Tuesday, November 12, 2002

Bedtime for Gar-Bonzo

“Right, Abba, falafel is Israeli?” That was my 11-year-old Amir, asking a question with far more to it than either of us realized.

The truth is, most of the people who live in this region do interesting things with hummus and boiling oil. But one thing I’m almost sure of: none of neighbors prepare falafel quite the way they do now in Tel Aviv.

We had heard about this new phenomenon for a while…start with the basic falafel, pita and salad, then add upscale items like pesto, goat cheese, sundried tomatoes. Yuppie Falafel. New Age Falafel. Hi-Tech Falafel. Sure, but how would it taste?

A few weeks ago, we visited the Falafelim Shop at 86 Ibn Givrol Street in Tel Aviv, just opposite Rabin Square. We parked in a lot that said “off limits” (Jody was feeling adventurous, I was sure we’d get towed). As we got out, we saw a memorial and a plaque reading “Yitzhak Rabin was murdered at this spot.”

After all these years, we had never paid our respects to the site itself. Back in 1995 we were already too old to be true candle children, though I am quite fond of Aviv Gefen’s music.

The memorial itself consists of a set of large black squared-off stones with a light shining from underneath. It’s a modern version of the eternal flame that hangs over the bima in the synagogue. It was impressive, though one of the kids thought it looked a bit too much like charcoal barbeque briquettes.

Walking past the memorial was eerie. You could easily imagine Yitzhak Rabin descending the stairs directly in front of us, and Yigal Amir casually strolling from just about where we parked the car while the cameraman on the roof behind us recorded it all. That all this was just off busy Ibn Givrol Street, at the foot of a rather ugly office building…well, maybe I’m just used to thinking about grassy knolls, limousines, and wide-open vistas.

But this story was supposed to be about the falafel shop across the street. It's just that in Israel, it seems, you can't even go out for falafel without getting a history lesson.

When I first started reading reviews of the new Yuppie falafel, I envisioned an upscale restaurant with lots of glass and chrome and waiters wearing black and white serving seasoned hummus on fine china.

To my surprise it’s just an ordinary corner falafel stand – you order on the street, take it out and eat, or sit down at one of a few small tables set up near the back door of the tiny kitchen

We ordered and sat. I had the pesto falafel. Jody had the goat cheese. There is also a Greek falafel with feta cheese, and a Mexican version with avocado, salsa, coriander and corn salad. The kids had plain balls, tehina and pita.

Now for the verdict: our falafels were awfully good. They still tasted like falafel, but crossed with the kind of sandwiches we get at the other big Yuppie trend in Israel – the upscale sandwich shop where goat cheese and pesto are used liberally. My favorite is Shraga in Jerusalem.

But goat cheese and pesto on falafel? Could this be the beginning of the twilight for the plain hummus ball, a sort of bedtime for the humble garbanzo?

At Falafelim Shop, they have one type of ball; the emphasis is on the different sauces and spreads. At another Yuppie falafel place up the street that I haven’t tried yet, they embed some of the spices in the balls themselves – red balls are Mexican, green balls are pesto. There are orange balls too, but I can’t figure out what they are…sweet potatoes? Pumpkin? Maybe it’s better to just imagine the possibilities…

Hey, I’ve got an idea: let’s export the new Yuppie falafel. Maybe this would be the real trick to reviving the now mostly discarded vision of a New Middle East. Yitzhak Rabin might not approve, but I’ve got a good feeling about this.

Goat cheese with your falafel, Saddam? Some pesto on your’s, Bashir?
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