Monday, February 9, 2009

Visiting Israel: Tel-Aviv with Omer Czerniak, Take 1

Last Tuesday, I was originally supposed to meet with Omer Czerniak, a good friend of mine. Something came up and, instead, I found myself taking the train to the city of Be’er-Sheva, to meet with another friend.

The city of Be’er-Sheva is named “The Negev’s Capital” (the “Negev” is the southern part of Israel… essentially a mild desert). Not very much to see and do there – the main thing about it is the Ben Gurion University. Weather is very good there in the winter, and the summers are dry and very, very hot. We ended up going to a Sushi Bar named Kampai ( Very recommended. Ranks way up there, along with “Irashai Sushi” in Kerrisdale’s Village, Vancouver.

Plans to meet with Omer on Wednesday were foiled by his work; nothing interesting happened that day so I’ll skip it.

On Thursday I met with Omer. We spent a few years working together in Israel. We worked in the same team, doing software development for… well, you should figure it out yourself. Omer is one of these people that have interesting things happening to them far more frequently than average; “pulling an Omer” is a synonym for having some sort of a supernatural, insane thing happening to you.

Omer is also one of the extremely small group of IT people that I can safely, without hesitation, call “brilliant”.

He was meeting with two girl friends for dinner in small pizza place in Tel-Aviv. I will write about food in Israel in detail soon, but for now, I will just say this: had I seen the place from outside, I’d probably assume that this place sells junk and move on. However it turns out that Omer knows his stuff; the only pizza, which tasted as good to me as this Tel-Aviv pizza, is “Wooden Heads Pizza” in Kingston, Ontario (I raved about it in my KTGC blog). The only differences are that this Tel-Aviv place is far from being a sophisticated restaurant, and prices are about %70 lower.

I devoured the pizza with passion, then all four of us went to Omer’s place. We watched the Israeli version of “The Amazing Race”, and then split-up – the girls went home, Omer and I went to the streets.

Omer lives in a rather sought-after location in Tel-Aviv. It doesn’t get much more “downtown” than this; you cannot possibly swing a cat without hitting a nightclub / pub / bar / restaurant / you name it.

As we were walking down the streets of Tel-Aviv, I suddenly had some nasty, rude awakening.

I spent the first 25 years of my life in Ramat-Gan, which is a stone-throw away from Tel-Aviv. It doesn’t take more than 10-15 minutes drive (or 5 minutes, if all lights are green) to get from my place in Ramat-Gan into the heart of Tel-Aviv, and yet I simply hated that city. Believe it or not, during those 25 years I have never set foot in any Tel-Aviv pub, and except for very few occasions – no restaurants either.

Looking back, that was obviously a grave mistake. I started realizing that mistake as I was driving through USA / Canada last summer: Tel-Aviv simply has it all. Dubbed “the city that never sleeps” (it’s the city’s actual, formal slogan), this city always has something going on in it. You wake up at 4:00am and feels like hitting a night-club? you’ll find one, any day of the week; craving a cocktail at 3:00am? it’ll be very hard for you to not find an open pub.

It simply has it all – and, more importantly, it has it all the time. This city really never sleeps. It boasts one of the best nightlife scenes in the world, it has cafes, restaurants, museums, extraordinary beach… really everything.

And the food…

Israelis in general, and Tel-Aviv residents in particular, take their awesome food for granted in much the same way that Canadians take their peaceful lifestyle. This is one thing that I miss a lot in Israel – that food is not just a necessity, it is actually a culture.

It’s a fact: world-wide fast-food chains, such as Wendy’s, Starbucks etc, have failed miserably in Israel. The single Wendy’s establishment in Tel-Aviv’s history died in agonizing pain, and Starbucks was a failure right from the get-go. The only world-renowned fast food chain that survived in Israel is McDonald’s, and the typical Israeli will eat there only if he ran out of all other options (as a side note, I will mention that McDonald’s in Israel tastes better than in North America. Don’t ask my why).

I measure “food goodness” by the quality / price ratio; given that, I find it hard to think of any other place that beats Tel-Aviv. Food prices are now more expensive than they used to be, but still cheap comparing to North America and Europe, especially when you weigh-in the quality of the food you get.

There is all kinds of food here. Restaurants actually compete with each other over quality, and it shows; even the smallest establishments serve food that is hard to beat by rather fancy American / Canadian restaurant.

Nutrition-wise, Tel-Aviv wins too. As a matter of fact, not just Tel-Aviv; Israelis are typically much more informed and educated when it comes to whatever they put in their mouths, which explains the extremely low obesity rate. I can’t think of anybody I know who buys frozen foods – what the hell for? everything is available, fresh and cheap (two pounds of fresh, tasteful tomatoes costs here between 3-5 NIS, which is between 90 cents to 1.20 CDN).

Coffee too. North American so-called “drip coffee” (filtered coffee) is not considered “coffee” here; espresso-based products are much more popular (and tasty as well; European style), as well as Turkish coffee (extremely fine-ground coffee, cooked slowly on the stove). Coffee-aware people like my good friend Ash Christopher would have the time of their life here.

Nightlife-wise… oh well. I should qualify by saying that I’m not a night-owl and don’t hit pubs very frequently; still, walking through the streets you can see that, when it comes to nightlife, it is very hard to beat Tel-Aviv. Scores of pubs, restaurants, dance-clubs… everything from the sleaziest singles pub to the fanciest Italian restaurants – you can find it here.

Remember! land-mass wise, Tel Aviv is tiny (less than 52 square km; less than 20 square miles. Compare to Toronto (proper; not GTA) at 630 square km or 243 square miles – more than ten times larger!), so you are unlikely to find yourself too far away from a place of action, 24x7.

Anyhow: Omer and I ended up going to a wine bar near Rothschild Street – a tiny place where you sit down, buy a bottle of wine and chill-out with friends. We talked for more than an hour about everything, reminiscing, catching-up over a bottle of decent white wine. After that we went to a place called “Yogurtia”, which is somewhat of an ice-cream place, except that instead of ice-cream they serve yogurts (with all types of add-ons such as peanuts, strawberries and so forth). Strange? maybe. Tasty? hell yeah.

We spent another 45 minutes or so there, then left for another walk in the streets. It was loaded with people, even though the time was about 2:00am. At around 2:30am we decided to part ways; 25 minutes later I was home, relaxing after a great night out.



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