How a sustainable, plant-based fine dining paradise manages to thrive in the midst of a pandemic. Plus a recipe for charred potato, cherries, and smoked almond milk.
In the middle of COVID-struck South Tel Aviv, a magical wonderland of vegetables exists within the realm of the traditional but recently trending Levinsky Market.
Oparestaurant is a departure from the grit and grime of the surrounding area. Run by Israeli-born chef restauranteur and Culinary Institute of America trained chef Shirel Berger, the restaurant specializes in sustainable vegan fine dining.
Opa is the epitome of farm-to-table sustainable cooking, drawing dishes and inspiration from its urban rooftop garden and the produce of small specialty farmers of the market.
Berger is a composer, and fruits and vegetables are her musical notes. She is one of those magician-like chefs whose fine dining wizardry makes one forget to even miss the meat.
Opa (“grandfather” in German) is in the right place at the right time in post-modern Tel Aviv, a city whose cuisine has morphed into the kind of celebratory veganism that makes thinly sliced roasted beets into a satisfying meal.
Berger’s focus is wholly set on honoring beautiful produce (and a few nuts). Her menu doesn’t even feature the beans or legumes that tend to steal the spotlight in vegan cooking. She highlights singular items through unexpected and creative cooking techniques.
Dining at the restaurant is filled with delightful surprises, like the menu, a minimalistic matter-of-fact list of basic ingredients makes a point to not give away what you’re going to get.
I spoke with Berger to see how she and her staff were surfing the tide in the current economy of shutdowns and restrictions, as well as general uncertainty for business owners.
Chaos is good
I was momentarily concerned when she described her current state as “in chaos” until I realized hers was the good kind of panic that comes from a packed restaurant — at least as packed as places are allowed to be right now.
Opa is booked “at least two weeks in advance,” she tells me. “I’d say we’re going back to normal, if not a more chaotic state.It’s like opening a restaurant all over again from the beginning.”
The sudden restaurant shutdown imposed on March 15 in Israel left Berger, and presumably other chefs, in a dilemma of what to do with all the food. She and her staff canned and pickled whatever they could to keep it from going to waste.
And of course, they had to tend their 120-meter traditional garden (no trendy hydroponics here) of herbs and other edible plants. Other than that, the restaurant relies on small local farms for produce.
“[During the quarantine time] I had cooking revelations, mostly regarding my desire to work only with small farmers. I mean, that’s what we did before, but sometimes I worked with other suppliers as well,” Berger says.
“Now we’re really being more sustainable about where the food comes from and minimizing food miles, while trying not to order as many things from outside of Israel.”
In the restaurant industry, it’s hard to find time to pause and think between prep time, busy services, and sneaking home late at night for a few hours to rest your feet.
That is until the rug gets pulled out from under you. Berger now dreams of making the rooftop garden the setting for the restaurant’s special dining events.
“We’re going to have a very intimate fine dining dinner and wine pairing once a month,” says Berger. She hopes to get it off the ground (no pun intended) soon.
Berger’s recipe below highlights the sweet red cherries in season in Israel right now, infusing them with the mild heat from jalapeño peppers and pairing them with warmly spiced charred potatoes and a sauce of homemade smoked paprika almond milk.
CHARRED POTATO, CHERRIES, AND SMOKED ALMOND MILK
For the cherries:
1 cup pitted cherries
1/4 cup olive oil
1 clove sliced garlic
1 jalapeño sliced
1/4 cup lime
Zest from 2 limes
1 tsp. salt
for the potatoes:
1 bunch cilantro
3 liters water
1 cinnamon stick
1 tsp. cumin seeds
1 tsp. coriander seeds
2 tbsp. salt
½ kilo butter potatoes
¼ cup olive oil
For the almond milk:
½ cup soaked almonds
1½ cups water
1 tbsp. lemon juice
1 tsp. salt
¼ tsp. smoked paprika
15 leaves of cilantro
¼ cup chopped scallions
5 pieces charred potato
¼ cup almond milk
- Combine all ingredients for the cherry mixture in a bowl and reserve up to 12 hours.
- Combine all ingredients for the potatoes, aside from the olive oil, in a pot. Bring to a boil and lower heat to a simmer. Cook until potatoes are soft.
- Meanwhile, heat oven to 220C (425F). Tear the cooked potato with your hands, toss together with olive oil in a bowl, then bake for 30 minutes.
- While the potatoes are in the oven, combine all the ingredients for the almond milk in a blender. Blend until smooth, strain with a fine-mesh sieve and set aside.
- Plate the dish: Arrange the potatoes in a bowl, add the cherries, cilantro, scallions, and almond milk.
About the Author:
Jessica Halfin is an American immigrant who arrived in Israel in 2006. She is an Israeli-trained baker, gourmet cook, food and culture writer, and gives foodie tours to tourists in Haifa City