Tuesday, March 29, 2011

An Excellent Gastronomic Adventure in Tel Aviv – Hatzela Hashminit

Hatzela Hashminit – Rambam St, Tel Aviv

UPDATE July 5th - The talented chef has now left but the restaurant remains open. As such I must add a quality warning as a sudden leave usually impacts the food. Though check out the comment from the restaurant below.

Reviewing food and restaurants are subjective topics as one person’s caviar can also be another person’s stewed cabbage. The reality is that reviewers come from all walks of life and draw from many different experiences. One only has to open a page of reviews for any restaurant and see anything from praises to insults. Take for example Agadir burger bar (hamburgers are close to my heart), for me it is has one of the worst burgers in town, but for others the best.

I believe the best way to understand a review is to understand the reviewer, what are their influences, experiences, likes and dislikes. As a particular restaurant may be excellent if it ticks all the boxes for a specific reviewer, but not for another (though a common denominator should always be the quality of the food it offers).

First I would like to make a public announcment as todays review will focus more on the gastronomic experience and less on social observations (I promise to go back to normal next week).
As you may have read from my other posts, it has been very hard to find good quality cooking in Israel (outside of ethnic dishes). I have to admit this has been a big disappointment as the quality and availability of ingredients available here (bar meat) should lend itself to some amazing gastronomy. At first I blamed the lack of international experience and arrogance (celebrity) of a number of chefs but lately was resigned to the fact that international cooking in Israel cannot be compared to abroad as it is based on an inherent local style different from what my palate is used to. My personal food experience is primarily outside of Israel and I guess am just not used to the flavours here.

This was all true until my recent visit to Hatzela Hasminit.

So what makes my juices run and gets me excited? It is actually quite simple and that is well executed cooking with good and fresh ingredients (more classical and less molecular) in a suitable surrounding (can be both relaxed and formal) but not a large dining room, where the wait staff know what they are serving and where the chef is a dedicated master working in the kitchen and not showing off on television. An added bonus is where the chef (confident in his/her skills) offers an unseen or set menu.

The points above can lead to a memorable meal as it allows a good chef to take the diner on a gastronomic adventure – one which will stick in their mind for a long time after.

Hatzela Hashminit

All of this brings me to Hatzela Hashminit (Eighth Rib) – It is by accident that I found the restaurant which nestles neatly between Nachalat Binyamin and the Carmel Market. I tend to pass it on the way to my regular market shop but was somehow drawn to it. Maybe it was the sight of the chef always being on site, the size of the restaurant or the menu which looked exciting? It was during the middle of the week that I decided to pop in before lunch service to review the menu and talk to a member of the staff. The interior looked very inviting and good for an intimate dining experience as there were only 6 tables. The member of staff I talked to was enthusiastic and explained the existence of a tasting menu or multiple courses as decided by the chef – a gastronomical adventure. In addition, and what really surprised me was that the restaurant imported Kobe beef (from Japan I was told and not Japanese style from the US) which I have yet to see offered in other Israeli restaurants. 

As you can imagine the restaurant was making me very excited as it was ticking all my boxes for a great gastronomic experience.

It was therefore with great trepidation that I made a booking for myself and the brunette. The brunette and I have been disappointed with the quality of restaurants in Israel and were careful to keep our anticipation in check in order to not feel disgruntled once more.

We arrived slightly early that evening at 7:30 to an empty restaurant but to a warm welcome from the two wait staff (a man and a woman). They allowed us to pick the table we wanted, which the brunette likes as she always chooses the table that allows us to view the dining room. The menu (currently only in Hebrew) offered a tasting option of seven courses at a price of 150nis and mentioned that the adventure would take 2 hours. This of course is our cup of tea and with real curiosity began our gastronomic experience.

SPOILER ALERT – Take note that I will be briefly describing the food in the next few paragraphs so if anybody wants to keep the surprise for when they visit I suggest skipping to the final section.

We started the evening, as suggested in the menu, by ordering a bottle of wine from a short, if varied, wine list (nice to see Riojas, Barolos, Zinfandel and Tzora winery listed).

Funnily enough it was the bread, which opened the meal that was the weakest link to the whole event. The nut bread was baked on premises and served with butter and garlic (cooked and slightly smoked in skin – a nice touch). The bread itself while having been baked that day had a slightly flaky / dry texture giving the impression it wasn’t that fresh and with the meal became harder and flakier.

