Mon-Thurs, Sat 8-Midnight; Fri 8-17;
On a quiet block of Frishman, known for its popular beach, a small, cozy open-air café is buzzing with locals in search of a delicious meal. Tables for two spill out on to the sidewalk, their countertops colored with fresh pastas and salads as diners toast to a long day over glasses of tantalizing Sangria and dip spoons into bowls of sweet potato or lentil soup.
This is Lilush Panini: a six-year-old neighborhood bistro that defines impeccable food and boasts a menu so extensive one could eat there every day for six months and never try the same dish twice. It is the brainchild of Liat Balilety, nicknamed Lilush by her mother at a young age, who has cooked her way into Tel Aviv’s culinary scene over the past 15 years.
Growing up around food (her father opened the fourth gourmet restaurant, Elat Ha’yam, in Jerusalem), Lilush spent her twenties cooking at different restaurants in New York City, including a stint as executive chef at the now-closed Plates 347 in Gramercy. Soon after, she opened a panini bar, Panino Sportivo, on the Upper West Side near Columbia University. The eatery gained positive press from the New York Times and other popular news outlets, and was an immediate success amongst students and hungry New Yorkers.
Despite the success there, Lilush missed her family and in 2004 decided to move back to her home, Israel. Using Panino Sportivo as inspiration, she opened a panini bar on Yad Haruzim before moving the restaurant to its current location eight months later. Lilush noticed the concept of a sandwich-only cafe wasn’t catching on amongst Tel Avivians the same way it had in America, therefore she slowly expanded the menu: first pasta, then breakfast, then soups, and finally dessert.
“It took me a lot of time – about 2 years to bring people here – but I believed in this place,” Lilush said. The concept soon changed from panini bar to neighborhood bistro, however Lilush left a big part of the menu dedicated to the sandwich – over 20 varieties are still offered – and it was only a matter of time before locals fell in love with them. Some staples, such as the Barazi made with brie cheese, tomato, arugula, and truffle oil, and the Baggio, a neat stack of mozzarella, eggplant, zucchini, sundried tomato, and pesto between two slices of warm bread, were adapted from similar recipes Lilush created in New York.
Other dishes inspired from her years overseas? “Morning in Manhattan”, a spin on the classic eggs benedict breakfast with a creamy, light yogurt sauce and herbs. Goat cheese and beets, another popular pairing, are soaked in balsamic and rolled in a thin crepe. While her background is in gourmet, Lilush wanted a restaurant that focused on local, basic ingredients with sophistication. “I dream about the food,” Lilush said, “and before [a dish] comes to the table it takes me five times to bring it to life.” Such dishes include four types of risottos, one made with goose meat and litchi fruit, home-made desserts with cheeky names like “Corruption of Chocolate”, and twelve different varieties of soup, which in winter are brewed into the wee hours of the morning (3 a.m.!) to meet the demand.
The simple décor – washed out tile tables, mismatching wooden chairs – backdrop colorful plates of food. The walls are bare minus a blackboard drink menu, a photograph of a young girl from New York Fashion Week, and a signed High Windows band poster. Both the photograph and poster were gifts from friends, the latter being a rare vintage find in which customers have offered Lilush a four-figure price.
While Lilush is the mastermind behind the Moroccan-French fare, today the cooking belongs to a dedicated threesome: Hagos, Yossef, and Maya. Lilush refers to them as “the best chefs I have ever met”, which is a compliment unto herself as she taught Hagos and Yossef how to read, write, and later cook her food. They came to Israel from Africa four years ago, and two years later Maya joined the team when Lilush became pregnant and needed another chef.
If it’s the famous Sangria you’re after, this “secret recipe” was created at the hands of Motti the bartender. The sweet punch with seasonal fruit is just 15 shekels a glass and the drink of choice for 80 percent of Lilush diners. These days Motti is busy finishing the summer drink menu, which will debut in the next few weeks, a mix of cocktails and higher quality wines including the Alamos Malbec Argentina.
“A restaurant is like a house, and one house is enough for me,” Lilush said when I asked if she plans to expand. She is busy working on Lilush Panini Catering, a small but successful aspect of the business, and doctoring up two-to-three new dishes a season, but knows her customers choose Lilush for their respective favorites on the menu. “I come in the evening and stand outside, smoke my cigarette and watch everybody happy, drinking, eating, talking. This is my pleasure,” Lilush said. “I like what I can do to people with food.”
But Lilush is most excited to show me her “best dish yet” as she pulled out her smart phone and flipped through photos of her 22-month-old son, Evyatar. A dish is in the works and she plans to soon showcase Evyatar on the menu. “Perhaps something with honey,” she said with a smile.
I know whatever Lilush dreams up will not disappoint.
Cinema Paradiso: Green salad, marinated beetroot, walnuts, and Feta
Blue Cheese Prima Fiato: Blue cheese, honey, tahini, apple, arugula, EVOO
Written by Shira Nanus