By Andy Tarnoff Publisher Published May 11, 2011 at 1:05 PM

A number of Milwaukee restaurants offer Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine, but if you're looking for modern Israeli fare, your choices are much more limited.

The Jewish Community Center, 6255 N. Santa Monica Blvd., however, offers its own spin on the food you might order at a cafe in Tel Aviv, and actually, it's delicious.

In other words, if you think Israeli food is just hummus and falafel, Chef Jonah Levenberg would like the chance to show you his work.

Levenberg is the director of food services at the JCC. Interestingly, his background is in technology, but he left the field and attended culinary school in Chicago. His training sent him through a Kosher restaurant and finally to the JCC in Milwaukee.

But Levenberg's experience cooking in America, and tasting food in the Middle East, has allowed him to put his own spin on modern Israeli cuisine.

Take Labana, which is drained goat's milk yogurt. Surrounded by fresh olive oil, it almost tastes like a soft cheese for dipping a pita in.

Or his version of Tabouleh: "It's pretty old fashioned, but the difference is I add in dates to make it more Mediterranean," says Levenberg.

Or try Za'atar, a spice mixture featuring "classic" Mediterranean sumac, oregano, sesame seeds.

Or for dessert, you absolutely must sample the famous Israeli street food, Malabi, usually served in a plastic cup. Levenberg's version is a milk pudding with rose water essence. Topped with mango, it's heavenly.

"It's one of those things that when you sit down at a table, and we were there a few months ago, they just give you a whole mess on the table," says Levenberg. "Everyone kept saying, 'This isn't dinner or this isn't lunch, it's just the appetizer.' But you pass it around, family-style, and the whole table is filled."

Can Milwaukee's Jews – many of whom have never been to Israel – appreciate this kind of cuisine?

Levenberg says yes, but points out that many of his customers hail from Israel but now live in Milwaukee. During a preview, "we couldn't keep enough on the table," he says.

At the JCC, diners have numerous options: a cafe, a school lunch program, a water park snack shop and a catering business.

But this specific type of cuisine is what fired Levenberg up.

"I love it. I definitely found my niche in it. It's what I like to eat. Having been in Israel, now when I see the Labana, I can taste what it should be."

If any of this sounds intriguing, now is a great time to give these dishes a try. The JCC is gearing up to celebrate "Yom Ha'atzmaut, " or Israeli Independence Day, with several events on May 15. More information is available at the JCC's Web site.

Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.

Before launching in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.

Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.