Sunday, April 24, 2011

Wedding Daze – Tasty Food with a Dash of Concept Confusion at HaBasta

HaBasta – HaShomer Street 4 (next to Carmel Market)

It is wedding season in Israel! Just like in the UK with Kate and William, the warmth of spring brings a litany of wedding invitations. Wander down the end of Dizengof Street and the many bridal shops are packed with mothers and daughters preparing and bartering for the big day. I am no expert on weddings but was surprised to hear that many people rent their dress for thousands of shekels instead of buying it, but being single what do I know?

Weddings in Israel are different from the ones I am used to abroad. On the one hand, they are taken very seriously with ridiculous amounts of money spent, but on the other, they are less punctual, more informal, much livelier and consider yourselves lucky if you actually get a physical invitation.

I have been to several weddings in Israel and one thing is certain - you don’t need to turn up on time. I, the foolish newbie, always believes that the ceremony will start at the set time. Nothing starts at the set time in this country! As a result I am always early. A couple of weeks ago I went to a wedding where the reception was scheduled at 7pm with the actual ceremony (Hupa) scheduled at 8pm – I thought I was being clever turning up at 7:55pm only to discover I was one of the first to arrive. The actual ceremony took place at 9:30pm.

Wander around the streets of Tel Aviv and you are bound to bump into couples getting their pictures taken in front of a store, monument or trash heap. This is an important Israeli pre-marital tradition where the bride and groom (yes the groom sees the bride in dress before the ceremony) taking pictures of locations which are important to them, if totally irrelevant to anyone else.

Don’t dare bring presents to an Israeli wedding, there are no lists here! – Cheques and cash are the name of the game; there are even websites to help you decipher how much money to offer at any particular wedding. I am not a fan and would have thought that a mixture of cash and chosen gifts is better, but one must respect the customs of the land they are visiting. For example, I knew a couple who were disappointed that many of their international guests brought them presents of kitchenware and art. Today the money is long gone but these same gifts are well used and a cherished souvenir of their wedding day.

As opposed to Christian weddings the actual ceremony takes places at the reception between the finger food and main dining / dancing, convenient, if more time consuming, luckily speeches are rare.

Dress ware is also very casual and jeans are allowed at an Israeli wedding but I would suggest making more of an effort and dressing nicely. Israel is too casual with a unique sense of fashion – Don’t buy the ‘it’s too hot to wear anything fashionable argument either.

As for the food, well, the less said the better, it is a wedding after all!


Luckily the food at HaBasta is worth reporting on.

I have wanted to try this place for a while and after several months and many recommendations later, we finally made it. The restaurant is located very near the Carmel market, is small and is adorned with a mismatch of tables and chairs – a concept I like as is it reminds me of honest European small restaurants. Unfortunately, the mismatch of furniture was just an aperitif to what I found to be a very mixed up concept, albeit with tasty food.

We arrived to an almost empty restaurant which allowed us to choose any table (a favourite of the brunette). The menus were handed to us by a friendly and attentive waitress. I was surprised to see a very long list of hand written choices of fish, meat, tapas and veggie dishes – over 40 dishes. Personally I like hand written descriptions, however, over 40 hand written choices I don’t, as the wit/angle gets lost in the crowd.

Additionally, the menu is too long for a restaurant that specializes in daily changing options, with too many different dishes priced at very different prices all the way from 24nis for the small tapas style dishes to 40nis – 130nis for the main menu. For example, is there really a need for 3 or 4 different types of steak?

This led to some early confusion of how to enjoy the menu. There were no discernable starters as such I was guessing it was all tasting / sharing plates. I decided to try a couple seafood dishes followed by meat dishes. My question is why does a chef, who obviously can cook, not have a shorter and more focused daily menu? i.e. the real specials of the day and not a potpourri?

I had read that this is also a wine bar but with the menu came a very small selection of wines (only 1 Israeli wine). I asked the waitress if there were more wines. She replied that today they were trying to highlight a selected list and Scottish Whiskies (that is fine) and that there is also another larger wine menu with an emphasis on international wine.