With the bread we received the first dish - a salad of a variety of cherry tomatoes dressed in vinaigrette and peppery leaves. A simple if pleasant opener.

The second dish - a ceviche of Mousar Yam (Meagre fish) some thinly sliced crunchy vegetables and lots of other interesting components for the base and sauce. A big tick included the wait staff knowing all the ingredients on the plate down to what appeared to be wasabi flavoured fish eggs – well done!

The third dish – Seared tuna on baby brussel sprouts. I am not used to seeing a smallish tuna loin but it was still tasty and a perfect size for a tasting option (I think larger loins are better tasting). As became apparent throughout the meal the Chef likes to play with textures by including a crunch component.

The fourth dish – shrimps on avocado and crunchy kadaiph – shrimps cooked perfectly along with the contrast of texture of the kadaiph makes this dish very tasty

The fifth dish – scallops with red gnocci (beetroot?) – Very tasty

The sixth dish – a small crab that was tasty. I personally have a love / hate relationship with crab as the small crabs have very little meat. Though I also don’t often meet crab in Israeli restaurants, as such it was an enjoyable hands on experience. On a side note the sauce here was very good.

The seventh dish – a strawberry and coriander cleanser between the seafood and meat sections of the meal. The combination was very tasty as the strawberry flavour was enhanced with a light syrup. Not the first time I have met this combination but did forget how delicious it was.

The eighth dish – Beef ceviche on toast with tehina – very tasty (Middle Eastern twist)

The ninth dish – figs stuffed with fois gras. Quite a powerful tasting dish (from the figs) which suited me (as shock / horror I am not a fan of foie gras)

The tenth dish – English breakfast i.e slices of steak and goose topped with an egg and skewered to a wooden board. The combination was tasty and left me wanting more.

The eleventh dish – Kobe beef served on asparagus. Very tasty – Kobe beef has its own unique flavour and is very tender.  

The twelfth dish – mixed fruit with kadaiph and mascarpone, drizzled with amaretto.

Each dish was accompanied by imaginative sauces and bases which combined international and Mediterranean flavours (balsamic reduction, ginger, tehina). The gastronomic adventure was very good and almost every dish was very tasty and imaginative - the whole experience lasted 3.5 hrs.

(Ok a little social commentary)
As you may recall the brunette chose a strategic seating location and commented that we appeared to be the only ones salivating and praising the wonders of the cooking. I explained to her that this was actually a good sign as verbal praise is usually given in Israeli restaurants when mediocre food is served, in order not to admit the wrong restaurant choice. Whereas in good restaurants they don’t want to admit they are enjoying the meal in case others in the party do not agree. Returning home and seeing other positive reviews for this restaurant, I must deduce that my assumption is correct.

Don’t get me wrong the adventure was not flawless; the bread could have been better, some of the ingredients for bases / sauces repeated themselves maybe once too often (balsamic, tehina, kadaiph and ginger) and waiting times between courses were uneven. Additionally, very little carbohydrates were served which allows you to go through the 12 courses without feeling stuffed but I would recommend ending such a protein laden meal with a more substantial ingredient i.e. chocolate biscuit / cake with the final coffee or tea. Finally, for a restaurant with a pedigree of serving meat I had far more seafood and Kobe beef. I am not complaining but I wonder if my belief that Israeli meat is just not up to scratch, is proved in this meal

Overall, this restaurant is unique, excellent and the price of 150nis for a 12 course tasting menu, with the ingredients used, is probably the best deal I have had anywhere in the world. However, I must question the sanity of the chef for charging so little as he must be making a loss and I don’t want this bastion of gastronomic cooking in Tel Aviv to go bankrupt!

In some ways I am torn about recommending it as once the word spreads I will never be able to get a table again.

Run as fast as you can to Hatzela Hashminit!

4.5 Stars out of 5 Stars

The Disgruntled Diner

1 comment:

  1. our main chef did leave the restuarant, bet we still stand behind our reputation. we will continue serving the same amazing food as before, fresh from the market, while add some new vegetarian dishes and amazing deserts. the service will stay as excellent as before.
    hope to see you soon.
    Hazela Hashminit