What makes Tel Aviv special, in the words of Elizabeth Stull, is its layering of time and space. Jerusalem stone butts up against concrete, street art adding chaotic color to its surface. Bauhaus buildings stand alongside Byzantine churches. Within its markets, vendors sell Greek olives and Moroccan spice blends, and trendy global restaurants sit next to 100-year-old tahini shops.
Stull left Tel Aviv a year ago with her husband, Tal Dubitski, to return to the United States, but she still thinks about the energy of the city — the coffee shop covered in newspaper clippings, the artists in Florentin. Dubitski was born in Tel Aviv, returning after a childhood spent in Venezuela. As an adult, he ran a Venezuelan restaurant in Tel Aviv, and when he and his wife moved to the United States, he decided to let his next restaurant capture the city he and Stull loved so much.
Zula, opening today on Northwest 23rd, is meant to capture the vibrant juxtaposition of Tel Aviv, both in its cuisine and atmosphere. Stull filled the space with pieces of art and mementos from their life there: The Israeli board game Rummikub sits above the bar’s taps. Bauhaus posters hang on its walls, a nod to the art movement’s influence on the city. And on the menu, Dubitski and chef Caleb Rose — who also spent several years cooking in Tel Aviv — want to bring that diversity to the restaurant’s menu, incorporating the Moroccan, Greek, Lebanese, and Iranian culinary influences on the city’s cuisine. The goal is to connect Portland to a city 6,888 miles away, with casual warmth and a sense of fun.
When asked what brought him to Tel Aviv, Caleb Rose says he fell in love. “With a person, the city, or both?” Yes, he responds.
Rose lived in Tel Aviv for around five years, but when he returned to the United States, the city followed — in his memories, in his cooking. He remembers the conversations he would have, the people he would meet. “There’s this very intimate social aspect that is not only encouraged by the planning of the city but upheld by the people who live there,” he says. “I miss that.”
Rose worked in a wide range of restaurants while he lived in Tel Aviv. He cooked at South African and Czech restaurants, a 24-hour bar. “I have a big passion for multicultural foods, and in Tel Aviv, that is a distinct quality of almost every restaurant, no matter where you are,” Rose says. “It’s never one single thing.”
Rose met Dubitski while he was a sous chef at Lil Shalom; Dubitski was a customer, and Rose heard him complaining about a dish in Hebrew. “I realized that it was actually a mistake I had made,” Rose recalls. “I apologize to them in Hebrew, and their eyes got as big as saucers.”
The two chefs connected and exchanged information, and Dubitski pitched Rose on his homage to Tel Aviv. Rose was hooked, and they began working on menus.
When Dubitski and Rose started developing the menu, they knew they had to really nail their hummus — a ubiquity throughout the city. “It’s a deceptively simple dish,” Rose says. “Every step needs a lot of attention. Temperature and texture are key — it should be warm and smooth.”
At Zula, hummus arrives topped with stewed chickpeas, as well as a soft-boiled egg; on the side, a piece of the restaurant’s house pita serves as a vehicle for the spread. It’s one of several small plates on the menu: a house labneh garnished with herbs and Oregon olive oil; a piece of feta wrapped in phyllo, fried and topped with Pacific Northwestern honey and sesame seeds. The vegetable dishes are a particular pride of the staff, whether it’s a Persian cucumber salad with herbs and feta or fried cauliflower, served over garlic yogurt and earthy with berbere.
The restaurant toasts whole spices for its spice blends, which also ground the saucy stewed tomatoes under a salmon skewer — perhaps the most obvious blending of Portland and Tel Aviv’s cuisines. It’s one of three skewers on the menu, joined by chicken and mushroom; they’re available as a plate with house pickles, pita, chermoula, labneh, and an arugula salad with radishes, parsley, and pickled red onion.
For dessert, the restaurant’s house-made ice creams also pull from Tel Aviv’s culinary canon, with flavors like olive oil, orange rose, and tahini garnished with pistachios and honey. Sous chef Marty Pfeifer, who worked with Rose at Lil Shalom, is happy with the restaurant’s goat cheese cheesecake, which comes drizzled in a Turkish coffee-tahini sauce.
Over at the bar, front-of-house manager Christine Nelson consulted with Dubitski to help develop the beverage menu, which he wanted to be simple and streamlined. The bartender — who worked at late, great Portland restaurants like Gruner and Biwa, as well as places like St. Jack and Toki — named the cocktails for neighborhoods and streets in Tel Aviv, like the Florentin, a gin-and-tonic variation with a butterfly pea flower-infused gin. The Levontin, a twist on a margarita, relies on pomegranate molasses for its acidic punch, with a sumac-salt rim. And the Montefiore, an Old Fashioned riff, showcases a date-infused rye.
The gazoz — an Israeli play on house sodas — will be informed by the seasons; Nelson plans to visit Portland farmers markets to get inspired. Early versions have used citrus, vanilla, and cucumber for flavor notes; the restaurant will also have a house shrub, which is currently beet with black pepper.
Zula isn’t supposed to be a carbon-copy of a restaurant in Tel Aviv; rather, it’s meant to capture the same essence of collaboration and cultural overlap, informed by the people who are building the restaurant. “We want to create a space that’s … of the people that are in this space — Caleb, Marty, Christine, Tal,” Stull says. “We want it to be filled just as authentically as those spaces [in Tel Aviv] are filled, with the people that are actually here, of Portland. We want it to be a living space.”
Zula is located at 1514 NW 23rd Avenue.