September 23, 2019

A Night at the Salon

One year ago, on the day after Israel’s Independence Day, my Israeli friends Gady and Assaf took me to The Salon, their favorite restaurant in Tel Aviv.

The restaurant is in a nondescript warehouse area east of the city center. It’s not easy to get into — impossible, Gady told me — and he let me know I had better be prepared.

For what? I thought. I’d heard the food is great, but what more could a restaurant offer that would require actual preparation — initiation rituals? Animal sacrifice?

We sat at one of the two dozen or so tables. The space was Philippe Starck meets Giuseppe Arcimboldo — a pretty, white post-industrial rectangle that along one side has an open kitchen, separated by a long flat counter. Spread over the counter were the ingredients the crew of young cooks was about to turn into our dinner: rows of red and purple tomatoes, a large coiled octopus, plumes of green herbs and lettuces, potatoes, beets, ripe fruits and a haunch of beef.

In the midst of those ingredients stood Eyal Shani, the chef. That was the only moment I saw him standing still. Gady introduced him — a trim, middle-aged man with a head of curly gray-and-black hair and intense black eyes.

“Everything I cook, I cook from love,” he told me. “This is my passion.”

The menu was handwritten on a piece of paper. Everything sounded good. I left Assaf in charge.

This was a place where people drink, talk, then walk outside to smoke and talk some more. I remember our wine — a  2010 Clos de Gat Har’El from the Judean Hills. My scribbled notes say: Blood red and packed with alcohol.

As we waited for our dinner, I looked around outside, then came back in to find the waiter sitting at our table, doing Patron with Gady.  

“He saw me sitting here alone,” Gady said. “He said, ‘That’s not right,’ and he bought me shots.”

The food started coming out — some of the best I’ve ever eaten.

First came rosemary focaccia from the wood-fired oven. Then a root-vegetable salad braised in butter. Then Shani’s signature dish: a salad with peeled marinated tomatoes — jewels of the desert — flecked with pumpkin seeds and a fragrant olive oil. Next came his take on the Iraqi sabich sandwich, with wood-grilled eggplant, hard-boiled egg and chopped jalapeños. Shani baked our potatoes in the wood oven, too, then hollowed them out and filled the buttery remains with sautéed octopus and calamari. At some point, I think, we devoured that beef haunch, too. It was the Mediterranean Sea stuffed into the Mediterranean earth. I swooned.  

The music grew louder. All over the restaurant, people were feeding one another amazing spoonsful of food — taste this; no, taste this.

The people at the next table were too loud — we solved that problem in a very Israeli way — by being louder. Old Israeli ballads gave way to Motown blended into Oriental rock, a pulsing, sensuous number called “Sheek Shel Shuk.” Two blond women at the next table jacked their tight skirts up over their thighs and climbed onto the counter, now cleared of food, and continued to dance. People popped up at tables and joined them. There was no dance floor to go to — the whole restaurant just became a dance floor, an eating floor, a talking and drinking and kissing and yelling floor.

I realized what Gady meant when he told me I’d better be prepared — this wasn’t a restaurant. This was the all of Israel, crammed into a box. Loud, inventive, obnoxious, joyous, communal, passionate and more than a little nuts.  Blood red and packed with alcohol.

The crew was busy cleaning.  I watched Shani moving constantly, keeping his eye on the utter pandemonium he had stirred up. He was doing something I’d never seen in a restaurant, spreading what looked like dried branches over the length of his stovetop and grill, as if he were mulching a garden or laying out a picnic of bone-dry hay for goats and then — then — the branches caught fire.  And a long fuse of flame shot up toward the ceiling and burned, and the lights went off, and the whole place went black —  except for the bright-hot fire. Through the smoke, I could see the high, sweaty faces of the crowd, and we whooped and danced and cheered as the flames leapt higher, and, yes, I was buzzed, we were all buzzed, but even so, a thought came to me at that moment with such clarity I might as well have been Mormon: If Iran drops a nuke on Israel right now, I thought, Israel still wins.  If it all ends this instant, Israel wins. These people are celebrating life and food and community and one another with blind, wild, all-embracing abandon, come what may, and if you are living life like that, at dinner on a Wednesday night, enjoying each moment as if it’s the last, as it well could be, well, isn’t that winning?

See pictures of Rob Eshman’s night at Salon by visiting him on Twitter or Instagram @foodaism, or on Facebook.