Israel has become a vibrant and stylish city, and in recent years has grown into a culinary center. I found the changes in quality of restaurants to be astounding. Energetic and adventurous chefs have been experimenting and food has become ambitious, creative, cooked with flair and using fresh local ingredients. One such chef is Orel Kimchi along with restaurateur Amir Turgeman who have one of Tel Aviv’s best restaurants called Popina, located on 3 Ehad Ha’am Street in the cute Neve Tzedek area. The restaurant is casual and understated, located in a historical building. The exposed brick walls are original, dark black leather chairs, and a portion of the floor is glass showing off an extensive wine cellar below. The open kitchen concept gives you a chance to interact with the chef and staff if you are lucky enough to be seated nearby.
The menu is divided according to raw material and composed of five cooking techniques: cured, steamed, baked, roasted and slow-cooked. Each category offers a cocktail, appetizer, entree, main course, and dessert. They recommend combining a variety of small dishes from different preparation techniques, so you can savour the Popina experience and taste a variety of flavours and cooking styles. They also offer a 7-course tasting menu. Before I discuss our meal, it’s important to mention that the skill and technique that went into our meal had a lot to do with the chef’s culinary education and background. Kimchi has worked in some of the best kitchens in the world, including working under Joel Robuchon in Paris and at one of my personal favourite restuarants, Arzak in San Sebastián, under Juan Mari Arzak Arratibel. It’s easy to see why this French fusion restaurant is so outstanding.
We started with the shrimp burger from the steamed section, was on a bao bun, with a delicate shrimp paddy, yuzu aioli, crispy lettuce and a pickled red onion, and were off to a good start. The highlight for me is the pumpkin jam ravioli from the slow cooked section, made with amaretto, foie gras, roasted almonds and truffle foam. It’s to die for. The ravioli tied with my other favourite dish – the “corn dog” from the steamed section of the menu, is a shrimp and scallop sausage rolled in corn flour, with kale, sweet corn polenta, in a reduced Pedro Ximenez wine. It is such a clever and delicious dish, I’ve never had anything like it before. The duck breast in the roasted section is no slouch either. It is prepared with black garlic tortellini, cauliflower cream, asparagus, and broccoli in a chicken stock with Ximenez.
We opted for cocktails instead of wine. I went with the velvet gin which mixed gin, chartreuse, Aperol, lime, cucumber and mint syrup.
For dessert, we tried the saffron creme brûlée with banana cake, yuzu ice cream, basil powder and orange filets. We also had the strawberries and mascarpone mousse, with mint cream, roasted strawberries, white chocolate snow and sorrel.
We tried a lot of restaurants in Tel Aviv – Popina cooked with great technique and skill and pushed the envelope in an interesting way. The kitchen really strives for perfection. There were many surprises with multiple flavour contrasts. Just by watching the open kitchen you can see how the staff is European-trained.
The diverse wine menu included boutique wines as well as large production quality sections from France, Spain, Italy and Israel. In 2011, Chef Orel Kimchi was awarded the Youngest Chef of the Year at the S. Pellegrino Cooking Cup.
Everything about Popina is experience driven: from the ingredients to the immaculate plating and the modernist techniques used.
It was definitely my best meal in Israel.