How a love story brought Israeli cuisine to Portugal
Two men wanting to make jelly doughnuts wound up starting a critically acclaimed restaurant far from home.
Love stories don’t usually start with prunes. Some start with chocolates, many with wine. But dried out plums just don’t scream romance. Then again, perhaps an unusual food is the perfect spark for a romance that would bring cuisine across a continent.
Itamar Eliyahu didn’t intend to start his love story with prunes, but food did always feature prominently in his life. He grew up in a small Israeli town called Tantura, where his mother and aunts taught him to make Israeli food.
“In my house, everybody cooked,” Eliyahu told me. “When you love to cook, it’s in you.” But he wasn’t thinking about cooking for a living then. When he got older, he moved to the Israeli city of Tel Aviv and took a job as a marketing manager.
Elad Budenshteiin was also living in Tel Aviv, doing interior design. The two met online. At the time, Budenshteiin was trying to make a particular kind of jelly doughnut that used prunes soaked in port, but he couldn’t find the prunes. Eliyahu found some and picked them up for Budenshteiin. The doughnuts were exquisite, and the rest was history.
“The key to my heart is in the shape of chocolate,” Budenshteiin told me.
When the two got married, they decided to make their own food for the wedding. Cooking took three days, and their families helped. In the end, they created a feast featuring, among many other dishes, a cheesecake mousse that the two still think about.
“I think we gained 10 kilos,” remembered Budenshteiin.
The guests loved the food and started asking the two to cater. Budenshteiin and Eliyahu started a catering service and mini restaurant in Tantura that rapidly grew from 10 customers a day to 150.
“It grew and grew and grew,” said Budenshteiin. The couple played with the idea of opening a restaurant, but they knew that Israel’s culinary scene was so established that doing so would be tough.
The two spent their honeymoon in Portugal, and they fell in love with Lisbon. There was an electric feeling in the air of new beginnings, one that reminded them of Tel Aviv in the 90s. Portugal was starting to bring in more tourists; it was getting richer and more popular.
Budenshteiin and Eliyahu realized that this was the time to get in on the ground floor of Lisbon’s burgeoning culinary scene, particularly because they knew Lisbon would start needing vegetarian food soon. Portuguese food typically features a lot of meat and fish; vegetables can be hard to come by. (I say this as a vegetarian currently traveling through Portugal. I’m surviving largely on pastries.)
Luckily for the newlyweds, Israelis have had the vegetarian thing down pat for a while. Mediterranean food, with its salads and hummus varieties, lends itself to meat-free dishes. Tel Aviv has even been ranked the top city in the world for vegans. Budenshteiin and Eliyahu, with their Israeli cuisine know-how, thought they could fill this niche for Lisbon.
Budenshteiin and Eliyahu decided they wanted to open an Israeli restaurant in Lisbon’s city center. A lot of people told them it would be impossible to find a space in such a popular area. But they did.
“This place was waiting for us,” Budenshteiin remembered.
The place needed work. It was painted completely black and had no remnants of decoration. Luckily, Budenshteiin was an interior designer. He spruced up the space and turned it into one of the most deliciously designed restaurants I’d seen in Lisbon, with peacock blue walls and touches like melted candles and giant retro stamps on the floor.
“We want our clients to feel like they’re coming home,” Budenshteiin said.
Eliyahu’s marketing skills came in useful too. When their restaurant, Tantura (named after Eliyahu’s hometown) opened in June, it was busy from the beginning, and it only got more crowded. One of their clients, a Dutch man, used to come everyday. One day, he came by, and there was no space for him.
“This is the day that it starts,” the Dutch man told them. Tantura would go on to get lots of attention in publications and on TV. Timeout even called their hummus sabich one of the 10 best dishes in Lisbon.
“We couldn’t ask for better PR,” said Budenshteiin. “We are overwhelmed.” The two vaguely hope to expand around Portugal, but mostly, they just want to keep doing what they’re doing. That seems reasonable for a couple of guys who could turn prunes into a love story and, by all accounts, some stellar jelly doughnuts.
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