ray restaurant for israeli cuisine in portland ray restaurant for israeli cuisine in portland Plus, Ray had free water. That's just classy. (Photo: Ilana E. Strauss)

This restaurant is putting its own twist on centuries-old cuisine

Ray, a new spot in Portland, ambitiously decided to make Mediterranean food chic and new.

I don't normally think about Israeli food as being fancy. Delicious, sure. Filling, healthy ... but fancy? In my experience, it features a lot of salads and dips, foods that are deceptively easy to make.

Our guide to the top U.S. restaurants that serve Israeli cuisine.

So when I stopped in at Ray, a new Israeli restaurant in Portland featuring small plates (the ultimate sign of culinary luxury), I was skeptical. Humans have been cooking in Israel since the beginning of civilization. How could a chef reinvent food that had been around for millennia?

Then again, chef Jenn Louis had the right qualifications. Food & Wine declared her a "Best New Chef," and she battled it out on Bravo's "Top Chef Masters." She was also nominated for a James Beard Foundation Award.

israeli salad at a portland restaurantI didn't even notice the salad had cabbage in it until I reread the menu. (Photo: Ilana E. Strauss)

My hunger outweighed my skepticism, so I bravely showed up at Ray. Despite being newly opened, the place was full, so full that I asked if I should come back later. "It'll be like this all night," the host told me.

Ray was modern and elegant, all dark lighting, high ceilings and sharp edges. Inexplicably, some arcade machines sat in the corner.

I had a tough time picking food, but I eventually settled on the Persian spinach puree hummus with lavash and olive oil. This dish was indeed both familiar and new. It was (I think) raw, chopped spinach that had been flavored and styled like hummus. I don't even think there were actual chickpeas, the main ingredient of traditional hummus. I could imagine it on a Mediterranean dinner table.

hummus made with spinachIt managed to be hummus without actually containing hummus's main ingredient. (Photo: Ilana E. Strauss)

I also ordered a spring Israeli salad, which felt a lot like a traditional Israeli salad, except it included radicchio, cabbage and celery. These firm vegetables perfectly echoed the diced onions and tomatoes of regular Israeli salad. So far, so good.

But the pierogies were the real gems of the evening. They were buttery and beautifully decorated, served in a bath of caramelized onions. These were dumplings taken to gourmet level.

According to Louis, Israel's varied culture makes for great food inspiration. "There are people from all over the world who live there," Louis told me. "The food culture is really, really diverse."

The U.S. is full of people from all over, but it's not the only country like that. "Israel’s that same way, but it’s the size of New Jersey," explained Louis. "It’s really small, and it’s got this richness of culture."

perogies at an Israeli restaurantMy personal favorite. I could live off these. (Photo: Ilana E. Strauss)

Interestingly enough, Louis didn't come from a traditional culinary background. Her culinary career began when a friend urged her to try and get a cooking job in Outward Bound, an outdoor leadership program.

“I said, ‘I’ve never cooked before,'" remembered Louis in a video. “And she’s like, 'It doesn’t matter.'"

Somehow, she managed to get hired, and it was the start of something massive for her.

"I got the job for the summer, and it was the best job I'd ever had," Louis continued.

Her love for cooking evidently traveled with her through the years. The food I tried was simple, yet celebratory. I may have to come back to Portland again just for the pierogies.

video game machines in restaurantApparently, it's always a good time for Pac-Man. (Photo: Ilana E. Strauss)

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