The supreme quality of work in the kitchen puts Popina in the top echelon of Israel’s culinary scene
Photo: Yaron Brener
As restaurants proliferate in Tel Aviv, and competition increases, it is only natural that many would look for a way to stand out from the rest.
At Popina, it is the way the menu organizes the food according to the methods used to cook and prepare it: Cured, steamed, baked, roasted, and slow cooked. It is the kind of thing that could easily be dismissed as a gimmick - were it not for the supreme quality of work in the kitchen that puts Popina in the top echelon of Israel’s culinary scene.
A chef’s tasting menu of seven courses for a fixed price is offered. Tempting as that idea was, because my dining companion was vegetarian, we opted to make our own selections, along the lines of the menu’s suggestion to sample dishes representing each of the aforementioned five categories.
There are also five specialty cocktails matched with these categories. Our knowledgeable waitress recommended the Shrub - an intriguing blend of rum, Martini Bianco, Earl Grey, pineapple, rosemary and tonic. The complex drink - served in a martini glass with a violet petal floating on top - manages to be both sweet and refreshing at the same time.
We also tried the Koh Samui - lychee liqueur with rum, cilantro, chili and lime. The Thai origin of the name notwithstanding, it was like drinking chilled, bracing, liquid schoug.
Our choice in the cured category was the pickled beet and apple salad: Slices of the pickled vegetable and tart fruit on a bed of mixed greens, with walnuts and shaved pecorino cheese. The wonderful interplay of all these flavors keeps one’s taste buds continuously on the ball. The huge salad kept us company as the meal progressed.
The root vegetable tartar was actually in the steamed category, since both raw and cooked carrots, celery, asparagus, chestnuts and kohlrabi were tossed in aged balsamic vinegar and enhanced with drizzles of cashew butter and dollops of a carrot mustard cream. The exceptional presentation was equaled only by the unique and extraordinary mélange of flavors.
Our third vegetarian choice was "spaghetti and beetballs": A truly inventive dish comprising faux meatballs - falafel-like round patties of ground and roasted beets, red quinoa and black lentils - and julienned kohlrabi designed to resemble pasta and even cooked to the texture of very al dente spaghetti, then combined with pesto, walnuts and Parmesan. The ensemble tasted surprisingly like its namesake - and the experience, taken together with our two preceding dishes, amounted to a celebration of the heights to which vegetarianism can aspire.
Which is not to say that Popina neglects meat: The evening’s beef specials were prime rib, and T-bone and Porterhouse steaks. Since the latter is meant for two, I ordered the prime rib - which came done medium-rare, already sliced, with the bone on the side. The meat was so tender I could cut it with my fork, and it was melt-in-your mouth delicious.
There was one more category left to try: Slow-cooked. The pumpkin jam ravioli, with amaretto, foie gras, roasted almonds and truffle foam, tasted as exotic as it sounds, while the balance was near-perfect: the sweetness of the jam cut the richness of the foie gras, and the crunch of the almonds complemented both the fluffiness of the foam and the softness of the ravioli.
For dessert, we could not resist the cheesecake, since it proudly bore the name Popina’s. Midway between the denseness of a New York cheesecake and the lightness of an Italian ricotta cheesecake, this version was very good indeed; yet the bar is set so high here, that in comparison to what we had already come to expect, it ranked at the level of ordinary excellence.
On the other hand, the rice pudding with mango cream was more in the mold of a true Popina creation, featuring multiple flavors and textures. A small pitcher of thick mango cream was decanted tableside next to a mound of sticky rice topped with extremely thin, rum-soaked pineapple slices and guava marmalade - all crowned with a scoop of coconut sorbet. Almost indescribably superb.
After his crowning success five years ago, Chef Orel Kimchi honed his craft in two of the best restaurants in New York and San Sebastian, returning to Israel to open Popina three years ago. Tel Aviv has reason to be grateful that this world champion has come home to fulfill his dream of owning his own restaurant.
3 Ahad Ha’am Street, Tel Aviv
Tel. (03) 575-7477