the gate via Africa and Asia for spices to the west. It was a massive trading city, so the food and produce are completely different flavour; completely different character [to anywhere else].
Favourites in Jerusalem include Machneyuda: “It has great food and very loud music, with people dancing every night. It’s a very different way of experiencing food. You either love it or not.”
Across the road from Machneyuda is Yehudaleh, “a really nice bar.” But, says Ner, within Machane Yehuda Markets, “Azura has to be one of my favourite restaurants in Jerusalem. It’s a Jewish-Iraqi diner that would just blow you away with simple food packed with flavours of the market which is just next to it.”
If you can’t make it to Israel, Ner, who is engaged and came to Australia in 2006, has some tips for how to find the closest thing to an authentic Middle Eastern restaurant here.
“Order the hommus and if they serve it hot, it’s legit. Hot and warm. If they serve the hommus cold – forget about it.”