There was a time, not long ago, when for many of us, all we knew of Israeli food was what we heard second-hand. A friend would return from a birthright trip or vacation with tales of eggplant dishes and the creamiest of hummus and the freshest of grilled fishes.
That changed for Miamians in the past few years when all of a sudden Israeli cuisine became a serious thing. It started perhaps with Michael Solomonov when he opened a restaurant that soon perished thanks to the never-ending Wynwood construction and continues now with the much-liked Abbalé Telavivian Kitchen.
Those restaurants provided an overview of Israeli dishes—baba ganoush and shakshuka and all the stars we needed to know. But now we have Neya, a Surfside restaurant making us rethink Israeli food all over again.
Thanks to Israel-born chef Ben Siman Tov, the menu at Neya draws inspiration from the dishes of his home country and takes them to new places, adding non-typical ingredients and techniques in ways that just work. These are Israeli or, maybe more broadly, Mediterranean dishes that are downright original and quite good.
Neya came to be thanks to the team from Novikov Miami, which includes Philippe Moullet, former global managing director for Zuma. They brought Siman Tov directly from Israel to head the kitchen at Neya, and they say his dishes blend Israeli food with Spanish, North African and Levantine cuisines.
This happens in an unassuming storefront a couple of blocks from the Surfside ocean, in that part of the beach that feels trapped in the lowrise Miami of the 1960s. Inside, they’ve created a decidedly modern dining room with big, cushy booths separating the main space from a large bar, its backlit shelves adding most of the light to the space. While it has the feel of a swanky New York restaurant, kids darted between tables early in the night. Although, this is a restaurant that could turn into a scene if it seriously catches on.
This is a place that ought to attract both of those early and late-night crowds, considering that everything we tasted is worthy of that attention. Most of the menu is small plates, like the hamachi ceviche in a neon-green pool that provides an herby bite to marinated fish. The yellowfin comes chopped atop a circle of spiced eggplant, great on its own but even better with crunchy pita chips dusted with a spice mix that Siman Tov ought to trademark. The roasted beets look gorgeous dotting a yogurt sauce turned pink from beet juice, and a crunch coming from smoked almonds. There are black truffle slices on a super-creamy polenta with mushrooms, and the brussels sprouts are deep-fried pops of green on a creamy turmeric-tahini sauce. The lahmacun might be the most recognizable of the dishes, a Turkish-style pizza that’s crispy and chewy and well seasoned with ground lamb. The eggplant entrée comes looking like a fish filet, then diced and mixed tableside into a rich, smoky mix of labneh and feta.
There's a whole lot on this menu, and many dishes we wished we’d tried—the Tel Aviv paella, the Moroccan snapper, and the roasted lamb cutlets will have to wait for next time. But maybe it’s good that we didn’t. Now there’s a reason to return, hopefully with a group, because burning through this entire menu should become a life goal.