From my personal point of view, I was disappointed to find only a very small selection of Israeli wines on the long international list at a restaurant that is cooking local market produce – I guess I was anticipating a Trattoria style evening. This is only a personal criticism as living abroad I am used to only drinking international wine, but was wondering why a restaurant specialising in cooking local and seasonal food would not promote more Israeli wine? I started to get a feeling that there is a battle here between two concepts. One a bistro serving good local food and two an international wine bar that just cannot find common ground.

Some may not be aware, but Israeli wine is expensive compared to the international equivalent and to see international wines priced at the same level or higher than Israeli wine was an added disappointment (maybe it is the tax?). For example, the average price of a bottle of wine bought in the UK (retail) is 30nis due to competition and abundance of New World Wines. 50nis and we are venturing into expensive bottle territory – obviously double+ that for restaurant prices. When compared to the UK, most of the wines at HaBasta were more expensive than the equivalent of what I would spend in a UK restaurant. I realise I am offering a returnee viewpoint and comparing apples with oranges here, but wanted to explain why it doesn’t work for me.

In fairness, I am all for an international wine bar, as there aren’t enough good ones in Israel - but offer it in the proper environment. It is almost as if two people with very different concepts got together but couldn’t mesh their ideas in this place. Maybe next time I will visit this place as if I would be visiting a wine bar and my thoughts will be different?

[On a side tasting note – I was happily surprised to find recently a very good and inexpensive Israeli wine for around 50nis. Recanati Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 – a young wine with great flavours - highly recommended!]

Enough Confusion – The Good News

The food was tasty - we ordered the Sashimi and Grouper Tartar to start. Both were very good and I particularly liked the grouper with the black lentils sprinkled with rock salt. However, I was a little surprised to discover that the sashimi dish was 129nis for two types of fish and a crab. Yes it is tasty, but my mind couldn’t help wander over to the next street where you could get a 13 course tasting menu for an additional 21nis, at Hatzela Hashminit. I even recall eating, an albeit smaller dish, of octopus carpaccio in Maze, London and that only cost 80nis. I would also point out that this is the first dish the waitress recommended to us.

For the meat dishes I ordered the reasonably priced lamb Ragu on polenta – very tasty! And someone else ordered the butchers cut (We all know what I think about that gem). The lamb dish is a good sized portion with outstanding polenta (I mean really good polenta). The butchers cut (110nis) is small, simplistic and only comes with a few cut potatoes, but was of reasonable flavour with a good sear and cooked medium rare – not bad, with the beef itself tastier than the similar version at Herbert Samuel, minus the garnish, which was better at Herbert Samuel.

Dessert was fun and tasty and included a spoon of chocolate mousse – which had an unusual texture that I really enjoyed. And an order of tasty strawberries and mascarpone rounded up the evening. Both dishes were priced at 39nis.

However the confusion was still nagging me – is this place a local bistro or an expensive tapas bar. Or is it a wine bar specialising in International wine (overpriced) with tasty, if expensive, local food on the side? What is it? May I even be so bold and recommend them to check out the menu / concept / prices at Great Queen Street or Anchor and Hope in London which succeed much better in my opinion.

Other issues included the wine being poured without letting us taste it first – did someone mention it was a wine bar? One of our guests asked nicely for a change of silverware and plates between the fish and meat courses – I would have hoped it would have been a given as it is not ideal eating meat with fishy left overs on the plate.

Overall, I left very confused, yes the food was good, if expensive, but the mismatched furniture only reflected the mismatched concept of what should truly be a great restaurant or wine bar? If only they focus and meld the concept of two seemingly strong, if confused, competing ideas.

3 stars out of 5
(4 stars for the food)

The Disgruntled Diner.


  1. I like your comments about Israeli weddings - couldn't agree more. The timings really do confuse me! I wrote about Israeli weddings on my blog the other day:

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