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A Dining Hall for the Opera

If I know anything about anything, the restaurant where we just had dinner is about to become the hottest spot in Tel Aviv. The food was terrific, the prices are sweet, and a small crowd waited at the doorstep of this barely two-week-old restaurant.

It is called Chadar Ochel, which means "dining room," or rather "dining hall," and one look at the place is enough to grasp what kind of dining hall the owners had in mind. Bare walls, long tables, and wooden benches. Had they added a self-service counter and a faint scent of Economica (local equivalent of Lysol), the illusion would have been perfect – welcome to the communal dining hall of a typical kibbutz.

Some background is needed to explain just how unexpected the whole thing is. The restaurant is situated right next to the Opera House, a stone’s throw from one of the poshest neighborhoods in Tel Aviv. In its first incarnation it housed the most expensive restaurant in town – Jonathan Roshfeld. It then became Foodart House – a restaurant by day and a chic venue for small elegant functions by night. Foodart by the way is one of the best and the most expensive catering firms in Israel. They still own the place, only now they decided to turn it into a kibbutz.

This is interesting for a bunch of reasons. First of all, the kibbutz dining hall, as an institution, is practically extinct. With most of the kibbutzim being privatized, the communal dining hall ceased to play its focal role in the daily life of kibbutzniks. In many places it is deserted or abolished, in others reborn as a restaurant. 

But even more symbolic is the fact that the kibbutz dining hall has shaped in many ways the culinary ethos in the early days of the Zionist enterprise. On a kibbutz the ideal of a consummate Israeli came to its full fruition: a khaki clad soldier-farmer, with tanned arms and proud posture, who worked the land and ate the fruits of his labor. This Israeli has severed his ties with the Diaspora and had little use for gefilte fish or chopped liver. By himself he chopped veggies for his morning salad, the main feature of a modest meal that one day would evolve into the famous Israeli breakfast. He didn’t regard food or cooking as a way of personal expression or cultural statement.

Nothing could be further from the kibbutz that has suddenly appeared across the Opera house. The décor may be Spartan and prices egalitarian, but the food is the feast of individuality. This is what we had for dinner: cream of eggplant and labane cheese (creative Palestinian), Mafroum – potato stuffed with meat (North African), beef tongue in beet syrup (Ashkenazi), deep fried kubbe on a bed of Swiss Chard (Iraqi), ikra – fish roe (Romanian), lamb patties Tagine (Moroccan). I probably forgot a couple of dishes, but you can get the gist. Hummus, by the way, is not on the menu, and neither is falafel. "Israeli food is so much more than hummus and falafel," says Omer Miller, the chef. But he doesn’t rule out the possibility that one day he will offer his own versions of these all-Israeli hits, as well as his personal take on the gefilte fish.

Janna Gur, author of The Book of New Israeli Food, is guest blogging on Jewcy, and she’ll be here all week.  Stay tuned. 

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