There is a Frenchman at the helm of the Sheraton Tel Aviv, and he fits it (to coin a cliché) like a glove. The elegant Jean-Louis Ripoche was born in Paris, his family comes from the Loire Valley, and he brings to the property an élan and savoir faire bred of his Gallic roots. At the same time, his style is very much in keeping with 21st century Israel. How much things can change.
Not that we expected a continuation of the status quo from the last time we were here some years ago, but we found it hard to believe Jean-Luis when he told us every August brings a French invasion to Tel Aviv. “Even with the airfare, it’s much cheaper than the south of France, and the beaches are much better,” he said. Possibly. But give up Cannes or Nice for Tel Aviv?
“The beaches there are all rocks,” was his retort.
We turned to the wall of windows that lined the bright, open Executive Lounge of the Sheraton Towers, the hotel-within-a-hotel on the building’s top floors, where we were having coffee with Jean-Luis and public relations director Jane Yacoubzadi. Before us was a panoramic vision of a wide pristine beach all the way down the Mediterranean coast to Jaffa, and the only rocks we could see were those aligned in rows to define the jetties. It was late February, not warm enough to lie on the sand and swim in the sea, but cyclists pedaled along the mosaic boardwalk, runners and joggers traced the shoreline, and a para-glider, beneath a golden awning, was leisurely floating above the gentle surf.
“In August, which is generally not a busy month for business travel around the world, we replace that market with tourism,” said Jane, who had immigrated to Israel from Iran in the late 1970s. “The beach is public; the city maintains it very well and cleans it every morning. The municipality controls concessions for chairs and umbrellas, but we work with some of the operators to provide them for guests. And it is so safe, you can leave your things when you go into the water.”
All of which adds up to a singular place: a city hotel close to the shops, restaurants, offices, cultural centers and high-tech companies that have come to define Tel Aviv that is; at the same time, a resort with sparkling swimming pools, excellent on-site restaurants, a special kind of spa, and a spectacular beach right outside the door.
It was our first day at the Sheraton, and that morning we had enjoyed a fabulous breakfast in the Executive Lounge that merged made-to-order eggs and pancakes with a lavish buffet of Middle Eastern dishes like the chopped eggplant salads and soft Moroccan breads, but also the dark European breads and a range of smoked fish that spoke enticingly to our Eastern European roots.
When we had arrived the night before and taken a look around, salmon was being served along with a variety of vegetables and salads. Never before had we seen such a display in a hotel lounge. Minimal continental-style breakfasts, snacks during the day, and some hot hors d’oeuvres at night, at most, had been the rule.
“The concept here is different from that of other executive lounges in hotels around the world,” Jean-Luis explained. “We have two lounges: the middle lounge which we call the Club is akin to an airline’s Business Class, where you’ll find finger food, snacks, and the like. And the Executive Lounge, which is here in the Tower, is what we consider First Class. The food is more elaborate; you can enjoy a dairy lunch and light dinner. It’s quite a unique offering.”
True. At the same time, the entire operation of the hotel seemed unique. Typical of Sheratons, it is huge – 325 rooms, sizeable tourist groups, space for large conferences, meetings and events. Yet the ambience is personal, even intimate. One feels like a member of a family, albeit a very large family. When word got out about our lost luggage, somehow the entire staff seemed to know about it, offered advice while it was missing and were quick to tell us how glad they were when it showed up the next day. A family reunion we hosted in the spacious and flower-filled lobby-lounge turned into an event with personalized attention from staff not even assigned to work it. Apparently the tone of warmth and consideration displayed by management sets a standard picked up by all.
“Courtesy culture is part of my style,” Jean Luis had told us. “It comes from years of working in Asia, Thailand in particular, where I learned if you are pleasant with people, they will automatically respond that way to you. This is what is happening here.”
He continued, “Here at the Sheraton, we have a young, very talented chef, Charlie Fedida, who has taken on the challenge of creating fine cuisine while keeping kosher. While he’s executive chef for the whole hotel, his signature restaurant is the Olive Leaf. That is his baby.” We were seated at a comfortable table in the Olive Leaf the following night, a large, brightly-lit room with sleek modern furniture, bright blue carpeting and a wall of windows facing the sea when Charlie stopped by.
“More things to eat, more things to see,” he responded when we commented on the array of small, delicate and beautiful (not to mention delicious) starters like the amuse bouche that came in a martini glass: arugula with a little bit of lemon and olive oil, chopped mango, apple, nectarine and melon. Such a combination. Then a billiard ball-size serving of salmon tartare. “I like a multitude of small dishes. It makes dining more of an experience,” said the chef.
Charlie has studied in France, is on frequent call for culinary events throughout Europe and Asia. Born in Jerusalem, he lives in Tel Aviv along with his wife and small children.
Bowls filled with what appears to be cream are set before us. “It’s actually vegetable soup: celery root, white vegetables, onion, a little bit of garlic, salt, and white pepper,” he tells us.
Operating within the parameters, the Olive Leaf’s 2011 Summer Menu is featuring such eastern-influenced starters as a ceviche Yellowtail fillet with spring vegetables served in a heart of lettuce with cucumber and gazpacho made with coconut milk (!) and what he calls fusion sashimi – tuna and salmon with vegetables thin as matchsticks set on an ice carving served with soy sauce, ginger pickles and chili mayonnaise. Among his entrées are an oven-baked Cornish hen with grilled vegetables and potato squares; lamb kebabs on a cinnamon stick with a salad of bell pepper, eggplant and tomatoes; and sautéed chicken liver with onions and prunes in a brioche.
If Charlie is any example, it is an exciting time to be a chef in Israel. It’s also an exciting time to be a vintner. Roy Russ, restaurant manager/sommelier of the Olive Leaf, is a second generation Israeli whose maternal grandparents survived the Holocaust. “They both made aliyah and are still alive,” he told us. His paternal grandmother is from the Ukraine, his paternal grandfather still lives in his home town of Budapest.
“I’ve been in the restaurant business for 10 years,” Roy said, “but it’s only in the last three to four years, that I’ve moved to the wine department and learned to appreciate how great wine is in itself and to accompany a meal.
“Almost all our wines are Israeli. I can proudly say we have enough good Israeli wines and value for money to enjoy with a meal. The industry has been blooming. Some of our vintners are trained in California, others in Australia. They come back to Israel and focus on harnessing their basic knowledge. Our wine of the month is from Tanya Winery in the Jerusalem hills. They produce about 30,000 bottles a year; it’s still called a boutique vineyard.”
But there is no limit to the story of Israel. And through our brief stay at the Sheraton, Tel Aviv, we were able to catch up on so much of it. In this one hotel, the effects of Ben Gurion’s dream of the in gathering of the exiles had been realized, with the definition of Israeli incorporating those with Central and Eastern European, Middle Eastern, and African roots.
We were able to enjoy the offerings of the major metropolis Tel Aviv has become. We were able to witness to the ongoing evolvement of the Israeli culture, its spirit of innovation, its irrepressible vitality. And we thought back to what Roy Russ had said to us: “You have to keep in mind –this is a miracle.”
Sheraton Tel Aviv Hotel & Towers
115 Hayarkon Street
Tel Aviv 63573, Israel