If you’re like me not only do you like to travel but you like to exhaust the opportunities where you live of experiencing things to do and trying out new places to eat. So often people who travel all over the globe don’t partake of what’s special in their own backyard. Recently, I had an opportunity to dine at one of Israel’s most iconic restaurants, Messa, in Tel Aviv. Messa’s celebrating their tenth year and its established a worthy reputation for impressing local or visiting connoisseurs.
It wasn’t my first time at Messa, I had been to the bar for a press event where a new wine being released was the star and the food was only a supporting (yet welcome) player but recently on my first visit to Messa’s dining room I got to sit down with chef Aviv Moshe (ten years at Messa since their beginning in 2004) and sommelier Ben Ron (on his third year) and got to taste a wide array of their dishes and wines while learning about the inner workings of Messa.
Decked out in an all white dining hall (open for lunch and dinner) and an all black bar (open only at night) Messa’s decor is the handiwork of designer Alex Miltis and it is as visually stunning as Messa’s menu is inviting. It’s the kind of restaurant that is well suited to impress a date or a business client and has often played host to local and foreign dignitaries. There are some delightful eclectic and rustic joints across Israel tucked into alleyways of Tel Aviv or Jerusalem and at seemingly at least one in every town that have a unique charm to them but Messa offers a stylish and swank setting that so many others may attempt but too often come up lacking so much so I mention it first rather than an afterthought as is such the case in so many restaurant reviews.
Also, Messa’s service is impeccable which is often a concern in Israel and the management should be commended for maintaining a staff that is well informed about the menu and the wines, is cognizant on how to interact with guests and knows and can deliver standards of service expected from international diners. Messa seems to have a system for getting and keeping good help that other Israelis restaurants should attempt to emulate Now for the food and wine.
Though I often say as someone who’s been a cook at several restaurants, that when I eat out I’m paying for the service, atmosphere and convenience and often with the time and motivation I could cook a better meal for myself at home yet although many of Messa’s dishes were inspired from the kitchen of Moshe’s grandmother when the plates came to the table each offering looked like anything but home cooking as they arrived polished, intricate, deftly seasoned, balanced treasures to behold before I gave in to the temptation to devour every morsel put before me.
At this opportunity, I was trying out Messa’s new business lunch menu. It’s divided into two options of a NIS 96 or NIS 116 menu which each include several different starters and main courses. For NIS 96 (about $27), there’s a choice of nine starters to match with nine “middle courses.” Treats like liver pate with sweet muscat jelly and silan (date honey), griiled eggplant and cheese fondue or a choice of ramped up salads pave the way for featured mains like black risotto with mushroom ragout, Morrocan fish with homemade couscous or roasted young chicken with grilled antipasti.
To kick it up a notch for NIS 10 more, there are several indulgences to consider including tender lamb shwarma, a wafer thin crisp red tuna pizza with green & red peppers and arugala or “Boris” shrimp. Or for that NIS 10 you can try their fish kebabs with yogurt sauce,eggplant cream, pickled lemon and pineuts for a very Mediterranean main course upgrade.
At NIS 116 (about $34) there are thirteen starters and nine starters with many more red meat choices than the NIS 96 menu. Rump steak carpaccio with tomato seeds, mustard and parmesan or baked bone marrow with “Pot Au Feu” are two well executed takes on what have become popular starters in Israeli fine dining venues though Messa’s veal “baklava” is a savory pastry with cinnamon, tahini and coconut cream that I can fall asleep dreaming about. The seared foie gras with smooth corn polenta and fig sauce is their most decadent starter and at NIS 30 more than the base menu a reminder that foie gras is a rare treat for most but rewarding never the less.
Though there’s no view of the sea (or anywhere else with no windows in this most private setting), you might think you’re near a pier since the fish dishes are so fresh and flavorful and take an equal place on the menu with a yellowtail sashimi, onions and sumac, caramelized eggplant with wasabi sorbet (worthy of the best sushi bar) as a personal favorite starter, the delicate sea bass and caramelized salmon are popular main courses at lunch as well as at dinner. There are also four beef entrees including a “butcher’s steak” with grilled potatoes salad, short ribs with caramelized onions, apples and sweet spices with upgrades of NIS 10 to strips of beef filet, mushrooms, potato cream and peppercorn broth and for an extra NIS 35 seared sirloin with truffle cream and baked garlic sauce. It shouldn’t be surprising that anything with trufles warrants a price hike but to embrace Messa is not to watch your wallet but rather to spoil your senses.
The portions are reasonable in contrast to some fine dining eateries where you can drop a small bankroll and still walk out famished but if you do leave room for dessert Aviv’s background in pastries will seduce you into adding a few more calories that you don’t have to count because anything that tastes as good as his Valrhona Chocolate Delight (NIS 56) can’t be bad for you and if it is bad for you who wants to be good anyway though the wild berries dessert for NIS 66 might fool you into thinking you indulged less than you did
It’s easy to get carried away with such an amazing menu that you might forget that Messa also has one of the Israel’s best wine lists with vertical vintages of some Israeli and imported wines as well as some spots for local boutique labels that have taken the country by storm. With the lunch menu, you can get a glass of Tabor Sauvignon Blanc (with grassy and citric notes well suited to match the fish dishes and salads) or Tabor Cabernet Sauvignon ( a good match for the red meat) for a reasonable NIS 26 though there are four wines every day also available by the half glass or a taste for those who want to explore deeper into Messa’s cellar. Including these there are about fourteen wines avaiable by the glass including 2011 Tzora Misty Hills for NIS 50 for 1/2 glass or NIS 98 glass which is 90% Cabernet Sauvignon bolstered by 10% Syrah and Tzora winemaker Eran Pick has become one of Israel’s most esteemed winemakers not only by the wines he makes but the wine lists for the wine lists his bottles appear.
After all, good wine without good food or good food without good wine can be like a wedding without a groom or a spouse. You can still have a party but that’s not the ideal either one can attain without the other. Tzora is just one the many top notch Israeli boutique wineries with selections on the list.
The Margalit Winery takes a few precious slots which makes sense as a sort of a tribute since sommelier Ben Ron studied under Yair Margalit at Tel Hai College’s wine cellar program just as Chateau Golan’s isn’t that surprising since Ron also interned there in 2008 under Uri Hetz yet the inclusion of Flam, Pelter, Clos De Gat, Castel, Vitken, Shvo and Sphera make for a who’s who of Israel’s best wineries. Larger though well revered Recanati, Yarden and Galil Mountain have their premium wines also making a showing. A wide range of international wines and styles from France, Italy, Spain, Austria and New Zealand make Messa’s wine list more familiar to international diners who might want to try an Israeli wine side by side with a wine they are more accustomed to and there’s a full range of dry and semi-dry, white and red, still or sparkling wines that one might order to complement any food item on the menu and then again some iconic wines where you might decide what dish best matches the wine. Though the business lunch menu which is available from Noon to 330PM will surely seem expensive to some, considering the combinations of the starters and main course can easily add up to over NIS 200 if ordered during dinner hours, coming in for lunch at NIS 96 or NIS 116 might be the only path for some to this gem of Israeli dining or just a way for those who can afford to be regulars as an invitation to come more often alone or with friends.
(Non-kosher) 03-685-6859 for reservations 19 Ha’arba’a Street, Tel Aviv Most major credit cards accepted