Fastened to an inner wall of Amir Kronberg’s tiny Tel Aviv restaurant Gadera 26 is a vintage black-and-white picture of a gentleman you might mistake for Rudolph Valentino as The Sheik – but it’s actually the affable Israeli chef’s Iraqi-Jewish grandfather. He’s as strappingly handsome as Kronberg, 34, who turns out savory market-fresh fare from a small open kitchen that has made it the pack leader of a new crop of eateries in the city’s teeming Kerem HaTeimanim quarter.
This is a wisp of a neighborhood straddling the HaCarmel Market that was settled by Yemenite Jews over a century ago.
Levantine and labyrinthine, its tangle of sloping, flower-lined lanes is heavily trafficked by feral cats and dominated – if that’s the word – by multicolored two and three-story dwellings of Lilliputian proportion, many with charmingly precarious wooden overhangs…you half-expect Papa Smurf to poke his head out from one of them and hand you a map to his secret village.
There’s the occasional Bauhaus-style edifice and pricey condo too, but modernism is decidedly not what define’s the district’s character. In soul and structure it’s derivative of Yemen’s Jewish ghettos of yore, it is said, but it really seems to channel the late Robert Altman’s surreal vision of Sweethaven in his film version of Popeye – only this ‘hood’s got positively Smurflicious chow.
Shoebox-sized hummus joints, most of which are excellent, abound but the unmistakable direction is toward increased creativity in kitchens here. Kronberg’s Israeli guacamole, for example, made with his cousin’s avocados from Herzliya, pops with pickled lemon. And the likes of Moroccan fish “meatballs,” and kubeh, an Iraqi bulgur wheat and meat dumpling stew with a hint of sweetness, make the ever-changing menu crackle. And hard to go wrong with Chef Amir’s Swedish meatballs.
A few lanes over is tiny Ke’arot, which is Hebrew for “bowl” and true to the name, everything here is served in a bright ceramic bowl made by a local artisan named Jorge. One exception is the excellent shakshuka – two fried eggs in a spicy tomato and onion stew, served in a frying pan. Better than most. Skip Habasta, which is overpriced and unremarkable; instead try the earthier Bat Arzi at HaShomer 7. And settle into Coffee Lab (42 Rabbi Meir St) a mod Starbucks-defying gem chiseled into the edge of the noisy marketplace, for respite from the sensory overload.
WHAT’S THERE TO SEE NEARBY?
Tel Aviv’s biggest open air market fairly groans with more fresh Israeli-grown fruits and vegetables, fish, meat and spices than a truckload of the most capable chefs could handle. When you spot that perfect watermelon, grab it – but don’t be afraid to haggle. Then, wander about the adjacent narrow, flower-filled lanes.
The Kerem is short walk from Jaffa, the oldest part of the Tel Aviv municipality and which traces its history back upwards of 7,500 years. Jonah and the whale…the cedars of Lebanon shipped here for the Second Temple in Jerusalem…the resurrection of Tabitha…all among magical Jaffa’s cultural legacies. A newer one is the upscale al fresco South American-inflected snack shack called Casita, right across from the restaurant Casanova. Go at night; it’s like eating on a boat.
Tayelet Beach promenade
The south sideof the Kerem is only about a five-minute walk from Tel Aviv’s famous seaside promenade, straddling the city’s coastline in either direction.
WHERE TO STAY
There’s something appealing and cheerful about this small, totally renovated and often overlooked hotel. Oversized fabric headboards with floral motifs rise above soft beds and hardwood floors. Sliding glass doors open to small balconies with Careless Whisper-worthy sea views. This is a perfect example of a mid-sized non-chain hotel that offers uncomplicated contemporary comfort away from the urban fray and virtually across the street from a wide chunk of Tel Aviv beach. Yours from about $150 a night. For a few more shekels, I recommend the roomier Studio Suite.