Blu Aubergine Blog

RESTAURANT REVIEW: Messa and Raphael, Tel Aviv

In many ways, they're like day and night. Raphael is a refined, airy space overlooking the sea with a dining room recently updated to be more streamlined and casual -- and the food is fresh, unfussy Mediterranean fare executed with perfect technique: classic. Messa is a funky, sophisticated boite where the food dazzles as much as the room -- whitewashed and oversized and communal in the dining room, and all black and sleek and hip in the bar-lounge area. In this comparison, Raphael is day, and Messa is most definitely the night. But while the chefs' aesthetics and cooking styles may differ, and the dining rooms of the two spots have very different feels to them, Raphael and Messa share an expert approach to redefining what Mediterranean and Israeli food is, and can be. In this, both restaurants move Israeli cuisine forward, and front and center on the world stage. Indeed, SAVEUR magazine just named Tel Aviv as one of the world's top dining destinations. It's about time they caught on -- though honestly, I'd prefer to keep this little culinary gem between us!

Let's start with Chef Raffi Cohen's delicious, pared-down cuisine at Raphael. Cohen has worked in top kitchens around the world, including l'Arpege in Paris, Nobu in NYC, and with Marco Pierre White in London. He honed his craft at the restaurant at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem at the ripe old age of 23. And he credits much of his formative cooking chops to his Moroccan grandmother, from whom he draws his North African and French culinary influences. He's a Jerusalem boy, but since 2001, Cohen has been running Raphael in Tel Aviv, and the urban hub is the better for it. The dining room as had a makeover in recent years, and it's a lighter, brighter place to eat. Linens have been replaced with wood tables and cream-colored mod leather chairs. Overhead drop lights have replaced linen-covered oversized ceiling lamps, and the overall feel is cool, almost Scandinavian. The giveaway as to your actual location is in the view overlooking Tel Aviv's famous beachfront.

Raphael offers an interesting menu of that Sephardic French/North African-influenced food of Cohen's youth, mixed with some Ashkenazi Jewish staples. All of these dishes are elevated versions of classic home cooking, or they're whittled down to a simpler, cleaner version of a complicated, ingredient-heavy recipe. The stuffed cabbage appetizer is a trio of a taste bomb on a sauce of labneh (fresh, tangy yogurt-like cheese) infused with dill. The cabbage rolls were cold, stuffed with a bulgar wheat falvored with herbs, raisins, pine nuts, and black olives, and was perfectly sweet-and-sour. Normally, stuffed cabbage is a heavy dish, a meal in itself. These mini versions were a wonderful light appetizer and just what the doctor ordered on an unusually stormy afternoon in January.
A warm salad of barely-sauteed calamari was tossed with red and golden tomatoes and peppers, red onion, fruity olive oil, and white beans, and was as bright and fresh and delicious as the photo makes it seem. Fresh mint brought the dish from excellent to superb. These offerings were first courses in what is a very economical "business lunch," as it's dubbed in this city: a prix fixe, usually three-course lunch for a great price. You don't have to be talking shop to enjoy the Restaurant Week-style menu offerings, however. And the menus are simple abbreviated versions of dishes from the a la carte menus, so you can often try the restaurant's most renowned dishes, usually for around $35 or so, all in.

