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First came the Israeli chopped salad, the heirloom tomato salad, the baba ghanoush and the tabbouleh. All standard fare to start an Israeli meal, they were tasty versions but maybe not worth an hour-plus drive. But then out came the figs stuffed with goat cheese, still bubbling from the oven. And a whole-roasted, smoky-flavored cauliflower, its top blackened, sitting on a bed of tzatziki. (This form of cauliflower was popularized by Israeli chef Eyal Shani and has been featured everywhere, from the New York Times to Food and Wine magazine.) The pita that followed were puffy perfection.
If this had completed the salatim (salads) course, we would have been more than satisfied. But no, not at the table of chef Itamar Abramovitch. Next came the house-made labneh with salmon roe (the chef’s interpretation of either crème fraiche and caviar, or cream cheese and lox); half an eggplant slathered in tahini; kibbeh nayeh, a Lebanese version of lamb tartare with bulghur; and wonderfully spiced discs of falafel.
Only when those dishes were complete could we move onto the cheese borekas and then, finally, to the main courses — mine was a mixed-grill plate with beef, sweetbreads and lamb with a trio of sauces — followed by dessert. By the time our mains were brought out, we were practically putting up our hands in surrender.
This was the second such pop-up called Balagan (“mess” in Hebrew), where diners sat among the olive trees on the grounds of Grove, the outdoor dining space in Napa at the Culinary Institute of America at Copia. The complaint of too much food was one Abramovitch heard quite a bit that night. Not a problem, he said. In fact, it’s a goal.
The pop-ups will continue the first Monday of the month through the fall, possibly into November. The next one is Aug. 5; prepaid tickets are $65. This is a kid-friendly event; the chef’s son was playing the lawn game cornhole in the distance while other children and adults played bocci ball nearby.
If we needed even more proof that the popularity of Israeli food has staying power, it is easily found here.
Abramovitch, 35, is a Napa-based chef who for the past few years has run a fine-dining catering company called Blossom. Because his first stint in a kitchen was at the Michelin-starred French restaurant La Folie, he at first took to French techniques and fine-dining flourishes. Serving the food he grew up with didn’t occur to him until he met Israeli-American chef Michael Solomonov, who was on a tour promoting “Zahav,” the cookbook from his award-winning restaurant of the same name in Philadelphia.
“You tend to look down on the food you grew up with,” Abramovitch said. “When you learn all this fancy French stuff, and all of it is amazing, you can’t compare these salads that can sometimes be thrown together in 10 minutes. Seeing what [Solomonov] did gave me the confidence that it’s legitimate food. And even though it’s not traditional [in the U.S.], it makes perfect sense, and there’s no reason not to shine a spotlight on it.” In addition, he admitted that while working in fine dining, “every once in a while I missed the good old family-style meal, and no one was doing anything like that” in Northern California.
Furthermore, he said, the local produce is so good in its natural state, it doesn’t need all the elaborate touches.
“I still do a lot of fine dining and catering, but with these dishes, these things taste so good on their own,” Abramovitch said. “Most of the dishes [at Balagan] don’t have more than 10 ingredients in them; some dishes only have three.”
Abramovitch grew up on Moshav Haniel, near Netanya. Haniel is known for its orchard farm, so eating fresh fruit at its peak was the norm for him.
The son of a diplomat who often lived abroad, Abramovitch thought he might go in the same direction, and he came to San Francisco in 2010 to work in security at the Israeli Consulate. In 2014, he attended the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, and soon after graduation started catering with a business partner he met there, Nate Smith.
Should one choose to try Balagan, Abramovitch promises a regularly changing salatim course, depending on what looks best at the market. Given the popularity of Israeli cuisine, he wants to continue to perfect his dishes at the pop-up and eventually open a sit-down Israeli restaurant somewhere in the Bay Area.