Minna Tomei: 5 Asian Kitchens is a small chain (two restaurants, one in a Haifa suburb and one in Tel Aviv) with an ambitious menu—dishes representing the cuisines of five Asian countries : Thailand, Japan, Korea, Vietnam and India.
The Tel Aviv branch is in a swanky location, next to one of the city’s most exclusive restaurants; yet the interior looks quite informal, with rather plain furniture, and even some tables with benches that do not have backs. Pleasant Indian music plays in the background.
The bilingual menu comprises five columns, one for each nation’s cuisine; and each column lists 6-8 dishes, progressing from appetizers to main courses. There are even gluten-free and vegan versions throughout.
The alcohol list, meanwhile, is only in Hebrew: cocktails, a limited wine list, and three brands of beer. A nice touch is that the affable waiter, who was fluent in English, offered samples of cocktails to taste. He also explained and recommended dishes, made sure we understood which were spicy, and gave tips on how to eat each one. Finally, he brought each dish we ordered as they became ready, so nothing would get cold.
Since there are plenty of restaurants in Israel covering three of the cuisines on offer, we chose to order from the Vietnamese and Korean selections. Fortunately, this decisions rewarded us with a couple of extraordinary entrées: in the case of the former, Ga Ga Curry—roasted duck in a yellow curry and lemongrass sauce, with preserved mango and Saigon crêpes. The attentive waiter brought us additional crêpes, unbidden, as soon as he noticed we had eagerly finished our first serving.
Equally delicious, in a very different way, was the Korean chunky beef: Bulgogi sirloin, expertly grilled medium-rare, in a mustard sauce with soba noodles and pear slices. The quality of the beef and duck was impressive.
Once again, the dessert menu was not in English. We particularly enjoyed the Asian kiss fruit salad, with mascarpone cream.
With a range of dishes both familiar and exotic, Minna Tomei is a good choice for an Asian meal, for the adventurous or not.
Ha’arba'a St 17, Tel Aviv-Yafo.
Taya is a suburban restaurant that takes a very different approach to pan-Asian. Rather than separate its cuisines by country, it categorizes its dishes more by major ingredient, and even indulges in creative fusion. The chef, who learned much of his trade in New York, draws his inspiration not only from the major Asian cuisines—Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese and Chinese—he has also managed to incorporate Burmese and Indonesian dishes into the menu. Clearly, he has hit on a winning formula; now completing three successful years, the restaurant fills up even on regular weeknights.
The menu here is electronic, on an iPad, in three languages: English Hebrew and Russian. The alcohol menu reflects a full bar, including specialty cocktails, a limited wine list, and draft and bottled beers.
The food categories are starters, salads, sushi, rice plus, noodles, specials, and gyoza (Japanese dumplings). There are also separate headings for kids and vegan.
An outstanding example of fusion at Taya is the Thai gyoza soup: chicken gyoza—Japanese kreplach, if you will—in a broth of red curry. There are no symbols on the menu indicating “spicy,” but if there were, this dish would probably merit one chili pepper; its gentle heat leaves a pleasant tingle in the mouth after each spoonful.
Another Thai-Japanese fusion hit is the perfectly fried shrimp tempura served not with with teriyaki but with sweet chili sauce.
The huge sushi boat is pure Japanese, of course; fans of this delicacy will certainly appreciate Taya’s insistence on using only the freshest fish.
And then there are the restaurant’s totally original dishes, such as the pistachio noodles: egg noodles, red pepper, zucchini, tofu, coconut milk, scallions and cilantro in a sauce of pistachio, lemongrass and chili. Taya’s owner says it is one of their most popular dishes.
Desserts—on a menu that inexplicably suddenly switches to Hebrew only—continues the theme of originality, especially the coconut nemesis: chocolate truffle on coconut mousse, topped with vanilla mousse, toasted coconut and fresh strawberries (or other seasonal fruit). A superb sweet mélange.
Taya offers business lunches at a 15 percent discount every weekday until 5pm. And in conjunction with the restaurant website Zap, there are buy-one-get-one-free deals on Sundays.
Taya may be deep in the heart of the Sharon countryside, but its kitchen boasts big-city props.
Ha’ofeh St 1, Kadima.
Tel. (09) 772-8878
Fifi's, in turn, is starkly different from both Minna Tomei and Taya. This hole-in-the-wall in Levinsky Market contains only four tiny tables, with barely enough room for two people at each table. And there is no reserving a table; according to chef/owner Ifat Tvoua, even her family cannot reserve a table in advance.
The menu here is also very different. At Fifi’s, it is one short page, comprising a total of approximately 9-10 dishes: generally, two soups; several items that are permanent fixtures; a few rotating daily specials; and one dessert.
There is also just one house cocktail, always based on sake, which changes daily as well. We were treated to strawberry mint, which was slightly sweet, and quite refreshing.
The two soups usually include pho—Vietnamese noodle soup that is practically a meal in a bowl. Fifi’s duck pho starred morsels of succulent fowl.
The skirt steak tataki salad, with cellophane noodles, chili, lime, basil, broccoli and avocado, presented us with a nice interplay of flavors. Interestingly, the dish was topped with crispy fried onions—a garnish that turned out to be a recurring theme of the evening, even though it is hardly a staple of Asian cuisines.
That twist—along with a few dishes that had familiar names, but tasted nothing like what was expected—drove home the fact that Fifi’s is unlike other Asian restaurants: its dishes reflect the chef’s own interpretations of cuisines in ways that are unique and unpredictable.
As an example, one could hardly anticipate that the sole dessert on the menu—crack pie—would not be available. Instead, there was Indian halwa, a tiny portion of sweet flakes that may or may not be seen again.
Zevulun St 5, Tel Aviv.
Tel. (03) 647-6363