To best explain why I love Raphael, let me describe my first experience with it. It was 2011, and the dining room back then had a muted elegance to it. The lights were dim, I managed to get a last-minute 10 pm reservation, and it was the first place I headed once I'd checked into my hotel a few doors down. I remember the bread served was incredibly delicious and restorative, just what I needed at the time. I was coming to Tel Aviv, and back to Israel, after a 13 year hiatus, taking some time to myself after the roughest year of my life, personally. It was also the first time I'd ever vacationed completely by myself. I found Raphael to be an elegant enclave where I sat, dined, and just thought, in silence. I scribbled some notes in a small notebook I'd brought with me from Rome, feeling slightly self-conscious about sitting at a two-top alone. Maybe they'd think I was working as a restaurant critic (only partly true), as long as they didn't ask me questions. I ate lots of that bread and started the meal with a delicious fish carpaccio of some kind, with a lovely Israeli white wine (lovely white wine is a recurring theme in my Israeli dining experiences). But it was the main course that sticks in my mind. It remains there because it was so simple: Mediterranean cuisine, steps from the Mediterranean itself.
The sauce hit all the right fresh, briny, acidic notes, comprised of olives, tomato, capers, parsley and mint, over a perfectly-cooked piece of local drumfish. Eating it, I knew exactly where I was. That time, there was a bit of okra in the mix -- a vegetable, I came to discover, that Israelis use quite frequently in their cooking. When I ordered the same dish a year and a half later, it was almost exactly the same, but without the okra. It was still perfectly cooked. And it came with the same side of buttery, creamy potato puree' that should be set forth as an example of how potato purees are to be made now and forever after for all time. Seriously. Those were some transformative potatoes! But beyond transformative, they were utter comfort. This food to me, especially on that balmy July evening, was a virtual, warm, engulfing Mediterranean hug when I really needed it. It's a taste memory that I've kept in my mind and on my palate ever since, and I've tried to reproduce that meal for clients to enjoy back in New York, 6,000 miles from where it changed me, just a little bit, years ago. 

Messa is one of my favorite restaurants I've ever experienced, and I've eaten all over the world. When I say "experienced," that's what I mean: it's an upscale restaurant, to be sure, with delicious and inventive food. But its neighboring bar (where you can eat as well, though I think it's best for drinks) completes the "package" and allows you to spend an evening in the Messa environs without needing to go elsewhere. The setting is sleek and gorgeous. It's not wholly original -- I've eaten, or lodged, in some similar environments, with Schrager spots like the Modrian in L.A. and Asia de Cuba coming immediately to mind. But these count among some of my favorite places to frequent over the years, as well (let's all take a moment to bemoan the closure of Asia de Cuba in the Morgans Hotel in NYC: end of an era!). There is something to be said for a setting in which you actually feel more beautiful. Everyone and everything around you oozes sexiness. The main restaurant is part communal table lined with tall white bar stools, part series of dining nooks separated by curtains and oversize modern-baroque chairs that resemble thrones (this shouts out anyone can be king or queen for the length of a meal!). It is all a whitewashed affair with gossamer draping and candelabras, and everything is just-right. The lighting is flattering. The rooms are comfortable and spacious. The music is at the ideal volume and sets the mood perfectly. The restaurant is staffed by servers who know the menu and its chef inside and out, who have a grasp of Israeli and New and Old World wines, are warm and friendly and helpful, and also happen to look like they could do double-duty as runway models on their off nights.  
And then, of course, there's the food. The restaurant's style could be dubbed Luxe Levantine, and it's an interesting mix of Middle Eastern, Sephardic, classic French, and Mediterranean culinary influences that comprise what has become "New Israeli" cuisine. Chef Aviv Moshe is an autodidact of Kurdish ancestry who was born in Jerusalem 40 years ago. He started his on-the-job training at Chateau Ein Karem in his home city in '92, which explains the French/Provencal flourishes in his dishes. Like Cohen, he is heavily influenced by his grandmother's cooking, which is also North African. With her, Moshe was able to see how to utilize exotic spices and blends and apply them to cooking with local staples like eggplant, tahini, pomegranate, and labane (a yogurt-like cheese). Moshe and three partners debuted Messa with the ambition to redefine what new Israeli cuisine -- and an amazing dining experience could be in Tel Aviv -- a decade ago now. It's been one of the focal points of fine dining in this beachside city ever since, attracting an eclectic client base, from Paul Anka to Lady Gaga, Rudy Giuliani to Roberto Cavalli.

