You’re a US Senator or senior government minister, just arrived in Tel Aviv and you need somewhere to chow down while you discuss the top-secret official business that has brought you to the Holy Land.
You can’t risk a public restaurant — filled with nosy waiters and eavesdropping diners.
Where do you go?
Judging by her illustrious guest list, the answer appears to be Hila Solomon’s Spoons: a salon-restaurant hybrid, run from her two-storey, open plan flat in Jaffa.
“People know I’m discreet,” she says. “Even my staff don’t know who is coming until they come. And they know not to ever talk about what is discussed here. I choose my staff very carefully. They don’t have to sign anything but there is an understanding, certainly. And I soon find out if someone breaks it.
“Once somebody put a photograph of a dinner on Facebook without my permission. They had to take it down right away and they were fired.”
She may talk a big game, but to thrive as she does in the small market for boutique dining, where reputation is key and introductions are often made through third-party foodie insiders, Solomon clearly walks the walk, too.
Her clients include one-time US Presidential hopefuls Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry; Justin Trudeau (before he became Canada’s Prime Minister); countless ambassadors and members of European royal families; Lords Polak and Pickles; Sarah Brown; and Isaac Herzog — to name a few.
One suspects there are other guests she has not declared. “It is private and secure here. People have a sense that they are coming into a home and they can relax. And yes, they are pampered a little.”
While not a chef by training, Australia-born Solomon was schooled in the kitchens of her two grandmothers — Rose, a European Ashkenazi, and Esther, a Iraqi Jew via Myanmar and India.
Members of each side of Solomon’s family emigrated to Sydney years before she was born.
The influence of the divergent culinary styles meant that Solomon (who is coy about disclosing her age) is just as at home making egg lokshen as she is with mahashas — tomatoes stuffed with rice and meat, popular with Jewish Indians.
Her menu is seasonal and tailored to guests’ specific tastes, so there is no ‘typical’ example. Broadly it can be described as traditional Israeli/Mediterranean, with some traces of Ashkenazi and Oriental Jewish cuisine – as well as traditional French and Italian.
One recent dinner dishes including featured wild spinach braised with onion and pine nuts, followed by stuffed vine leaves and a beef stew with root vegetables and za’atar, broken up by shots of aniseed-flavoured spirit, arak.
Solomon aims to provide a broad culinary tour of Israel, with a personal twist according to the tastes of each guest.
On the evening I dined at Solomon’s apartment (a Friday in December) the group included a man of Druze origin who was delighted when we were served cauliflower baked with spices, smothered with warm artisan tahina — something popular in his community.
As well as creating bespoke dishes, she also hosts the dinners, establishing personal connections immediately with all of us.
She scolded me for my inability to recite the kiddush, leaving only women to do it, but by the end of the meal we were chatting like old friends.
“Spoons was never just a place where you come and eat. It was always a combination of food and cultural experiences,” she says.
She launched the eatery in the late 1990s, after she made aliyah. Working in Israel’s tourist industry, including at the Tower of David Museum, gave her the contacts she needed to get off the ground. She credits chef, Moshe Basson, owner of Jerusalem’s Eucalyptus restaurant and Israeli cheese-maker, Shai Seltzer, for teaching her how to forage in the wild for the best ingredients.
Back then she was based in Jerusalem’s highly sought-after Yemin Moshe neighbourhood. She closed for a time when she returned briefly to the Antipodes, but returned and relaunched in 2005 when her focus was on a wider audience:
“I marketed what I was doing to Jewish organisations, like AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) and chambers of commerce. They started bringing dignitaries, and at one point we hosted every member of the US Senate and Congress who came to Israel.
“I would talk about the anthropology behind the food. Because I was kosher, I could do Friday nights and simchas, which opened up a whole new market — families.”
While one element of what she does is her desire to perform hasbara (public advocacy for Israel) the other goes back to her childhood in a place and time where Jews were very much the outsiders.
One of her happiest early memories, and certainly the strongest, was attending the Jewish food bazaar at her local synagogue with her parents. Casual antisemitism was never far away in suburban Sydney but acceptance came, she says, through a mutual joy of food.
“At the food fairs I remember seeing all these glamorous women, from Morocco, from Egypt, Singapore, India, Burma, and they would all cook their family recipes. And Australians, not Jews, would come from all over Sydney to buy their food. They were lining up for it!
“It’s a vivid, powerful memory which has stuck with me since. Undoubtedly, it’s part of the reason I do what I do now. It is a way to bring people together. It’s the power of food.”
Spoons caters for large and small parties. For availability visit www.spoonssalon.com