Igra Rama 20-not early enough–20-too soon
Cause of Death: Suicide
Some years ago I had done some work in SE Asia, in which capacity I became acquainted with the fine and amiable employees of the Israeli embassy stationed in that region. The ambassador, like so many East European Jews of middling+ age, was of an extraction less exalted (what we euphemistically call ‘humble’) than the position to which he ultimately attained, and during our parting conversation he materialized a phrase from the ‘old country’ which I had–then–let pass as inconsequential from memory, but wish–now–that I had had it mnemonically committed, instead.
Beside its name, the restaurant Igra Rama had nothing to do with Eastern Europe, and everything to do with Israel–which has something to do, historically, with Eastern Europe.
Israel is all around us in its miniscule vastness, yet the best of it was once right before me neatly laid on white linen. Igra was your best greengrocer, wine broker, fishmonger, with the choicest pick, vintage, and catch being brought to one small kitchen, and prepared and served you in the manner befitting best those daily-delivered ingredients. I shall miss the convenience of that. Gathered here today, belatedly mourning the prematurely deceased, done in by a slaying economic policy, retired by force from the culinary monde, our grief is compounded. In losing this one we have lost many; in losing a chef we lost a farmer, we lost a fishmonger, we lost a viticulturist. The last image we have before our food comes to table is of the chef standing over the fire; but what distinguished this restaurant was the equal seriousness and solicitousness which was brought to bear not solely upon the last stage before plating and serving, but every preceding sequential stage, back to the seedling stage, to the literal soil. The musabbaḥa was brought back to its humus, so to speak.
Igra Rama is now, last I saw, replaced by some sort of cafe, of the sort meeting impressively the typicality and repeatability-ness required of earning that generic tag. Unless of course this last place was itself superimposed with another yet vaguer and applicable the more to a wider mass of the common lot and their safe, common taste.
Cause of Death: Taxes
The second ground-cast casket has an equal unlikeliness of ever being disinterred. It was in fact Mekong the restaurant which led me to work in one of the countries through which traverses that distinguished muddy river, so important economically for the littoral peoples of SE Asia. In a room on a corner on a street of Tel Aviv was a sandwich which withstands the memorial sands of my earthly time, so delicious was it, and it is exaggerating overmuch to state that it was a sandwich that brought me quite literally half-way round the world, with three suitcases and a English-Vietnamese dictionary.
Mekong annexed to Brut restaurant as a pop-up which stayed indefinitely inflated, and whose theme was to offer selected foods from those countries through which that river courses on its 4,900 km flow. They served the most wonderful bánh mì with fish. I was to discover that such a thing was not, well, “a thing.” To any denizen of Viet Nam or connoisseur of their cuisine, that last description will appear incongruous, if not ridiculous, if not sacrilegious. There is no such pescatarian version of the omnipresent bánh mì in Vietnam (excluding the modern inauthentic offshoot of canned tuna fish), as I was to discover by way of not discovering one when touring that country’s food stalls. The Vietnamese baguette, a true “fusion” cuisine before any such modern fashion came into fashion, traditionally features duck pâté. As for the fish bánh mì, that is alas to be one baguette I won’t be a-gettin’, neither there, nor here, at the corner of Nahalat Benyamin and Montifiore.
The restaurant to which Mekong was once the annex is, happily, in energetic operation. And rightly it should. So happy, and so rightly, that Brut Wine Bar deserves its own write-up, elsetime, elsewhere.
Yoezer Wine Bar: 1995–2012
Cause of Death: Managerial ennui
Yoezer Wine Bar still savours nostalgically in the minds of the best current chefs and gourmands in Tel Aviv. And it is this restaurant which anticipated such excellent establishments in Tel Aviv as Brut Wine Bar and HaBasta (http ). Beside the iconic Jaffa Clock Tour, passing under one of the photogenic stone arches of the old port city, this restaurant was located in what to my mind was a sort of monk’s cave, with a paneled central bar and unassuming wood tables set in a unmathematical manner across a cold stone floor. Big melty candles affixed to various nooks in the wall and atop spare surfaces added to the Cistercian impression. If you prefer your illustrations medieval, one felt oneself, as he fared on charcuterie of cold meat or cheese and rustic bread, to be fêting at a king’s banquet, in the hall of some old stone fortification (I may have the pages of my historical images folded over). Butter–thick, yellow, warm, in globs–was as it should be. (I couldn’t resist imagining a milkmaid out back behind the refectory leaning over a churn dasher in hand.)
The infamous proprietor of Yoezer, venerably aged and respectably girthy, would be found at his wonted stool of the bar, drinking a glass of invariable French (Burgundy, specifically). I wish there had come to pass between us (his name, Shaul Evron, is one which, for chefs and epicures, still tingles the ear upon the mention of it) more than those tacit conversations made up of a nod or a raised palm in greeting or leave-taking. I was too new to the country at the time and too palatally green to appreciate in fullness the spot in which I used to sit as a new immigrant, on weekends off from the army, but that I found myself there withal I give my younger self credit and am, personally, retrospectively impressed.
The place broke down not long after the heart of its owner did. It had not the same direction; or perhaps patrons and workers felt it had not the same spirit.
I will say with sincerity that for Yoezer Wine Bar I would more happily have made Tel Aviv Home, instead of what it is now, a home of the second gradation. Part of living in the Mideast (though considering its geographical setting Israel can be said to be a Mideasst Wild West) is missing the East Coast, or Western Europe. Israel has excellent food; it is perhaps the one thing Israelis, and non-Israelis, agree upon. Go to Shuk Hacarmel, Shuk Mahne Yehuda, or any old city to discover the scrumptious truth of this statement. Israel has delicious food; but for sophisticated fare, accounting widely for the difference between these two synonyms, one must travel to a first world, or first-er world country. Israelis are eating delicious food. Unpretentious food. Market fresh food. But many are still of the mental mold, that old country residue, which considers anything requiring too many steps as “faltzani”, פלצני, which can translate to the word “sophisticated” taken in its most snobbish, snub-nosed connotation. They are not eating charcuterie, apart from such special, specialized, and especially appreciated foreign-based locales as Yoezer Wine Bar. Or such as it was. Luckily, though, I still have another place.
At Brut Wine Bar, they have sometimes an entry on their menu: “Sashimi, Yoezer“. It is I believe the last tangible vestige of what is now a demi-sec memory.
Even the obit is a sort of review. I had the idea some months ago of reviewing a restaurant which no longer existed. Restaurant reviews are, we suppose them to be, meant to commemorate the bris of a restaurant, so that we might mark the blooming of its life, as it flourishes or etiolates. But why should working restaurants get all the attention, and the privilege of publicity? That they are sustained in this, the hardest of industries to stay alive in, is fortuitous enough a sign. Reviews are not only meant to pimp for the working. The true gourmand’s column, that which unqualifiably appreciates the menu gastronomique, will have no compunction praising a good thing, and will in fact appreciate it the more for it having been lost to the table-draped world.