At Messa, the menu is fairly large, which can often be an indicator that what comes out of the kitchen is unfocused, hit-or-miss. But not here, not from what I've seen. The dishes are original, the flavor pairings often unique, the technique accomplished. And the service and presentation are typically flawless. I ordered a foie gras appetizer which was seared to caramelized and served with a Valhrona white chocolate-vanilla bean sauce (not as strange as it may sound: foie and sweet flavors pair well together), with hits of lemon and balsamic, paired with a vodka-based lemon shooter of some kind. Odd at first, but anything that pairs one of my favorite rich foods with one of my favorite brisk alcohols to cut the richness of the liver -- well, it's alright with me. Plus, it's fun! It was a lighthearted approach and presentation to a dish too often mired in the seriousness of its rich history and taste. 
My friend Jessica ordered an app on special that evening, which was an interesting take on all of the countless versions we see of beets with goat cheese. The beets were half way to pickled (beets in Israel are a very common accompaniment to salads and sandwiches, so seeing them pickled or made into a slaw is familiar to locals), and the goat cheese was not a soft, crumbling affair but a nice, solid slice of an aged chevre, placed atop the beet salad with herbs. Simple and lovely. And I'd be remiss in covering the many gorgeous offerings for appetizers if I didn't mention at least one of the seafood apps. There was a delectable barely-seared tuna dish, basically sashimi, with an eggplant roll, mushrooms, and chevre cheese in a pomegranate broth: delicious. Now that dish has become the tuna served with "raw shakshuka" and a six minute egg, which sounds wonderful. And there's a gorgeous raw yellowtail starter with sumac-dusted onions, caramelized eggplant and wasabi sorbet. You can't have a restaurant of international acclaim, these days, without some nod to Japan and its sushi culture. And that's fine with me, especially when the seafood you have to work with is as fresh and delicious as it is in Israel.

 For second courses, we had an equally-difficult time deciding what to try, but Jess went for the classic Moroccan style fish with homemade couscous (here, the grandmother's North African influence in full bloom). The broth of the fish stew was thick and bright red with harissa paste and tomatoes, a contrast to the pale, fluffy couscous beside it. It was as delicious as you might expect. Paul stuck to seafood and chose a light sea bass dish with shallot ravioli and porcini foam, which was beautiful and light, but very savory.
I went for something a little more substantial with the veal cheeks. These were served with root vegetables and crispy gnocchi with a sweet spice broth. This dish was as rich and hearty as it sounds, but it was a cool, rainy night outside, we were settled in here at Messa, nothing to do but enjoy our time between now and the end of the evening when we'd climb into a taxi and head home. So yes, foie gras and veal cheeks made sense at the time. Dessert was equally as rich, a study in dark, milk, and white chocolate of varying degrees of temperature and consistency (oh, that all studying and degrees were chocolate-based!). It didn't photograph well, but trust me when I say it went down easily.
 
The amazing thing about a place like this one is that once dinner and its accompanying prosecco are over with, you can hop down out of your incredibly comfortable chairs or bar stools, head through a pair of double-glazed, curtained glass doors, and enter into the bar part of Messa. And it's a shock to the senses, in the best possible way. It's completely black: the walls, the chairs, the tables, the napkins. The bar is a deep gray-brown marble and the lighting is quite dim with a few spotlights and bedside table-style lamps on the bar for illumination. The central bar is long and rectangular, and there are cushy cocktail tables and banquettes along the perimeter. And oh yeah, there's a trippy blue-black film projected on the far wall, with images of people's heads morphing into each other. There is a window that looks onto the white dining room, for contrast, but overall the feeling of the place is dark exotic drinking den. And the bartenders are, as most Israelis, quite friendly but can keep their space from you when wanted. They have a great cocktail list that features Israeli-friendly ingredients. I had a vodka cocktail with citrus, pomegranate, and mint which was divine...so I had another. Ostensibly, you could start your evening with a pre-dinner drink here, dine in the white room, and come back here for post-prandial cocktails, and you will have passed a very happy portion of your day here. Like I said at the beginning, Messa is an experience.
 
Raphael
87 Ha-Yarkon (King David Tower)
Tel Aviv, Israel
Phone +972 3.522.6464
www.raphaeltlv.co.il

Messa
19 HaArba'a Street
Tel Aviv, Israel
+972 3.685.6859
www.messa.co.il