There isn’t another restaurant in Tel Aviv as daring and experimental as Opa, the brainchild of chef-cum-artist Shirel Berger. To find out what makes the plant-based eatery so special, and why you don’t have to vegan to enjoy it, we sit down for dinner with Berger herself.
When Shirel Berger was just 12 years old, she took control over her family’s kitchen. Alarmed, her German grandfather (‘Opa’) Henry, who himself ran a hamburger joint in Long Beach, California, told her never to open a restaurant. ‘You’d have to be crazy’, he said. Little did he know his granddaughter was just that.
Berger really is crazy – mostly about food, but also about innovation. After studying at the Culinary Institute of America, she worked alongside top chefs at NYC’s leading gastronomic venues, including Jean-George Vongerichten’s ABC Kitchen. But it wasn’t until she returned to Israel that she found her niche: ‘It’s something about the land here that just makes the produce so good. There was a moment, when I cooked a 12-course meal for my family, using only vegetables I bought from a market in Jerusalem, that I thought wow! No one else is doing this. It’s the art of vegetables’, Berger tells us over dinner.
We dine at Opa, of course, the restaurant she opened in memory of her grandfather. On the menu tonight are raspberries in asparagus soup on saltbush with mulberry liquor and blueberries from the Japanese grill, fermented lychee and rosemary skewers, almond and onion ice cream on caramelised melon peel that’s been sitting in its own juices for a whole year, plus seven more courses of small and incredibly artfully executed delicacies. Berger says that she believes in eating increasingly plant-based, and that she hasn’t touched meat in nine years. But veganism alone isn’t the answer to every problem.
‘Years ago, vegan restaurants in New York were awful. There was a lot of talk about farm-to-table, but when it came to plant-based food, it was all so basic at the time’, she explains. To do it right, Opa, which is 100% vegan, uses mostly locally grown ingredients with very few exceptions (‘sorry, but I don’t drink Israeli wine’, Berger says). Foodies from around town – and around the world – come here to experience what happens when simple ingredients are used in unexpected ways. ‘We take one vegetable and play with it. It’s about the origins of food. As a restaurant, Opa is really based on the wonders we can find when we experiment with what we have’.
And there’s no end to this experimentation. Sometimes, the energetic chef comes in when the restaurant is closed, plays music and gets lost in the kitchen. On occasion, she tells us, she’s come up with five new dishes in a day, all of which were on the menu within 24 hours. These are the formative years for plant-based food. 13% of Israelis are vegetarian, while 5% claim to be fully vegan. In Tel Aviv, one of the world’s top vegan capitals, there’s no escaping the trend. Not that you should, anyway: you don’t have to be veggie to enjoy a meal at Opa.
For all its culinary sophistication, the restaurant is invitingly unceremonious and welcoming. ‘What connects people is to try something new together, to eat from the same plate, and to be surprised by how it can taste’, says Berger: ‘If you want to succeed as a restaurateur, you should be passionate about food and hospitality at equal parts. And you have to be a bit psycho, too. My Opa was right about that one’.