Could it be that there is finally a restaurant in Israel with excellent service, reasonable prices, and food that will make you want to come back? Yes!
La Shuk, on 92 Dizengoff (at the base of Dizengoff Circle) brings Israeli food up from the falafel cart into the modern culinary world. Not a single chickpea graced my plate, so they’re already doing something right!
At first glance, La Shuk looks like a French bistro that has been taken over by gypsies. There are Persian rugs on the ground outside, mismatched furniture, worn wood doors, strings of lights. It’s a high-energy atmosphere, but there is also a very comfortable feel about it; as if you were eating at your fun bohemian-Moroccan aunt’s house. However, the chairs, though charming, were not meant for thousands of butts. They were all a bit rickety.
We dined outside, which is right on Dizengoff, however the whole outdoor seating area is surrounded by flower boxes, so you forget you’re next to a major street. Inside was a bit loud and smokey, since there is an open kitchen. However, there was something very inviting about sitting at the bar. You can see right into the kitchen, the staff sings and claps and whoops along with the music; it’s pretty cool.
I went to eat with my mom (visiting from Houston) and my friend/roommate Lea. The restaurant is tapas-style (the portions are generous), and the menu is separated into 3 sections: “Salads & Starters,” “In between..” and “It isn’t small my lady.” So we ordered four dishes, plus bread, and dessert, and split them all.
We started with the bread. They brought us two pieces, even though we were three people. They were quick to add a third slice, and we dove in. The bread was fresh, thick, with a soft inside and a crunchy crust. The “dips” were weak: olive oil and balsamic vinegar (the best), “schug” tahini (green tahini- not spicy as the name indicates), and “beet” yogurt (pink in color, but no beet taste). The spreads were a bit soupy, but if you like good bread and don’t mind eating it dry, then it was worth the order.
Next came tomato and artichoke salad (46 nis) and beef tartar (52 nis), one of the daily specials. The tomato and artichoke salad was bland. There were three types of tomatoes (cherry, yellow cherry, and regular), artichokes, almonds, capers, red onion, feta cheese, and mixed herbs. The only tomatoes that weren’t mealy were the red cherry ones. The dish had a nice texture overall, but no outstanding flavor.
The beef tartar was a totally different story. It was extraordinary. The dish was served with a soft-boiled egg, mustard aioli, and toast. The tartar itself was mixed with chili, red onion, capers, and parsley (and maybe a few other things that I couldn’t discern). I would compare it to beef salsa. It was fresh and light, and when you layered the aioli, tartar, and egg, atop the bread it was superb. The bread was a bit oily for my taste, but when the rest of the plate was lickable, who cares about the bread?
After our selections from “Salads & Starters” had been polished off, we moved on to the “In between..” We chose cauliflower with tahini, boiled egg and “shifka” peppers on a lafa (39 nis). This too was an excellent choice, but a bit hard to eat. While spicy at first whiff, the combination of the ingredients turned out to be unexpectedly delightful. The lafa was fresh, the cauliflower was smokey, the dish did not have a hint of oil (unlike the first two), and though we all pushed our peppers off to the side, we thoroughly enjoyed our pick. The one problem was it was impossible to get everything in one bite. The lafa comes pre-cut into four pieces, but it’s too big to pick up with your hands, and impossible to cut into smaller portions without all of the toppings sliding all over the plate. Regardless, I would order it again.
Lastly, we chose one option from the “It isn’t small my lady” section: black risotto with calamari, shrimp, and squid ink (83 nis). While it sounded enticing, we took one bite, and needed not take more. The risotto was not properly cooked, the calamari was rubbery to the point where it was nearly impossible to eat, and the whole thing was so salty one moment and so flavorless the next, that we left nearly the entire plate untouched.
Here is where our meal takes a surprising turn: our waitress, (who had been wonderful all night, very polite, answered all of our questions, spoke English very well, refilled our water every time it ran out) seeing we didn’t eat the risotto, OFFERED, unprompted, to bring something IN PLACE of the risotto! Can you believe it? We declined, saying we were full, but for good measure ordered dessert.
BUT BEFORE THAT… the MANAGER came over and asked us what we didn’t enjoy about the risotto, listened, thanked us (THANKED US!) for our feedback, and assured us it was usually better-prepared. Needless to say, I was shocked. Pleasantly shocked, but shocked none the less. Has anyone else experienced this kind of service in Israel? If you have, please tell me where, because I am convinced that La Shuk is the only place that is this customer oriented.
As if that wasn’t enough we got the check, and they had REMOVED the risotto from the bill! It was the most expensive thing we ordered, and the third most expensive thing on the menu (behind two meat dishes each priced in the 90 nis range). Once again, we were all floored, but I’m getting ahead of myself. We haven’t talked about dessert.
Dessert was nothing special. When our waitress rattled off the list of desserts, nothing stood out: baked cheesecake, malabi, biscuit cake with chocolate and vanilla creams, and chocolate mousse. We chose the mousse (32 nis), and were all disappointed. When it arrived at the table, it came in a small cup. No sense of presentation, a real let down; it wasn’t even brought out on a plate. It didn’t taste much better than it looked. The mousse was more like a whipped up sand storm. Gritty and airy. It did not have any depth or density like a real mousse does. Thus, I would skip La Shuk dessert next time.
All in all it was an unexpectedly wonderful experience. The service was great, despite the few flaws (forgetting to clear/wipe the table, not bringing serving utensils). However the consideration given to us by the waitress and manager simply blew me away. The two great dishes (tartar and cauliflower) were so tasty that it pushed the rest out of my mind, and left me wanting to try more. I will absolutely return to La Shuk to explore the rest of their menu, and would recommend it to anyone who is looking for a modern interpretation of Israeli food (or to someone looking for delicious food in general).
La Shuk, 92 Dizengoff (just below Dizengoff Square and the Agam fountain), Tel Aviv. Open every day from 9:30 am to the last customer.