The eastern suburbs have no shortage of decent Israeli food. So when newcomer Ezra arrives on the scene, with a promise to bring a slice of Tel Aviv to Potts Point, it was always going to face a tough crowd. How do you shoulder the expectations of locals who know what they want and the way they want it?
For owners Nick and Kirk Mathews Bowden, the solution is simple: you don't. You surprise them.
The former co-owners of nearby Bistro Rex know their demographic well. They're also good at throwing spanners in the works. To head up the kitchen, for instance, they've enlisted former Paper Bird chef and co-owner Ben Sears, who is best known (and loved) for his innovative Korean and Asian-influenced dishes.
Ezra is Sears's official foray into Middle Eastern cooking. It's a bold move. As is the fact no one from the trio is Israeli or Jewish. What they do have is a shared love for the cosmopolitan food of Tel Aviv, which comes through in a gutsy but respectful take on traditional dishes.
On my first visit, I am struck by the buzzy, upbeat atmosphere on a Tuesday night. My dinner partner and I are seated by an intricate mosaic archway, handmade by a tiler in Beirut. To our right is a native floral sculpture by artist Tracy Deep; our left, a handsome dark wood bar where socially distanced couples are sipping cocktails to '80s dance floor tunes.
Fun is an unusual thing to have in a pandemic. And yet it's that exact liveliness – as much as the food – that captures the spirit of Tel Aviv. Most dishes on the veg-friendly menu are designed to be shared (with communal cutlery, as our waiter thoughtfully suggests).
Israeli food is no monolith. Its kinship with North African, Levantine, as well as deep roots with Palestinian cooking means many "national dishes" have their own colourful, complex history.
This pluralist approach is a sweet spot for Sears, who isn't afraid to bring together diverse flavours on a plate. A smooth, tahini-rich hummus comes with crunchy radish and a cold smoked, soft boiled egg. It's a nod to Momofuku Ko's smoked egg special, where Sears once did a short stint. Break the gooey yolk over the dip and mop it up with a still-warm Jerusalem bagel. He makes the bread in-house, too – a fluffy, yeast dough glazed with pomegranate molasses, care of a recipe from Reem Kassis' hugely popular book The Palestinian Table.
Getting "basics" done respectfully is important to Sears. Falafels are made with an all-chickpea mix, with plenty of lemon juice, coriander and fresh parsley. Here, each golden ball also sits on a dollop of avocado mousse and is topped with a splash of tahini. I'm told that spanner crab meat is being added to the latest iteration of the dish, though you can still order the original version if you ask nicely.
You'll do well to order yourself a latke. The crisp-skinned potato snack is soft-hearted and shaped like a cake slice. While a traditional latke is more hash brown-like, Sears's is pan-baked, then deep fried – a solution for tight kitchen space and limited pairs of hands to pump out the popular snack. Topped with braised silverbeet and dashi marinated salmon roe, it's a subtle nod to the chef's Asian cooking past.
Fans might also get Paper Bird flashbacks from the baked whole flounder. The whole fish is marinated for two days in a chickpea miso from Tasmania's Meru Miso – the same thing Sears used in his former restaurant. The flesh stays juicy and firm thanks to the 48-hour cure. And it's finished with a tahini that's thinned out with dashi and brightened by a hit of lemon.
Ezra gets many things right, though seasoning is a work in progress. On both of my visits, the falafels are on the salty side and the tahini sauce on the flounder, while deliciously nutty on the second try, was unusually sweet the first. Technical consistency can be a challenge when hampered by a mostly casual workforce, thanks to the uncertainties of COVID. But less than a month in, and already amassing regulars, Ezra is well on its way to smooth out the edges and become your happy place while you dream of buzzy, faraway cities.
3 Kellett Street, Potts Point
Main attraction: Chef Ben Sears (ex Paper Bird) dreams up a gutsy, innovative menu that pays homage to the cosmopolitan food of Tel Aviv.
Must-try dish: The hummus with a cold-smoked, soft boiled egg. Get a house-made Jerusalem bagel to mop up that extra burst of richness from the runny egg yolk.
Insta-worthy dish: A golden slice of latke topped with bright salmon roe. Not a traditional hash-brown-y take, but equally delicious.
Drinks: Wine by the glass: $11-$23
Prices: Snacks $5-$20; small plates $17-$22; mains $29-$39
Hours: Tue-Thu 5-10.30pm; Fri 5-11pm, Sat noon-3.30pm, 5-11pm; Sun noon-3.30pm, 5-9pm; closed Mondays