23 Shaul Hamelech
The word hadar ha’ochel evokes different memories and emotions for different people. For some it brings back memories of a childhood in the kibbutz, hints of a blissful youth. For others it might remind them of their time working in a factory or a company, perhaps memories that are not as pleasant, yet equally nostalgic. For most American Jews the word is often related to summers at Jewish sleep away camp, usually the only time we either heard or used the word, a time when we were free from our parents and experienced the world with a connection to our Judaism. No matter what the word means to you, when each of us were sitting in the hadar ha’ochel of our past, we could not have dreamt of the Hadar Ha’ochel that chef Omer Miller, with business partners Etai Spivick and Steven Lobel, have created today. After years in the industry with experience in diverse culinary fields, this trio joined forces two years ago to open Hadar Ha’ochel, a powerhouse lying between the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.and the Opera House. The Hadar Ha’ochel of their imagination is the dining hall of our fantasies, where tradition is both sleekly renovated and and fully respected.
In this hadar ha’ochel the tables are still sturdy and communal; however the bare walls and the tile floors are gleaming white. The surrounding is modest with a subtle elegance. The outcome is a hybrid of a traditional cafeteria and an upscale cafe in New York. Utensils sit in a silver cubby in the middle of the solid wooden tables, each covered by monogrammed paper table clothes, eliciting the atmosphere of a traditional Israeli shipudim restaurant. The overall construction is ultimately functional and delicately beautiful. A big island sits in the middle of the dining hall with racks of fresh homemade whole grain bread and pitchers of water. The accessibility in the restaurant and smart architecture, compliments of Dan Troim, contributes to the efficient service. In fact, the service, in line with the food and the atmosphere, is one of the aspects that distinguish Hadar Ha’ochel from other restaurants in the city. The service is based on a customer satisfaction philosophy, and is directed by front of the house connoisseur and co-owner Steven Libel. The wait staff successfully leaves no tables with empty glasses of water, questions unanswered or appetites unsatisfied. Everything is casual yet methodical. To the naked eye it all seems to just come together perfectly, no fuss or hassle.
In the same tradition of seemingly effortless beauty, lays the story behind Chef Omer Miller’s culinary destination. He stumbled upon his career accidently, the equivalent of finding a lifelong partner without even looking. Twelve years ago, while seeking employment in New York City, Omer landed a gig as a line cook in a restaurant and not long after discovered that cooking came naturally to him. Without any previous inspiration, or a deep philosophical passion, cooking was Omer’s hidden skill, a talent that scratched to surface. Once exposed, Omer explains “cooking became like a drug.” He woke up early each morning and went to bed late each night exercising his newfound talent. For the next seven years Omer worked in several of the top kitchens in Tel Aviv’s finest restaurants until he landed a position alongside rock star Israeli chef, Yaron Kastenbaum, at Israel’s finest catering company, FoodArt. In this platform, Omer fine tuned his talents and gained the confidence to start his own project, but in his own way. He ditched the lavish extravagance present in FoodArt and decided to do something low-key, down to earth and most of all Israeli.
Most of the food at Hadar Ha’ochel represents the many cultures of Israel and the traditional dishes that would be served in an Israeli home yet with a distinguished refinement. Israeli staples such as fried cauliflower, chopped liver, siniyeh, cous cous and majadara share the menu with international fusion fare such as roasted sirloin with garlic aioli and pickled onion, pasta with sage butter, and warm calamari salad. Some of the traditional dishes are straightforward and unaltered, such as the chopped liver, while some “Israeli” dishes are created with Miller’s vision and executed with his creativity. For example, Siniyeh, a traditional Yemenite dish made of ground lamb, tehina, cinnamon and pine nuts, a rich and fatty dish, is transformed at Hadar Ha’ochel into dish that maintains the same strong flavor without the heavy aftermath. Instead of lamb, Omer uses fish and adds fresh cherry tomatoes and radishes, therefore maintaining a dish that is reminiscent of the original while adding and substituting ingredients that pay tribute to Israel’s multifarious agricultural landscape.
While some dishes satisfy your craving for your mother’s home cooked food and others will surprise and please your taste buds, nothing will blow you off your seat like the Sea Bass Baklava. Although at first glance fish mixed with something sweet may not seem appetizing, when you see the dish for yourself and take the first bite, you will realize that Omer is nothing short of a culinary genius. The crunchy baked phyllo dough of baklava, topped with spiced honey and sprinkled with thyme gives off the first sensation of sweet, earthy taste and crunchy texture, followed by the soft fish with its salty and garlicy flavors; each layer unfolds itself with a new taste and they unite and linger in your mouth in a harmonious ceremony celebrating the complexity of flavor and the marriage of texture. Miller can see the compatibility in flavors that would seem discordant to the untrained palate.
Hadar Ha’ochel achieves the ultimate goal of refining a traditional hadar ha’ochel while maintaining its best elements. It is an establishment where everyone is welcome and the family is celebrated. Proven by the presence of a kids menu, the Hadar Ha’ochel staff invites the whole family to revel in their creations. After all, what is an amazing meal in a hadar ha’ochel if you don’t have the people you love to share it with? Ultimately that is the power of great talent and the feeling we leave with after a trip to Hadar Ha’ochel, it all seems so easy and facile, but it’s really a result of a lot of hard work and a little bit of magic.
Photos: Hadar Haochel