When dining out in Israel, it’s fairly easy to come across shwarma or falafel for an inexpensive taste of local Mediterranean cuisine. And on the high end, your hotel’s concierge might have lots of suggestions and online you can find lots of lists for what’s hip and trendy. But what can be more challenging is to find good spots in the middle range that represent both quality and value.
One choice worth exploring is North Tel Aviv’s Cafe Michal at 230 Dizengoff on the corner of Jabotinsky. Opened in 2003, the Cafe recently converted to a full menu restaurant that features familiar Israeli dishes and its fair share of well executed original twists that have earned it a steady flow of regular diners throughout the day and late into the night.
Opening at 7:30AM seven days a week, it has a regular breakfast crowd but since most Israeli hotels offers a hearty breakfast this may be less of interest to tourists than to locals. Starting at noon though Cafe Michal offers a lunch and dinner menu that is available through midnight every night Friday when the restaurant closes at 5PM. From noon until 5PM, the Cafe has a business lunch special that any of their six main courses comes with a choice of one of their five Mezze or the soup of the day.
A mezze that stands out is their Artichoke Salad with feta cheese, cherry tomatoes and mixed greens. It’s well balanced and well seasoned and showcases their use of fresh produce throughout the menu. When not served with a business lunch the salad goes for NIS 27 and is a nice starter to wet one’s appetite for a larger plate of one of their pasta dishes or their fish, chicken or veal offerings. A glass or bottle of Israeli 2012 Ella Valley Sauvignon Blanc, K (NIS 32/glass or NIS 120/bottle) is a fine pairing as Sauvignon Blanc is a classic match for artichokes and its crisp acidity with herbal and citric notes are well suited to accompany many of their dishes that feature local fish, tomato sauce or cheese.
Even though the Cafe isn’t certified kosher (the norm and not the exception in Tel Aviv) they are friendly to those with a range of dietary concerns and about half the menu is vegetarian with a range of tempting and filling dinner salads.
A house specialty is their chicken salad that offers a generous amount of incredibly tender pan fried chicken morsels on a bed of flavorful greens, dried cranberries and fresh fruit (for instance green apple slices) topped with their own raw sesame tehini for only NIS 54. It would be difficult to find a better, more creative and satiating salad in Tel Aviv. This was also a good pairing for the Ella Valley Sauvignon Blanc but also would marry well with 2011 Clos du Chateau,Chateau Puligni from Burgundy (NIS 58 glass or NIS 120/bottle), a personal favorite of Michal, the owner.
A fine example of their pastas is a plate of Pappardelle with spinach, Jordan & Portobello mushrooms served in olive oil with a dollop of Mascapone. The sauteed mushrooms come to the table wafting a fragrance that pairs well a glass of Israeli 2011 Domaine du Castel Petit Castel, K (NIS 45 glass or NIS 145/bottle) from the Judean Hills. It’s one of Israel’s best priced premium red wines. This blend of Bordeaux red varietals marries well with the savory mushrooms though a Pinot Noir might be an apt alternative. The pappardelle is only NIS 49, about the same price for less inspired pasta dishes at any one of the prolific franchised cafes throughout Israel.
The Petit Castel also pairs well with their main dish of Veal Scaloppine cooked in vegetable stock and a Marsala wine sauce served with mash potatoes for NIS 68 though the food friendly red also pairs well with their homey Stuffed Green Peppers with beef and rice or their Red WIne Stew of winter vegetables and plums over a bed of wild rice. The green peppers match well with the pyrazine of the Castel’s Cabernet components while the plums of the Stew would match well with its Merlot.
If one wanted a more eclectic meal which is more in spirit of the well decorated interior of the Cafe than maybe a few starters as tapas would be a nice option for two or a few diners to split as an alternative to a main course.
A common starter in Israel is roasted eggplant that’s cooked to the point that the eggplant is spreadable and at Cafe Michal it’s the best executed example I can remember served with feta cheese, yogurt, dates and their house tehini. It’s a huge portion and at NIS 37 a more than fair price.
Another special starter is their Gorgonzola Paté served with a fruit chutney for NIS 43. It’s flavorful yet not overpowering and a generous serving that spreads easily on accompanying baked crostini. I can see coming back again and again for this paté as a favorite treat to impress a date or a respite at the end of a day.
There are several fish dishes on the menu worth sampling and the fried sea bream fingers (more like patties) are crusted with pistachios and herbs for NIS 45 and these three starters might make a nice light meal for two matched with one of the Cafe’s white wines or even a light red wine or sparkling wine.
The restaurant also has a nice selection of signature cocktails and premium liquors that make it a fun place for just a drink or two and they stay open past the kitchen closing at midnight until the last customer leaves: maybe a guest having a late night latte before heading home or friends indulging in their Spicy Apple Martini or shots of Grappa as their first stop out for an all-night excursion into Tel Aviv’s famed nightlife.
Whatever reason you stop by at Cafe Michal you’ll be greeted and served by a friendly, enthusiastic and knowledgable staff whose pleasant demeanor is partly due to the up tempo and well selected hip playlist of world beats and jazz that complements an experience worth returning to again and again