One of Tel Aviv's latest restaurants is as unexpected as it is delicious. From its crisp, white-washed facade placed unassumingly in south Tel Aviv's Levinsky Market to its gorgeous interior (hat-tip to the design collaboration between Vered Kadouri and Emma and Ofer Shahar, the minimalist makers behind Craft & Bloom), Opa is a study in meticulous details. So it is no surprise that Chef Shirel Berger's main inspirations come from the whisps and whims of the planet kingdom - the way they can be delectably fused and funneled, and equally, how they grace a stunning ceramic plate (another shout out to wunderkind Israeli ceramicist Merav Waldman).
Perfectly fermented plums, sliced in fluttering petals and paired with otherworldly flavors of ginger and black mustard compote, arrive artfully circling the plate like a welcoming invitation to the tongue. The butternut squash, a star of the season, is flecked with maple-smoked pumpkin relish, jalepenos, and lemon. And the pillowy, homemade sourdough bread, served with velvety olive oil butter is mandatory - on its own - and of course, for mopping up every last lick of the plates. The flavors are unique and mysterious, and all of the dishes are, in effect, a sort of tease for diners. They challenge one's appetite and one's constant need to be satiated. "People who ask me if it's possible to feel full from vegetables drive me crazy. After all, people should come to a restaurant to get excited, not to feel full," Berger attests. "In any case, for those who are concerned, I can promise that they won't go home hungry."
One of the firsts to bring the plant-based kitchen to Tel Aviv, Berger returned to Israel from New York after studying at the CIA culinary school and working at ABC Kitchen, specializing in farm-to-table deliciousness. Die-hard carnivores also flocked to the restaurant to eat her creative vegan dishes. Now, says Berger, she has gone through another stage in her culinary development and aspires to greater complexity, using only plant-based materials. But she won't be labeled as a vegan. "I don't define myself as vegan," she says, "a dialogue with food must be deep and spiritual, we live in a fast and detached world from the earth. I was told once that in Buddhist temples only the masters can cook because the spiritual element is in the preparation of the food. That's the dimension I'm looking for in food. I don't like industries in general, hence my research. Being labeled as a vegan prevents me from the freedom to understand what interests me, distances me from my inner truth and prevents me from developing. All this vegan fast food style of eating reduces the idea of veganism and is discouraging. I connect to the ecological side of veganism, and the compassion for the land and living creatures, but I'm sick of people sticking their noses into everyone's bushiness."
Berger grew up in Jerusalem in a very American, Messianic-Jewish home, where her father wrote for foreign television and her mother was from Santa Barbara, California. The Californian mom was careful not to feed the kids anything industrial at home. "Even snacks she prepared for us, and to this day I like to snack on fresh cucumbers at every opportunity," Berger relays. Alongside Berger are Sharona, her twin sister, and Yael Gal, who came from Shpagat. "Yael Gal is running the project, and I'll be in my kitchen, which is a closed aquarium, because I have to be in my zone when I cook. I leave the floor to Sharona and Yael." When asked about starting a restaurant in this climate, in times when investment is a gamble, and restaurants in Tel Aviv are a dime a dozen, Berger dismisses the worry. "We have been deliberating for a long time about the appropriate location, and I understood that the Levinsky Market is exactly what I am looking for - people who have been cultivating their stores for decades. There's authentic honesty about it. We wanted a place for long term, and the renovation was not easy. I work with the organic farm Le Mishmeret Farm To Table company. The high investment is only in focusing on the food. "
Opa, 8 HaLutzim St, Tel Aviv, every evening from 18:00 to 23:00